Situated as it is in the heart of Manhattan’s immense East Side medical community, the St. Catherine of Siena Church long ago established itself as a mission to the neighborhood’s health care workers and their patients.
The pretty art deco, terra cotta brick church sits mid-block on the north side of East 68th Street surrounded by such medical behemoths as New York Presbyterian–Weill Cornell Medical Center, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and New York Hospital, so it isn’t uncommon to see fresh scrubs and medical lab coats liberally sprinkled throughout the congregation during weekday and even Sunday Masses.
On Monday the Dominican parish extended its health care evangelization ministry further, formally announcing the appointment of Brother Ignatius Perkins, O.P., a professional nurse, as the first recipient of the St. Catherine of Siena endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The announcement was made at the end of the sixth annual Mass “honoring the men and women of the health care professions” on the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena, patroness of the parish and of those who care for the sick.
Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., celebrated and was the homilist at the well-attended Mass, which included a full choir and brass section. The Dominican Friars also presented Cardinal Wuerl with the St. Catherine of Siena Award for his lifelong commitment to health care. They also honored Sister Elaine Goodell, P.B.V.M., chaplain at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, for her 27 years of service there.
The new chair is a continuation of the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York and comes at a particularly disquieting time in the Church’s dialogue, both with the medical profession over such issues as abortion, stem cell research and end of life issues and with government over freedom of conscience, particularly as it relates to the HHS healthcare mandate.
“The voice of the Church has never been more needed in the world of health care than it is today,” said Father Jordan Kelly, O.P., pastor of St. Catherine of Siena and director of the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York in an interview with CNY following the Mass. “The friars here felt there was an urgent need for our young students to be formed in Catholic healthcare ethics, which would really prepare them, both from a theoretical and a practical point of view, to address issues of death and dying in the hospital, issues about sound medical care and treatment, issues about all of the various areas of medical research going on at this time.
“I chose Brother Ignatius, first of all, in recognition of his lifetime of service in health care, secondly because he is so dedicated to this mission, and thirdly because he is an excellent teacher.”
Brother Ignatius, who serves as dean and professor of nursing and director of the nursing program at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tenn., told CNY he is ready for his new post.
“The first thing would be to begin to finalize the program we’ve already developed for the pastoral field education of our students in Washington,” Brother Ignatius explained. “That would be working between me and the faculty. We’ve already developed a template. But we need to specify it in a little more detail. I think the lectures coming forth are critical but they need to be responsive to the issues of the moment, not eliminating the larger questions.”
During his homily Cardinal Wuerl stressed the importance of Catholic health care ministry calling it “one of the great manifestations of God’s love at work” in the world today.
“Today, in the face of so many challenges to health care ministry and the rapidity of all the developments taking place in health care we might be tempted to ask, ‘Why is the Church in health care ministry at all?’ ” he said. “The answer we could give is the Catholic Church is involved in health care because it believes that the care of the sick is an important part of Christ’s mandate of service...The Gospels are filled with examples of Jesus curing every kind of ailment and illness ...However, the caring, the healing that Jesus practiced goes far beyond addressing the physical afflictions. He touched people at the deepest of their being. He was also a source of mental and spiritual healing. To understand the significant role of the Catholic Church in health care throughout all of these centuries one needs to look at the faith of those who have attempted to imitate the love, the compassion, the caring, the healing of Jesus. It is nothing less than Christian love that animates Catholic health care ministry.”
St. Catherine of Siena, founded in 1897, may have the clearest link to one ministry of any parish in Manhattan. At the time of its dedication, Archbishop Michael Corrigan named the new parish after St. Catherine of Siena because of the nearby presence of New York Presbyterian Hospital and of the role he hoped the new parish would play. As the medical community in the area grew, the Dominican Friars provided the only Catholic presence in the hospitals. But the parish identity became bifurcated between its role as a neighborhood parish and its expanding mission in health care.
“As the years went on, and we experienced a decrease in numbers like everybody else, the two started to wed more and more,” Father Kelly explained. “Then in 2002 our Dominican Province of St. Joseph made the decision to adopt a campus ministry model of health care ministry by which we seek to care for the patients and their families, support the medical staff as well as educate the medical staff and provide medical consultations for the hospitals. The two melded.”
“We’re going through a very interesting phase in our history where the parish is growing as its own entity,” Father Kelly continued. “When I took over two years ago, we were 198 families and today we’re 450. Those parishioners are doctors, nurses, medical students, as well as non-medical.”
Father Kelly offered as a reason for that growth—a renewed emphasis on preaching, the prayerful celebration of the liturgy and education as well as health care outreach. “It’s all of that together,” he said. “One of them on its own doesn’t do it.”
It’s a synergy that clearly works and has made St. Catherine of Siena a growing and important presence in the community, a presence that Father Kelly sees as more necessary than ever.
“Anytime anyone of us walks into a hospital in a Roman collar or our Dominican habit, we are a constant sign that the voice of truth who is Jesus Christ is alive and walking the halls of those hospitals,” he said. “To some people our presence is a challenge. To some it is a consolation. But it’s vital.”