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