St. Vincent’s Easter Service brings Christ to staff and patients

BRIDGEPORT—It was an unconventional Easter celebration at the height of the coronavirus crisis. An Easter celebration with a doctor, a priest, a deacon and a hospital administrator, who brought Christ to hundreds of people in their units, their rooms and their labs on the day the Son of God rose from the dead.

The group of four started on the 10th floor of St. Vincent’s Medical Center and worked their way down through every unit, singing, praying and preaching in a celebration that reminded people of an ancient message: the Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

“It was an incredibly moving experience on Easter Sunday for the people who were on the front lines taking care of pandemic patients,” said Bill Hoey, vice president of mission integration at Hartford Healthcare, St. Vincent’s Medical Center. “We gathered people around the nurses’ stations for the service—housekeepers, nurses, nurses aides and doctors joined us.”

For him, the service was an example of bringing the Church to the people, and it was inspired by a long-held desire of Dr. Jemi Samuel, the medical director of the hospitalist service, who believes prayer can change the world.

A number of years ago, she was moved by the biblical story of Hannah in the Book of Samuel, who in her barrenness pleads with God for a son and gives birth to the prophet Samuel. Hannah’s prayer praising God for this miracle is one of the most moving in the Old Testament.

Hearing that reading, Dr. Samuel wondered what she could do for the glory of God, and during this Holy Week when churches had no celebrations, she realized they could bring Easter to the frontline staff at St. Vincent’s. Dressed in her scrubs, she even visited patients in isolation units while singing hymns of praise that included “In Christ Alone” and “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.”

The group comprised Dr. Samuel, Hoey, Father Hyginus Ndubueze Agu, chaplain, and Deacon Timothy Bolton, manager of the pastoral care department.

The itinerant service included hymns, prayers and blessings by Father Agu, a reading from the Book of Psalms by Hoey, and the Gospel of St. Matthew and a homily by Deacon Bolton.

Dr. Samuel greeted the staff and said: “Blessed Resurrection Sunday to all. This is an unusual Easter Sunday for all of us. No church gatherings, fear and anxiety all around us and an uncertain future ahead of us. Remember that the first Easter was celebrated by very few in front of an empty tomb, who were hiding from Romans and were unsure of their future and security. The Resurrection of Jesus gave them hope, and they were assured of their future in heaven.”

Deacon Bolton’s homily asked, “How do we know Jesus is risen? What is the manifestation? It is right here in front of us as each and every one of you do God’s work.”

After Father Agu led everyone in a closing Hallelujah, the group moved on to the next unit, the laboratories and the kitchen. Dr. Samuel went alone into the five isolation units for COVID-19 patients and sang hymns.

“The staff was amazed and deeply grateful to see us on Easter Sunday walk onto their unit and lead them in a prayer service,” Hoey said. “This year, Easter had the same meaning but a different observance at St. Vincent’s for the people in the trenches who are caring for the sick and the dying. To me, it represented the Church at its finest.”

Hoey believes people will long remember the celebration and be able to say, “That year, the Church came to me.”

In his role, Hoey is responsible for ensuring compliance with Catholic healthcare doctrine, which, he says, sets St. Vincent’s apart from secular hospitals.

“We have an agreement between Hartford Healthcare and Bishop Caggiano to remain a fully Catholic ministry,” he said. “We are the only Catholic hospital in the Diocese of Bridgeport, and we think that is critically important.”

Fundamental to that, St. Vincent’s fully adheres to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services, promulgated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The 77 directives define how a Catholic hospital must conduct itself and make clear the procedures and medical interventions that should not be provided, such as abortion and assisted suicide, Hoey said. The mission of Catholic healthcare is based on reverence for every human being and access to care for the poor and underserved, the uninsured and the underinsured, children, the unborn, single parents, the elderly, those with incurable diseases, racial minorities, immigrants and refugees.

“Simply put, we don’t turn anybody away,” he said.

In addition, there is a sacramental presence at St. Vincent’s made possible by four priests, three deacons and almost 40 extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.

“We provide a full array of Catholic sacraments at a time when people are open and receptive to receiving them,” he said, “including Communion, sacrament of the sick, confession and baptism for newborns who are in danger.”

Hoey, who has been at the hospital for more than a decade, said its Catholic identity is firmly established. There is morning and evening prayer, daily Mass that is broadcast into the patients’ room and the pastoral services of priests and deacons.

He said that one of six patients in America is in a Catholic hospital, in large part due to women religious who from the mid-to-late 1800s started to build a vast network of hospitals across America.

“In 1903 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, if you were not a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, you could not go to the only hospital in the city, so a group of doctors approached the pastor of St. Patrick’s Church and asked him to open a hospital that would treat everybody.”

Father James Nihill traveled to Emmitsburg, Maryland, and enlisted the services of Sister Laura Eckenrode and six young Daughters of Charity, who came to Bridgeport and in two years raised $250,000 to build St. Vincent’s Hospital.

“Where are the people who are not going to Church going to be reconnected?” he asked. “When you have a life-altering diagnosis or a life-shattering event and you end up in the hospital, what a wonderful opportunity to see the Church in action. The more we can get our priests and deacons visiting people in the hospital, the better. What an opportunity to reconnect with people. When does evangelization take place? When people are in crisis … when people are in need.”