Father Albert E. Harshaw knew almost nothing except that there was a Catholic in the Intensive Care Unit at Cooper University Hospital, Camden.
He didn’t know there had been a motorcycle accident, that a young man was dying, and that a distraught family member was fighting.
As soon as the priest walked through the doors, the dying man’s wife charged forward and started taking out her anguish on him, pounding him with her fists.
The chaplain, a large man, wrapped his arms around her in a bear hug. Her punches grew weaker, then stopped. Soon she was apologizing.
“That’s OK. That’s another way of praying,” Father Harshaw told her.
And so it is sometimes, when the place of worship is a hospital and the people praying are connected to tubes and machines, or are those who stand by helplessly, hoping for encouraging test results or reassuring words from a doctor. Many have not been inside a real church for a long time.
How does a hospital chaplain comfort the sick and dying and their friends and family?
“I gave up worrying about what to say,” said Father Harshaw, who has been a chaplain at Cooper since 2007 and previously served there 1998-2000. “I remember who I am.”
At critical times, he explained, he is the one chosen by God to be present to those who are scared and hurt. His job, he said, is to “allow the grace of God to work through me.”
“It is a joy when you feel you have made a connection with a patient,” he added.
National Association of Catholic Chaplains Pastoral Care Week was recently observed across the country as a way to thank those ministers who work in hospitals, senior centers and prisons, among other venues. This year’s theme was “Healing Presence.”
Some priests find the pastoral work of being a chaplain fulfilling. They can care for souls without the daily worries of caring for parish buildings.
Father James Durkin is chaplain at St. Mary’s Catholic Home and the Manor in Cherry Hill.
“I’m basically retired and have been chaplain for 14 months,” said Father Durkin. “I was pastor at Holy Saviour in Westmont. When I retired I asked if I could have the chaplain’s position at St. Mary’s. With all the mergers going on, a new chaplaincy had opened.”
Father Durkin said his assignment as chaplain “is as fulfilling to me as being a parish priest. I guide and look after our senior residents and our elderly residents. I really enjoy what I’m doing.”
Father Wilson Kidangan, whose residence is Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lindenwold, is chaplain at JFK Hospital in Stratford.
“I’ve been there since 2009,” he said. “And from 2005-08 I was chaplain at Salem County Hospital.”
In addition to administering the sacraments, “I give moral support to patients and to families who are emotionally upset,” he said.
Father Kidangan said he has passed all his courses to be a chaplain and is now waiting to be certified.
Father Bruno Dongo, AJ, has been assigned to Kennedy Hospital in Cherry Hill for seven years.
“It’s very fulfilling to be a chaplain,” he said. “I help those who are very ill as their time nears.”
His residency is Blessed Teresa of Calcutta in Collingswood.
Contributing to this story was Carl Peters.