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Ministering on the frontline

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When the shocking images of people in Milan dying of COVID-19 filled our television screens, the Archdiocese’s small team of hospital and prison chaplains knew they had to continue their ministry in Adelaide, despite their own fears of contracting the virus.

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Unlike the majority of South Australians who were asked to isolate and work from home, the chaplains quickly made the sacrifices needed to ensure they could continue to turn up to provide pastoral and spiritual support to the sick and those in prison.

With strict restrictions in place, no visitors – including chaplains and priests – were allowed to be with the COVID-19 patients being treated in the intensive care unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

It was heartbreaking when Frank Ferraro, who was Catholic, succumbed to the virus on April 6. Restrictions meant that family members had to say their goodbyes via FaceTime and Fr David Thoroughgood, wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment), was required to anoint Mr Ferraro from behind a glass wall. Later he repeated the sacrament for Paul Faraguna, who miraculously survived and was released from hospital last month.

The immense danger of the coronavirus was foremost in the minds of chaplains who feared for their own health, but also knew that God was calling them to continue to serve the needs of the faithful in hospital and prisons, as well as supporting the staff who were working on the frontline.

Manager of the Archdiocese’s Hospital and Prison Chaplaincy, Annette Heinemann said she is extremely proud of the efforts of her team members in these challenging times.

“Over the weeks I have heard their message of fear and anxiety about COVID-19…they have been fearful as other clinical staff have been, but have continued to turn up to work every day to provide important pastoral care to the staff, prisoners and patients,”she said.

Scattered at public hospitals and prisons across the city, Mrs Heinemann has been running weekly Zoom meetings to enable the chaplains to keep connected and debrief by sharing their experiences. Invited to ‘attend’ a meeting in May, The Southern Cross discovered that it was the tragedies unfolding overseas that provided the motivation for chaplains here to continue their ministry.

“When all this started it was the Milan story we were seeing and that was horrific, particularly because it was so Catholic,” explained Robynne Malone, chaplain at the Lyell McEwin Hospital.

“We identified with what they couldn’t do there. To watch nurses, doctors, priests and religious people die was just awful. So we were all carrying very heavy hearts.”

Like her counterparts, RAH chaplain Grace Healey said she was “thinking about the whole world and not just here” during the pandemic.

Mrs Healey said she gained the strength each day by praying, saying the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, reading the Psalms, watching Masses on television and meditating.

“In was terrifying, to be honest,” she said of the early days being at work.

“I had a lot of sleepless nights. I was waking at three in the morning, worried and then going to work thinking I have to be so careful because I don’t want to catch it and give it to my family… then there is a fear that someone is vulnerable in the hospital and you have to do everything right to keep them safe. There were all these adjustments.”

Restricting hospital visitors to just one per patient hit families hard and Mrs Healey said she suffered personally as her brother-in-law was in the intensive care unit and passed away during this time.

While not a designated COVID-19 hospital, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital was on stand-by and had accommodated some patients who were moved from the RAH.

Chaplain Bernadette Kerr, who suffers from asthma and is “older”, said she decided to isolate herself from the beginning. She did limited shopping, had telehealth sessions with her doctor and cancelled all other appointments.

“After seeing what was happening in Italy I made the decision that there was no way I was not going to be there (at work). So I isolated from my family – my children and grandchildren – for nine weeks,” she said.

“I was still going to work, because that was my priority. In Matthew 25 Judgment of the Nations it says, ‘I was hungry and you fed me; I was sick and you walked with me’ – that’s what drove me in all of those weeks. The Gospels are full of risk taking and always that God is with us every moment – so that was a strength for me.”

Deacon Tee Ping Koh, who is a chaplain at Flinders Medical Centre, said the pandemic provided one of those rare occasions where you could have a conversation with patients “and time is of no essence”.

It was the “power of prayer” which he could offer to patients and draw upon himself that got him through some “tough days”.

Helena Sweeney said through her chaplaincy work at Modbury Hospital she came to the realisation during the pandemic of what is “really important”.

“It’s that vital connection and the way we find the Eucharist, how we find the heart of the Gospel in many different ways when the structures that we are used to are taken away,” she said.

Under current restrictions only one chaplain is allowed into each prison, so team members have been creative in staying connected to inmates by sending resources such as prayers and readings, as well as providing telephone support. With no Sunday services they are also recording Masses on DVDs which are shown on the prison television channel.

“The number of men asking us about them or saying they have been watching worship services is heartening and the number of Bibles and other religious material I have given out has increased many times over normal,” said one chaplain.

Another positive amid all the negatives and heartbreak in the world, is that prisoners have started letter writing as a way to keep in contact with their families who are unable to visit.

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