Grant brings blessings to Archdiocesan chaplaincy program

February 27, 2018

Newly hired Archdiocesan lay chaplains Eugenia Lai and Deacon Bill Wilson offer spiritual care for patients at both Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital as part of a one-time grant of $900,000 from CHI St. Luke’s Health to the Catholic Chaplain Corps that is also training volunteers to serve as pastoral visitors. Photo by Jo Ann Zuñiga/Herald.

HOUSTON — With a record number of flu cases this season and a growing number of patients hospitalized, a generous grant from CHI St. Luke’s Health to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston came at a most needed time.

The $900,000-plus grant is helping to significantly increase the number of trained “pastoral visitors.” These men and women from Catholic parishes will be providing sacramental and spiritual care ministry to hospital patients and their family members.

Response to this ministry has been remarkable with more than 150 new students currently participating in clinical training classes at St. Mary’s Seminary and other locations. This training will strengthen pastoral visitors’ ability to empathetically listen, offer appropriate prayers, assist with sacramental ministry and respond with sensitivity to expressions of grief.

In addition, a new position called “lay chaplain” has been created through the grant to coordinate the pastoral visitors’ ministry and the ministry provided by a priest representing the Catholic Chaplain Corps (CCC).

One of the newly hired lay chaplains is Eugenia Lai, a board-certified chaplain who will serve both Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Lai said, “We are like a nurse who triages, but on the spiritual side. We ask them what they need. If they want Communion, we bring it. If they want anointing of Sacrament of the Sick, we screen to see whether they already received it before calling a priest.”

Lai has an office at Baylor St. Luke’s, but also lends a hand at Texas Children’s Hospital. Both hospitals have a census of more than 140 self-identified Catholic patients on a daily basis.

“I had a 14-year-old boy ask me for a blessing before he went into surgery. Many times the patient just wants to talk and we listen carefully,” Lai, who also underwent diaconate formation with her husband Patrick Cheung, now an ordained deacon.

Joining her as a newly hired lay chaplain at Baylor St. Luke’s is Deacon Bill Wilson, who shares an office with Lai in the Spiritual Care Department by the hospital chapel.

“Even though I’m an ordained deacon, the official name for our positions is ‘lay chaplains.’ Those who are taking the classes and are volunteers will become ‘pastoral visitors.’ Part of our duties will be coordinating them, but we also visit patients as well,” Deacon Bill said.

Both lay chaplains work under the CCC, which collaborated with CHI St. Luke’s Health, to garner the grant. These lay chaplains in turn will oversee the trained volunteers of pastoral visitors, coordinating where they are most needed.

“Strengthening the CCC’s ministry in these hospitals touches the lives of hundreds of Catholic children, women and men who require hospitalization” and their families, said Denice Foose, BCC, part of the Archdiocesan CCC staff along with the director, Deacon Al Vacek, BCC.

They point out that scientific studies show that failure to address patients’ spiritual needs increases healthcare costs. Both Foose and Deacon Vacek are among those teaching the clinical training classes.

Rev. Ted Smith, who serves as director of mission integration at Baylor St. Luke’s and is Methodist by denomination, said he is extremely pleased about this bold venture by the Archdiocese and the CCC. He believes ministry to Catholic patients and families will reach a high level of effectiveness with this expanded program.

In speaking about the value of the pastoral visitors and the lay chaplains, Rev. Smith said, “These two ministry roles will strengthen our mission to provide spiritual, emotional and sacramental support to our Catholic patients and their families.”

He added, “We are extremely grateful to the Archdiocese and the CCC for their vital leadership and support in this specialized ministry.”

Foose said, “Our goal, now that it was first implemented at Baylor St. Luke’s and Texas Children’s, is to expand the program to all of the 10 Houston hospitals currently served by the CCC.”

Those other hospitals include Ben Taub, Houston Methodist, MD Anderson, Memorial Hermann, LBJ, Memorial Southwest, Kindred and Texas Institute for Rehabilitation and Research.

But students in the classes funded by CHI St. Luke’s Health are going beyond the Texas Medical Center area. Deacon Gary Yepsen and his wife Sheila of St. Martha’s Catholic Church drive in from Kingwood to attend classes at St. Mary’s Seminary. She is a retired registered nurse and volunteered to be a pastoral visitor at Kingwood Medical Center after her son died in the Iraqi war. Now she helps patients and families deal with their pain.

“We’re excited that the Catholic Chaplaincy wants to expand the numbers of pastoral visitors. Jesus sent out his disciples two by two so I meet a friend at the hospital chapel, we pray together, leave our baggage and start individually going to patient rooms on our list,” Sheila said.

Deacon Yepsen said, “Most people just want to be heard. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just know we all need to stand with one another. We are the Body of Christ and when one hurts, we all hurt. It is a divine reality.”
For more information, contact the CCC at 713-747-8445.