In his 44 years of hospital chaplaincy, Father Jerry Spencer has seen it all
by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The mother left her baby alone in the apartment just long enough to run a quick errand.
In her absence, however, a fire broke out. The blaze was reported and firefighters rescued a badly burned baby.
Father Jerry Spencer, chaplain at the University of Kansas Hospital and Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., received an urgent summons from the emergency room. The baby’s mother, in shock, was there with two firefighters, one who had minor burns from rescuing the infant.
The doctor called Father Spencer aside and quietly told him the baby died. Someone had to tell the mother — gently.
Would he do it?
Yes, said Father Spencer. It was one of the most difficult death notices he ever delivered.
Later, Father Spencer visited with the two firefighters.
“Father,” said one, “I couldn’t do your job.”
“And I couldn’t do yours,” Father Spencer responded.
Father Spencer did his job — his ministry, really — as a Catholic chaplain at KU Med for 44 years, eight of those as a volunteer. That’s just two years shy of his entire priesthood.
For many who passed through the medical center, Father Spencer was the face of the Catholic Church, the instrument of Christ — counseling, consoling, soothing and administering the sacraments.
He served all persons, regardless of religious affiliation — or lack thereof.
The University of Kansas Hospital and Medical Center honored Father Spencer for his remarkable tenure with a retirement party on Nov. 22, 2011, in the Francisco Lounge there.
“He came here pretty early in his priestly ministry and stayed for 44 years,” said Terry Rusconi, vice president of performance and improvement at the medical center. “He and the hospital grew up together.”
The general sentiment is that it will not be the same place without him.
“As dedicated as he was to KU, it will be hard to find someone who will sacrifice personally as much as he did to make himself available,” said Bob Spaniol, director of HIPAA commitment at the medical center and a member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood.
Doctor Allen Fleming, a hematologist and oncologist at the medical center who has known Father Spencer since 1967, agreed.
“The bottom line is I can’t imagine KU [Medical Center] without Father Jerry Spencer,” said Fleming, who was brought into the church thanks to Father Spencer. “I don’t think he’s replaceable. There’s just no one to replace him.”
Bolt from the blue
Father Spencer’s plans for his priesthood didn’t include hospital chaplaincy.
“I didn’t seek it out, but I was thrilled when it happened,” he said.
As a young deacon, he’d taken clinical pastoral education at the Kansas Neurological Institute, Topeka State Hospital and the Kansas Diagnostic and Reception Center.
“It sparked an interest in institutional chaplaincy,” he said. “But I was happy to receive my first assignment as associate pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa [after ordination in 1965]. In those years, priests also taught at the local Catholic high school.”
His next assignment — as associate pastor of Holy Name Parish in Kansas City, Kan., and hospital chaplain — came like a bolt from the blue. He figures someone in the chancery must have read about his previous clinical pastoral education in his file. On Sept. 1, 1967, the chancellor gave him a call.
“I got 12 days to wrap up my affairs [at Holy Trinity] and move on up I-35,” said Father Spencer.
It was a lively time in the church, only two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council. Father Spencer had to learn a new parish, a new institution, and the changes brought on by the council.
“Getting the lay of the land took a little doing. But gradually I came to realize the many needs of patients who would come there from the immediate area, the two states of Kansas and Missouri, and other parts of the world,” said Father Spencer.
Even then, when it was smaller, the world came to the medical center. Father Spencer encountered a veritable United Nations of foreign and immigrant patients, medical school students, nurses and doctors, and staff.
“I remember one little boy from Egypt who came here for orthopedic surgery,” he continued. “He was flown over on [then-President] Anwar Sadat’s private plane.”
Communication was a challenge. At one time, Croatian and Vietnamese were in high demand, as Spanish has always been. Father Spencer relied on translators, if they could be found. Care and compassion, he discovered, need no translator.
“In the human experience, illness is a common denominator, and people have similar reactions to tragedies,” he said.
Rule one: Be there
When Father Spencer began his ministry, the medical center had only two chaplains: himself and a Protestant minister.
As the medical center and school grew, so, too, did the demand for chaplain services. After four years, Father Spencer transitioned from volunteer to a paid chaplain.
“This is definitely a specialized ministry, because it has required availability 24/7,” said Father Spencer. “You are at the beck and call of the pager at times that are convenient and times that are very difficult.”
There were times when the pager went off hourly. And he was called to the hospital at all hours of the night.
“Of course, some bad things can happen in the middle of the night, and often do,” he said. “Usually, there were traumas that came into the emergency room of one kind or another, as well as patients who died.”
The Rev. Ashley Masoni, a medical center chaplain for three years and an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America minister, was amazed by his commitment.
“Father Jerry is one of the most giving people I’ve ever met,” said Rev. Masoni. “He was on call for 365 days a year — it’s the truth. He’d come in at ungodly hours to be with people to tell them about the Gospel and administer the sacraments. He taught me a lot about what it means to be selfless, and it’s been a blessing to work with him. He truly is in love with God and God’s people.”
His workload increased when he became pastor of Holy Name Parish, which also has a school, in 1986. He developed a weekday routine through which he covered the parish in the morning and the hospital in the afternoons and evenings, although the medical center could call at any time.
