Hospital chaplains provide spiritual care with CSAF support

| February 11, 2015 | 1 Comment
Chaplains

Father Larry Blake prays in the intensive care unit at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis with patient Brian Kennelly and his daughter, Colleen Thompson. Father Blake serves there as a hospital chaplain. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

When Father Larry Blake’s cell phone rings, he knows it’s likely to be a serious call summoning him to Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis.

Fortunately, for the call he received on Feb. 1, the patient’s condition wasn’t life threatening. The man had heart issues and was facing the possibility of surgery. He wanted some comforting words from a Catholic priest. Father Blake offers plenty during both his daily rounds and special calls to the hospital, where he serves as chaplain.

“He had had a difficult day medically,” said Father Blake, 63, “and wanted to be anointed, and wanted to talk to a priest.”

The conversation wasn’t long — only about a half hour — but important nonetheless. Like many such meetings, talk went well beyond charts and treatments and moved into the man’s life story.

As he does time and again, Father Blake lent a listening ear. Then, he grabbed his small jar of holy oil and administered the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to a patient in medical and spiritual distress.

Father Blake has been serving at his hospital “parish” since July 2013, when Archbishop John Nienstedt assigned him. The hospital chaplaincy is one of the ministries the Catholic Services Appeal Foundation financially supports.

Having served as a chaplain in the Air Force, something he still does today, Father Blake’s skill set and experience are suitable for the job.

He has no fear or hesitation about walking into the intensive care unit and holding the hand of someone who may lose their pulse by the end of his visit.

“We had a young woman here about a year ago who was walking back to her apartment and was hit by a truck,” he said. “It was nighttime, the driver didn’t see her in the crosswalk. She arrived here in our emergency room.

“The parents, devout Catholics, said to the chaplain [on duty], ‘We want a priest now.’ I was not in the hospital at the time, but I drove in. They took me right to the emergency room, where I anointed her. She survived that evening, and went up to our surgical intensive care unit where I spent more time with the family. Eventually, we offered prayers for the commendation [of her soul to God].”

She died a few days later.

Powerful moments

Father Blake felt the pain of the woman’s parents acutely because he is a father himself. Married with three children, he was allowed to be ordained a Catholic priest because he had previously been a Protestant minister. The Church grants such exceptions, and Archbishop Harry Flynn ordained him in 1999 at St. Hubert in Chanhassen.

Father Blake recalled standing at the dying woman’s bedside and thinking about how he would feel if one of his own children were in that situation.

Then, as his military training has taught him, he turned his thoughts away from himself and toward what the family needed most at that time — pastoral care.

“We had some very good conversations,” he said. “We prayed a lot at her bedside, first praying that she might recover, that she might survive this accident. Then, when it became apparent that she wasn’t going to survive, simply praying that she would pass peacefully and without any pain or suffering, which she did.”

After such encounters, Father Blake will go home and find a quiet place to reflect and pray in silence about what has just happened. The ICU visits are often intense, but he cherishes them.

“Those are very powerful moments,” he said. “It’s part of what makes this work so meaningful to me, because I realize that, although I may never have contact with that family again, I’m here at a time when they really do want and need the presence of the Church in the person of the priest. So, it’s very rewarding.”

Constant presence

Father Blake is one of 10 priests who serve as hospital chaplain in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The others are Fathers Peter Yakubu Ali, Jerome Fehn, Ronald Harrer, Stephen LaCanne, James Livingston, Michael Monogue, Jules Omba Omalanga, Damien Schill and Leo Schneider. Father Blake coordinates all the chaplains, speaking with them regularly.

But, first and foremost, his ministry is to the patients and their families who request a Catholic priest. The hospital has a total of 12 chaplains, and he is only called when a priest is requested. Primarily, he visits those in the medical and surgical intensive care units.

On a recent morning, he stopped to see Brian Kennelly of Park River, N.D. The elderly man had fallen down a flight of stairs on Jan. 15, resulting in a fractured vertebrae. He was immobilized and wearing a metal halo used on patients with spinal damage.

His daughter, Colleen Thompson, a nurse who lives in Winona with her husband and four children, was glad to know that her devoutly Catholic family has access to a priest while her dad recovers in the hospital.

“It makes it feel more like home and gives me a sense of peace,” Thompson said. “I think it created a lot of peace for Dad and offered hope.”

Though Kennelly is unable to speak, he makes small gestures with his fingers and uses his eyes to communicate. The road to recovery will take months, maybe years, but the prognosis is good. There is no paralysis, and doctors are hopeful he will eventually regain normal function of his arms and legs.

Father Blake will try to stay in touch after Kennelly leaves the hospital, but he knows follow-up is limited. There are so many patients to see, and not enough chaplains to make the rounds.

“We’re stretched real thin right now,” he said, noting that several local hospitals do not have full-time chaplains, just a few hours of priests’ visits every week. “We’re so short of personnel.”

Nevertheless, Father Blake takes the time to connect with both patients and staff.

“Father Larry Blake is a constant presence here in our hospital,” said Maia Twedt, a Quaker hospital chaplain at HCMC. “He knows so many people, and it’s amazing all of the connections that he’s made in the community. Patients know him by name and know him by face. They request him personally, and it’s a great gift to have this particular priest in our hospital.”

The good news for patients, current and future, is that Father Blake has no plans to move on to a different ministry.

“I’d be happy to stay here until I retire,” he said. “I like the work and I think it’s a good fit for me.”

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Category: Catholic Services Appeal

  • Jill Lemke

    Fr. Joseph Gillespie also frequently serves as a chaplain at HCMC.