NORWALK—Every day, Father Paul Sankar, chaplain at Norwalk Hospital, sees opportunities for Catholics to come back to their faith. He encounters people who haven’t been to church in a long time, and while they lie in their hospital beds, it seems that Jesus is tugging at their sleeves.
NORWALK HOSPITAL CHAPLAINS (l-r) Father Marcel Saint Jean and Father Paul Sankar
“They say hospital walls hear more prayers than church walls,” Father said. “We see a lot of transformation, especially of Catholics who have not been to church in years. They see us, they talk to us, they receive Communion, and tell us they will return to church.”
Father Paul and Father Marcel Saint Jean, both chaplains at the hospital, bring Christ to the infirm and dying on a daily basis.
“There isn’t a greater way to serve the Lord than when I am helping a vulnerable person,” said Father Marcel. “This is evident when I am present in a room with a patient. What makes it so authentic is knowing I am seeing the Lord in that patient. As a chaplain, there isn’t a time when I am with a patient and not hearing the voice of Jesus resounding in my heart and ears saying, ‘I was sick and you came to visit me.’”
Father Paul, who has been a full-time chaplain at Norwalk Hospital for 12 years, is in residence at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Weston. Father Marcel, a part-time chaplain there for four years, serves at St. Joseph Church in South Norwalk.
“Their ministry would not be possible without the Annual Catholic Appeal,” said Father William Platt, pastor of The Parish of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Agnes in Greenwich and Director of Hospital Chaplains for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Father Platt, who was a hospital chaplain for 25 years, said, “Our chaplains continued to serve with courage through this pandemic. They have had to navigate a wide range of hospital and nursing home protocols in regard to visitation and the last rites. They have done so with skill and compassion. The Catholic Church is the only faith group that provides chaplains to public institutions free of charge. It is something in which we may take pride, thanks to the ACA.”
Father Paul recalls the case of a woman who was dying of cancer and her family asked him to anoint her. He offered to give her Communion, but she resisted because she hadn’t been to church in a long time.
“I told her she could make a simple confession and receive absolution because God knows everything,” he said. “She did, and the whole family was crying and thanked me. Two days later she died. It was a very touching experience for me.”
The hospital setting offers many opportunities for people to renew their faith and come back to the Church, he said. So many Catholics have no parish and many are getting older and no longer practice their faith.
“We hospital chaplains visit these patients, and they are very happy to see us,” he said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, they were restricted from visiting patients in their rooms and had to rely on phone calls and Zoom sessions to pray with patients who were isolated from their families. The Catholic nurses would often put them in touch with patients who needed prayer and encouragement.
Father Paul, who was a priest in India for 15 years before he came to the diocese, said he is appreciative to Bishop Frank J. Caggiano and the Annual Catholic Appeal.
Being a hospital chaplain is a special calling, he says, which requires a priest to be available whenever a call comes in. Training includes four units of a Clinical Pastoral Education program.
Recently, he received a call from a 75-year-old man concerned about his 70-year-old brother, who was a patient.
“He told me, ‘My brother was a good Catholic but stopped practicing his faith. Can you convince him to come back to the Church?’ He wanted a priest to give him the sacraments,” Father recalled. “He had no family except his brother. He grew up Catholic, but hadn’t practiced his faith in 30 years.”
Father went to see the man, who agreed to confession and then he received Communion. He was very happy and his brother was grateful to Father.
Father Paul’s work also brings him in contact with people of great faith, such as a 39-year-old woman with two children who was dying of cancer.
“Father, I am ready to die; pray for me if it is God’s will,” she said. She was able to deal with it because of her strong faith.
“I learn so much from the patients,” he said. “Sometimes they are like saints. Despite their sickness, they are happy. And those who know they are going to die want to be at peace with God.”
Father says the families of patients still call him, and occasionally he will meet someone in the supermarket who says, “Father do you remember me? When I was sick, you brought me Communion.’”
“It is a wonderful ministry to care for the sick, and to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy,” he says.
Father Marcel, who came from Haiti and was ordained in 1996 in the Diocese of Bridgeport, also served as chaplain in Bridgeport Hospital for four years in addition to several parish assignments.
“Chaplaincy to me is a call to compassion,” he said. “Through my visits and presence to the patients, I have learned patience, humility and kindness. No matter what they are going through, when I leave the room, I always hear these words: ‘Father, thank you for coming. You made my day. Please come back.’”
One of his patients was an elderly woman who was dying and haunted by guilt and hurt because she had been divorced and could not receive Communion. Father knew he had to put her at peace with Christ and help heal her troubled conscience.
“The only way to lift her up was to try to say what Jesus would say in a situation like that,” he recalled. “That day in her room she said, ‘Father, I feel I am being rejected by my own church.’”
“I told her, ‘You are a daughter of Abraham and a beloved daughter of God. Whatever happened in your past life, whatever made you feel guilty, God will not hold it against you.’”
Father Marcel heard her confession, and she told him it gave her the most peace and happiness she felt in a long time.
“I saw a luminous face, and her countenance changed after confession because she knew she was loved by God,” Father Marcel said.
From the time he was 3-yearsold, Marcel Saint Jean wanted to be a priest because of the example of his mother and the Redemptorist missionaries in his parish who built hospitals and schools and set a profound example for the people. He even grew his hair long to be like them, until his father cut it one night while he was sleeping.
As a boy, everyone in the neighborhood called him “Mon Père,” which is French for “My Father.” Although his mother nurtured his childhood vocation, his father directed him to study civil engineering, which he did for a time.
“But the Lord really spoke to my heart, and I remembered the example of those good priests,” he said. And he followed their example. In 2000, he led a campaign to build a school in Portau-Prince to give children an opportunity to succeed in life.
“All they need is a helping hand, and I am glad that I was that helping hand,” he said.
“Being a chaplain allows a priest to make Christ present in a tangible way to patients and their families through his compassion, his words of comfort and the sacraments,” he says. “It lets us follow the words of Jesus who said, ‘Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
By Joe Pisani