Father Spencer celebrated weekend Masses at the parish and the hospital, and would make weekend rounds. Fortunately, the drive time between the parish and hospital is only five minutes.
And that wasn’t all. He was and remains a chaplain for the KCK police and fire departments and the University of Kansas police.
A pastor once herself, Rev. Masoni marveled at Father Spencer’s juggling act.
“I don’t see how it could work,” she said. “I was in a parish and that was more than a fulltime job. Being [at KU Med] is still more than a full-time job. He was able to be there for everyone at all times, and he could only do that by the grace that God has given him.
“It truly is a calling. If God hadn’t called him to do this, he wouldn’t have the power to do it.”
It wasn’t easy, he admitted, saying there were some “bad hair days.” There were times he was stretched tighter than a banjo string.
“It was a physical challenge, but it came down to trying to do what I felt was needed to help someone at possibly the worst time of their life,” he said. “Yes, sometimes it took everything I had — physically and emotionally. And I’m glad I was able to do it for so long.”
In recent years, Father Spencer has had serious health issues himself, which have enabled him to empathize even more closely with those who suffer illness and handicaps.
“I don’t consider what I’ve gone through to be a curse but rather a blessing, because they have enabled me to reach people who suffer similarly,” he said.
He suffers from diabetes, which led to kidney failure and the amputation of his right leg below the knee in 2010. He went through 16 months of kidney dialysis before he received a transplant in 2009.
“The 16 months of dialysis was an ordeal,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to get a good, working kidney. It’s been an experience, particularly because I’ve known people who’ve died before they got a life-saving organ.”
He didn’t stop being a chaplain even when he was a patient.
“One day while he was in the hospital, he was out trying to increase his strength,” said Rusconi. “The rehabilitation therapist had him in a wheelchair . . . . He went rolling by a room and saw someone he knew, so he went in and provided spiritual support to the patient and the family for three hours. He didn’t even blink; it was where he needed to be.”
Father Spencer, having seen so much suffering within the medical center walls, has no time for self-pity over his own physical infirmities.
“I tell people all you have to do is sit in the lobby [at the medical center] for 15 minutes and see who comes in limping with a cane, on crutches, in a walker or a wheelchair,” he said, “and you’ll never feel sorry for yourself again.”
Angels and demons
Being a hospital chaplain for 44 years required physical stamina and discipline for Father Spencer to contend with the inconvenient hours, inclement weather, and his own illnesses.
The ministry has also required mental and emotional toughness and discipline — a strong spirituality, too — to face difficult people and tough situations. “I have met the devil incarnate,” he said.
“I have met people who were really creepy. I have seen true, heroic sanctity, but I have also seen people in the deepest moral distress and situations that one could imagine.”
Imagine the worst things that can happen to a person, and Father Spencer has seen it.
“I have seen everything that can happen to a human being, except a soldier blown up by a roadside bomb,” he said.
He’s seen the injuries from assaults, shootings, stabbings, fire, drowning, car wrecks, motorcycle mishaps, hangings, poisonings, abuse, suicide attempts of all kinds, industrial accidents, farm accidents and railroad wrecks. He’s seen people suffering from just about every illness and disease in the book.
“I had three women who all died of cancer, and their husbands had to come back from active duty in the military to be with them,” he said.
And he’s seen all kinds of human reactions to grief, tragedy and death. In all of these situations, he’s had to keep his head and do his job. After 44 years, nothing surprised him.
“I’m not shockproof, and I’m not absent of feeling for the tragedies that hit people,” he said. “I’m just able to cope with what life throws at me. It must be the grace of God and my natural temperament that enables me to do this. Not everyone can be a firefighter, or a doctor, or a nurse.”
Some you save
Father Spencer’s drive comes from his deep commitment to Christ and his priesthood. He got his motivation from the knowledge that sometimes he was the last priest people saw on this earth.
“I came at the end of the line of the many wonderful priests they’ve known through life from their baptism on, and the last one to help them on their spiritual journey,” he said.
Not all welcomed his help, however. Some people turned him away, leaving this earth still clinging to anger or hurt . . . or something else. He left them to the mercy of God.
“It was disappointing and frustrating to see a person turn down an opportunity to receive the sacraments and know some peace in a spiritual sense when they had the opportunity,” he said.
“With the shortage of priests and the many circumstances that can happen in people’s lives,” he continued, “it was frustrating [to me] for them to actually have a chance standing right there at their bedside, and have them refuse and reject it.”
For Catholics, Father Spencer was the man. By virtue of his priestly ministry, he could do what no other chaplain could do. Reverend Masoni recalled when she was called the emergency room, when Father Spencer was not at the hospital, for a dying patient who happened to be Catholic.
“[Family members] were happy I was there and very kind, [and glad] that I prayed with him, but they expected Father Jerry,” she said. “People were disappointed when they came to KU and weren’t visited by him. He’s really a staple of the community. People know when they need healing, he’s going to be there.”
To serve all
The challenge for a chaplain in a secular setting is to serve people of many faiths while holding true to his own, said Tarris Rosell, clinical associate professor in the department of history and philosophy of medicine.
