Monthly Archives: April 2021

What Led Me to Chaplaincy?

This abrupt change of topic since my last post is the result of an invitation to submit an article to “The Carer” magazine of the National Association of Healthcare Chaplains in Ireland.

After retirement from academe and business, I became bored. I did not know I was on the verge of a total career re-trajectory and a retired life of surprising spiritual purpose.

It started when I was invited to apply for a position as a Patient Access Representative in the Emergency Room for the 3 –11 pm shift at a small community hospital (part of the Mercy system) in the town of Kingfisher, Oklahoma. This demanding position required me to be the first face seen in emergency situations, taking down information for the patient and the benefit of physicians; I was also in charge of billing the patient and collecting monies due. I became close to patients quickly in several of ways: emotionally, psychologically, physically, and financially. I found patients turning to me as a listening ear in all these areas.

I soon began to drift outside my job description: sitting with uneasy patients, suicidal patients, or patients with dementia. This allowed the busy ER nurses to continue their work while I comforted the patient. Part of my unassigned work involved prayer, and it became common for the nurses to say, “Virginia, will you pray for room 3? They need it.”

I realized that I was acting like a Chaplain but with no training. Dangerous, I thought. After some research I discovered that “Big Mercy”, that is, Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City (OKC), was offering Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and I applied for it.

I realized that I had some strikes against me. I had no academic theology background, and I was edging up to the age limit. On the other hand: 1) I believed I had a calling 2) I had a PhD with a specialty in Ethnomusicology which gave me a multi-cultural focus 3) I was an Associate of the Sisters of Mercy and 4) I had almost 3 years work experience in the ER. To my great delight, I was accepted into the Mercy CPE program with the Reverend Doctor Unyong Statwick, Supervisor.

In my CPE program at the 380 bed hospital, I worked intensely for an 8 month extended unit, accomplishing more than double the required amount of floor hours while I gained chaplaincy experience in cancer, orthopaedic, rehab, neo and post-natal, internal medicine, surgery, emergency, and intensive care units. I became known as “the Singing Chaplain” because many of my visits ended with me singing to or with the patient and/or their families. I also had the opportunity to lead or participate in worship services in the hospital chapel.

Verbatims were exciting because I was committed to being a better Chaplain and was fearless in self-examination and in the tasks that presented themselves; these included reconciling with family members to whom I had not spoken in years. I dealt with some deep hurts, including the murder of my mother, a miscarriage, and a divorce.

In the meantime, my husband, also retired from business, was in a CPE program of his own. CPE has strengthened and deepened our marriage commitment. CPE Interpersonal Group discussions (IPG) has provided us with new skills of communication, reconciliation, and emotional awareness.

Because my husband Neal Dunnigan is a foreign-born Irishman, we explored the idea of moving to Ireland to continue our training as Chaplains. After an interview and visits to potential placement opportunities, we were encouraged by our Irish colleagues and future mentors to apply for CPE at two institutions in Cork.

Neal applied for the program at Cork University Hospital, and I applied for the program at Northridge House / St. Luke’s Home. After acceptance we downsized our lives by auctioning our house and all our property except for a 200 cubic foot shipping crate of our most meaningful possessions (mostly musical instruments, art, and martial arts weapons.)

It was an extremely wrenching experience. We left behind four children and five grandchildren. We parted with most material possessions. We moved from a 1.5-acre property with house in rural Oklahoma to a 2-bedroom apartment in Cork. Everything we now own we use – nothing is stored or closeted.

We began our work at our respective institutions and have had our heads down ever since. We have been in Ireland almost three years, active in the Unitarian Church Cork, and my husband achieved Board Certification while starting Cork Community Chaplaincy Services to minister to the carers of the homeless in Cork.

Since Covid-19 struck, my work at St. Luke’s has been on and off depending on the levels of lockdown. I have been able to upgrade resident charts for HSE compliance by applying spiritual assessment techniques and have assisted nurses to understand how to use the HOPE assessment tool. I have continued singing and playing flute for the residents.

My call to chaplaincy, as well as my husband’s, has taken us out of our home country, delivered us of almost all of what we owned in the past, and provided us with meaningful futures. Self-care is a priority for us as we are in our sixties and we cannot afford to let our cups go empty. We find Ireland to be a healthier place to live than formerly, and we walk every day on the wonderful greenways and paths of our new home country.

