Newly hired chaplains Eugenia Lai and Deacon Bill Wilson in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston offer spiritual care for patients at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston as part of a one-time grant of $900,000 from CHI St. Luke’s Health to the archdiocese’s Catholic Chaplain Corps. Lay volunteers also are being trained as pastoral visitors for patients. (CNS photo/Jo Ann Zuniga, Texas Catholic Herald)

HOUSTON (CNS) — With a record number of flu cases and a growing number of patients hospitalized, a generous grant from a local Catholic health system to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston came at a most needed time.

The $900,000 grant from CHI St. Luke’s Health is helping to significantly increase the number of trained “pastoral visitors” to hospital patients. Men and women from Catholic parishes will be providing sacramental and spiritual care ministry to patients and their families.

The initial response has been remarkable with more than 150 volunteers participating in clinical training classes at St. Mary’s Seminary and other locations. The 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 — lay chaplain — has been created to coordinate the pastoral visitors’ ministry and the ministry provided by a priest representing the archdiocese’s Catholic Chaplain Corps.

Eugenia Lai, a board-certified chaplain is one of the newly hired lay chaplains. She serves Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and Texas Children’s Hospital.

“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 told the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

She recalled a 14-year-old boy who asked for a blessing before he went into surgery.

“Many times the patient just wants to talk and we listen carefully,” said Lai, who also went through diaconate formation with her husband, Patrick Cheung, now an ordained deacon.

Deacon Bill Wilson shares an office with Lai in the Spiritual Care Department at Baylor St. Luke’s.

“Even though I’m an ordained deacon, the official name for our positions is lay chaplains,” Deacon Wilson said. “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.”

Both lay chaplains work under the chaplain corps, which collaborated with CHI St. Luke’s Health, to secure the grant. The lay chaplains in turn oversee the trained 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, part of the chaplain corps staff along with the director, Deacon Al Vacek.

They point out that scientific studies show that failure to address patients’ spiritual needs increases health care costs. Both Foose and Deacon Vacek teach the clinical training classes.

The Rev. Ted Smith, a Methodist minister and director of mission integration at Baylor St. Luke’s, said he was pleased about the venture to train pastoral visitors. He expects that ministry to Catholic patients and families will be highly effective.

“These two ministry roles will strengthen our mission to provide spiritual, emotional, and sacramental support to our Catholic patients and their families,” Rev. Smith said.

Foose said the goal is to expand the program to all 10 Houston-area hospitals served by the chaplain corps.

Among the students are Deacon Gary Yepsen and his wife, Sheila, who are parishioners at St. Martha Catholic Church and drive from the Kingwood area in northeast Houston down to St. Mary’s Seminary to attend classes. Sheila is a retired registered nurse and volunteered to be a pastoral visitor at Kingwood Hospital after her son died in the Iraq 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,” she 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.”

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Zuniga is on the staff of the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.