“Father Spencer exhibited a willingness to accept people as they were while conveying faithfully his own convictions,” said Rosell. “You couldn’t miss that he’s a Catholic priest.”
Fleming called Father Spencer a “strong priest” and a consistent, principled person who upheld the teachings of the church. He made invaluable contributions during ethics committee meetings and more informal discussions.
“No matter what you did or how strongly he felt against what you did or supported — whether personally or professionally — it never seemed to affect his commitment to you as a person,” said Fleming, “nor [did] any differences or controversies at KU affect his commitment to the hospital.”
Of course, no one but a Catholic priest can administer the fullness of the sacraments to other Catholics, and that’s why he’s there. As chaplain, however, Father Spencer was there for all.
“When you’re a chaplain on staff at a hospital, your client base is the world — patients, family, physicians, hospital staff, the trauma crew that brings the patents in — everyone and anyone,” said Rusconi.
“They didn’t necessarily need to be from within the hospital walls, dealing with patient care,” he continued. “They [could be from] the academic side, the teaching role, the research role, people Father Jerry just met in a meeting and who sought him out for spiritual guidance or the sacraments. They could be people off the street who attended the Masses Father Jerry celebrated here on a regular basis.”
The Rev. Jennifer Malewski, one of four medical center chaplains and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), often teamed up with Father Spencer.
“Sometimes both of us would end up seeing a patient because maybe some of the family members were Catholic and the patient was another Christian faith, or the other way around,” she said.
She appreciated his flexibility in being able to minister with chaplains of other faiths, as well as patients and families, and medical center personnel, too.
“There was a boy in our intensive care unit,” she said. “I couldn’t get there to baptize him. The parents were open to [Father Spencer] baptizing [the boy], even though they were of Methodist background.”
One of Father Spencer’s most rewarding interfaith experiences occurred with a Hindu patient. One of the man’s daughters saw Father Spencer in the cafeteria and asked him to visit with her father, who had a terminal cancer.
“He welcomed me right on the spot, and wanted to talk about the meaning of his terminal illness,” said Father Spencer. “We became very good friends, and we talked for hours about the meaning of suffering and trying to find an answer to the question, ‘Why is this happening to me?’”
“A lot of it was a philosophical discussion, but it had theological overtones,” he continued. “But I feel that we were able to really minister to him, although he was not all that familiar with Christianity. I told him upfront that I looked at suffering from a Christian perspective and respected his. He believed in reincarnation. I feel that my presence and willingness to spend time with him, to share his anxiety and burden, was a comfort to him.”
Cool and calm
A vital aspect of Father Spencer’s chaplaincy has been his ministry of presence. Often that has made all the difference — for patients, their family and medical center staff — by offering a kind word or a humorous quip.
“Working here, there are so many tragic stories and so much sadness,” said Noreen Thompson, a clinical nurse specialist and member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park.
“And yes, we have to deal with those issues,” she added. “But he always found a way to have a compassionate heart, listen to what was happening and take that in — but then also find a way to help us end up laughing, or smiling, or seeing the positive side of things, which is worth its weight in gold.”
His calming quality came from inside, said Rev. Masoni.
“He always had a calm about him,” she said. “I think that came from his faith — knowing there is something greater in this world than what we’re experiencing, and that it’s good and will lift us up. He was calm under pressure.”
Reverend Malewski remembered how he calmed the family of a dying man.
“There was a male patient who was dying, and his female relatives were in various degrees of hysteria,” she said. “He helped them work through their tears and grief, and calm down. He was a calming presence to them. He had a way of being there and reassuring them things would be all right eventually.”
Sometimes relatives of patients take out their frustrations and anger on hospital staff, and Father Spencer dealt with these situations with finesse.
“More than once, [Father Spencer] has faced situations like that,” said Rev. Malewski. “He got the family member to talk [with him] more than act out with the nurse or doctor.”
Thompson recalled how Father Spencer’s presence made a difference when the community asked the medical center for help.
“When we were new on the critical incidence response team, back in the 1990s, the medical center received a call for community debriefing after a teenager was shot,” said Thompson.
“The shooting was in the RosedaleArgentine community, and civic leaders wanted to get the community together to prevent revenge killings,” she continued. “People respected Father Spencer. The parents and children listened when he spoke. His presence made me feel calmer. . . . He said a prayer and set a tone where a revenge killing would not be the answer.”
Never say ‘quit’
There is a Spencer Memorial Chapel at the medical center, but it’s named after Helen Foresman Spencer — no relation to Father Spencer.
The hospital has, however, established a fund to build a new chapel in his honor. He might even be around to use it because, although Father Spencer has retired, he hasn’t quit.
Until a new Catholic chaplain is hired, the medical center will be covered on a rotating basis by the Catholic pastors of Wyandotte County, and that includes Father Spencer. He’s up to the task.
“I’m grateful that my ‘fire’ never went out, and my passion for this work never really subsided,” said Father Spencer.
“I’d do it again at a moment’s notice if I were able to,” he continued. “I feel it’s the ministry I was called to do.
“As long as there are people in need, I’ll wear the chaplain’s hat.”