Chaplaincy has been a calling and a life for us this past half-decade. We never expected to find so much education, awareness, and growth in a time when many people think it is time to slow down or just stop. God willing, we shall not be stopping any time soon.

Written at the request of the Reverend Bruce Pierce
10 April, 2021

Neal and Virginia at the Northridge Elder Care Conference in 2019

Neal at Last

Neal sounded as much fun on the phone as he did on the pages of the GE notebook.

So we decided to meet for dinner on a Saturday night after his “Japanese fencing” workshop. (?)

We met in the bar of a lovely restaurant called Saybrook Fish House in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. Within 15 minutes I was in love. Why? He was so fascinating, funny, kind, intelligent, and attractive (muscular, shaved head, lively eyes). I thought, “I could spend the rest of my life talking with this guy.”

He told me that he had spent the day in an Aikido martial arts weapons workshop. Aikido is a synthesis of pacifist martial arts techniques and meditation. I told him about my work with cultural preservation among the Cheyennes of Oklahoma. He told me about his work as a Board Member of The Connection, a social service organization to help drug and alcohol impaired people in a live-in setting (he would later serve as President.) I told him about teaching at Wesleyan and my involvement with the College Music Society dedicated to excellence in college music teaching. We spiraled around all our interests breathlessly and talked about our children and our dreams for our lives.

Neal stopped at one point and said the nicest thing – and it was not a “line” because I’ve come to know he is incapable of dishonest flirting.

“I have to admit I’m a little bit intimidated being with a woman as beautiful as you,” he said. I was floored. There I was, feeling all fat and physically inadequate compared to this trim lifelong martial artist.

Well, we started breaking Great Expectations rules right and left. He invited me to his condo (across the street) and we drove over in his car. Bad bad us. He showed me around his nice neat home and pointed out the tile floor he installed himself, and his herbs in pots, and he lit a candle. We started making out. Bad bad us. But wow!

Pretty soon I went home like a good girl and we started dating. Our second date was his visit to the rehearsal of the Wesleyan Gamelan (Indonesian orchestra) of which I was a member. He sat in the back in on his knees and meditated while he listened. We drove home in the rain listening to Sting (Ten Summoner’s Tales). On another date I gave him the tape. (No CDs then.)

It was time to meet each other’s children,

Nice Guys starting with N

One thing joining Great Expectations did for me was prove that there were a lot of very nice gentlemen left in the world. And they wanted to meet me! I had a few dates and a nice trip to New York City with one, a college professor, but he was fond of his pipe and that just did not work. I also found him to be a bit too old – which ordinarily was attractive.

I realized that I had dated too many older men. It was obvious I was looking for my father for some reason – maybe for wisdom and security. But then I had a life-changing thought.

Instead of looking for my father as an older man, why not look for the attributes of my father in a younger one? Or, try to find my father when he was my age, not older.

I think this way of thinking gave me a healthier approach to finding a new husband, and that was what I was really looking for, not just fun dates.

So I went back to the GE library and started again. I decided – why not look for a guy with one of my favorite names? I had always loved the name Nick, so I picked up the N notebook and started hunting. As I flipped through the pages, I saw a face that made me think HOLD THE PHONE.

There was a completely bald guy with a huge mischievous smile and nice suit and red tie. And I thought, “That guy looks like so much fun! I’d like to meet him just to make friends!”

Then I read his bio. Non-smoker. Father of two. Divorced my divorce year. Born my birth year. Religion: Zen Catholic. What the heck was that? But it sounded intriguing. His idea of a perfect date? A picnic. His idea of fun? Playing with his children and pets.

Politics? He wrote “Personally, I’m waiting for the New Deal to come back.” He described his surroundings: terra cotta tile, candles, herb garden. Marriage? Interested. And he said he gave a good massage.

Heavens! Now I’m super interested. I began the process of meeting him and waited. And waited. I had almost given up and in the meantime dated other GE guys. Then the phone rang one night.

“Hello, this is Neal Dunnigan…”


Continuing the story of how I met Neal…

After I sent in the postcard, I was invited in to the Great Expectations (GE) office for an interview. I discovered that the place was a quality outfit, doing criminal record and financial checks on all potential members. And I liked the procedure.

Every member had photos taken by a professional; one was dress up, the other casual. Then a professional videographer interviewed you for a VCR tape. You wrote a bio, and answered questions about yourself and whom you were looking for.

When you finished all that, you were entered into a notebook (this was before internet dating) and you were placed on the shelf alphabetically in the Candy Store – a joking name for the library of members.

You came into GE, passed Security, and visited the notebooks set up in a kind of library with coffee and tea available. If you saw someone’s page who looked interesting, you asked for the video. If you liked the person you saw in the video, you let the “librarian” know and she sent that person a postcard (this is before email was common.)

The postcard recipient then came into the library at their convenience and looked at your photos, bio, questionnaire, and video. If they wanted to meet up, they were given your telephone number. (No mobiles yet, remember!)

On the phone you both agreed to an appointment, arriving in separate cars, in a public place. Just having coffee was encouraged, but dinner was ok too. You paid for your own meal. People were discouraged from going to the other’s home on the first date. Physical contact was discouraged on the first date. Counseling was available in the GE offices.

This was a pricey deal. GE was manned by quality folks. It was on the up and up all the way. They even threw picnics and parties to help people become acquainted. They gave seminars on various topics such as dating, relationships, etc.

I became convinced that this investment was worth making, because I wanted to see New York City and other places in the NE but not alone. (Thanks to an inheritance from my mother I had the $1500 fee.) I figured that the companionship and opportunities were worth the money even if I did not find Mr. Right. It was the safety and seriousness I liked.

It definitely turned out to be a worthwhile investment for many interesting reasons.

I wore a turquoise nubby silk blazer and black turtleneck and Cheyenne beadwork jewelry for my photo. My hair was salt and pepper and very chic; I wore long black leather boots and a smile. I can’t remember my casual photo. I wrote a pretty sexy bio heavy on the intellect and compassion angles. In those days I was hot to trot and I was not coy about it. But I was not brazen. You had to be a thinking man to “get it.”

I was looking for sophistication, intelligence, adventurousness, health, taste, an interest in the arts, and financial security. And a good dancer. My sons said to be honest! Most importantly, this man had to have good father potential. I would rely on my Mama Bear instincts for that one.

Let the fun begin….

How Did I Meet My Husband?

I took this picture on the Saturday before Easter…

People ask me how I met this wonderful man.

and somehow I lost the rest of this page.

quick recall ….

My sons and I filled out a postcard that asked “Who are you looking for?” from Great Expectations, a video dating service.

No Bicycle

One of the disappointments of my fairly happy childhood was not being allowed to have a bicycle.

Year after year I begged Santa Claus for one but it never came. I was greatly blessed with books and toys and dolls and lots of other things came my way, but no bicycle.

I suspect my parents were protecting me from hurting myself, or straying too far. They made it up in so many ways – after I started playing the flute at 8 years of age I used to receive wonderful musical gifts. Metronomes, fancy music stands, and instruments. Those wonderful flutes I was given took me much further than a bicycle ever would.

And yet I feel the loss in a couple of ways.

Now that I live in Ireland, I look around at a land that begs for bicycle exploration. And now that I am 67 with two knee replacements, I cannot risk injury of learning it now.

Not having a bicycle made me a little less fit, coordinated, and healthy than my friends. I was naturally sedentary with a nose for books and gardening. But I would have explored on that bicycle.

So I’m feeling a bit sorry for myself. I tried to learn in later years but kept falling off and I do NOT like to bleed. It was just not to be.

It is something I look forward to in heaven. I want to take a lunch, wave goodbye to God, and go exploring with young legs pedaling and young eyes looking.

Won’t that be fun?

My First Opinion

Ha! Anyone who knows me knows that this is not my first opinion. I do not sit on the fence once I’ve decided what I think. It’s deciding what I think that is the problem.

Anyway, my first opinion written on this web site is that I hate the word blog. Just the word, not the idea of one.

Blog sounds like the past tense of booger. Or, it sounds like, “If I eat another cookie, I’m going to blog.” Or, “I haven’t had coffee today so I feel all bloggy.” I could go on. Ugly word.

How about this? BLOG stands for “Bound to be Logic-free, Opinionated Garbage.”

Or here’s a limerick:

There once was an innocent blog
That became like the vomit of dog
It started out wired
but became very tired
And disappeared into the fog.

I don’t want this set of memoirs and opinions to do that – disappear into the fog, or become tired. I think the only way to do that is to stay honest. And, there’s the rub.