Sudden death

Father Gary Pennings’ shocking treatment of a Benedictine nun in church


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org Death was a daily reality for Sister Rose Marie Stallbaumer — at least in theory. As a Benedictine nun, she lived by the Rule of St. Benedict, which admonishes monastics to “keep death before one’s eyes daily.”

Far from encouraging a morbid mindset, it is a spiritual exercise in considering one’s ultimate and eternal destiny. It is meant to prepare one’s mind and soul for the day when death arrives.

Nevertheless, it was all theory for Sister Rose Marie, until the day she actually “died.”

A very special day

“I’d say I’m the picture of health, or at least I was,” said Sister Rose Marie recently, with a twinkle in her green eyes. “I’m 60 years old, but everyone says I look 45.”

Sister Rose Marie is vital member of her community, the monastery of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, and, as treasurer, plays an important role.

She’s also an active member of her large, extended family, which is why she was at St. Gregory Parish in Marysville on Aug. 18. Her nephew, Justin Stallbaumer, was getting married and she had been asked to proclaim one of the readings.

Sister Rose Marie knew the parish well, since she’d grown up there. But she had never met its current pastor, Father Gary Pennings, until that day when, as he vested, they briefly discussed her reading from the Book of Tobit.

Everyone took their places, and the wedding began. The bride, Jenny Armstrong, was walked down the aisle by her father, while Justin waited for her at the altar. This was their picture-perfect day — or so it began.

Sudden oblivion

On cue, Sister Rose Marie rose, went to the lectern, and proclaimed the first reading. She was almost to the very end when she slurred a word.

“Immediately, I knew something was wrong, because she doesn’t mess up readings,” said Sister Diana Seago, OSB, who had accompanied Sister Rose Marie that day.

“My God, I can’t see the words,” Sister Rose Marie later recalled thinking to herself. “The words are blurry.”

Next came oblivion.

Almost immediately after slurring her words, Sister Rose Marie slumped forward, hitting her lip on the microphone. Next, she twisted around as her knees buckled, and hit the back of her head on the lectern. Then she rolled down the two steps leading up in to the sanctuary and lay on the floor.

Sister Diana immediately went to the vestibule to call 911. Justin literally jumped over Jenny and went to his aunt’s side. Lynda Cross, his cousin and a nurse at Nemaha Valley Community Hospital in Seneca, and Lori Harris, an aunt and a nurse at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Topeka, joined him. The two nurses began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Sister Diana ran up the aisle, passing Father Pennings.

“I thought he was going to call an ambulance, so I said to him, ‘I called the ambulance,’ and he said, ‘Good,’ but he kept going back toward the sacristy,” said Sister Diana. “I didn’t know why he was going back there.”

Sister Diana stood back, terrified and trembling, and prayed for Sister Rose Marie.

“I kept saying her name, hoping that she wouldn’t go, and then I heard someone say, ‘She’s gone,’” said Sister Diana.

All of a sudden, Father Pennings was at Sister Rose Marie’s side with some sort of a medical device.

“[The nurses] and Father Gary started hooking this machine up to her, and then he started messing with these buttons.

“And I said, ‘Does anybody know if he knows what he’s doing?’” said Sister Diana.

Father Pennings turned and calmly replied, “I’m a former paramedic.”

“I said, ‘Oh, thank God,’” said Sister Diana. “As soon he said that, I knew she had a chance.”

Father Pennings shocked Sister Rose Marie twice, at 200 joules (a measurement of electricity), and then the ambulance arrived.

The hospital was only four blocks away. Sister Diana and all of Sister Rose Marie’s siblings — except for the father of the groom — piled into cars and high-tailed it to the hospital.

To death and back

After receiving treatment in the Nemaha Valley Community Hospital emergency room, Sister Diana was allowed to see Sister Rose Marie.

“Why am I here?” asked Sister Rose Marie.

While everyone else at the church had been quietly panicking or observing the scene with apprehension, Sister Rose Marie was completely unaware of what was happening to her.

Also, she didn’t experience any of the typical “near death” phenomena: no tunnel, bright lights, or friendly guide. The experience was more like flicking a light switch: “click,” darkness. Her last memory was of the words of Tobit; her next, of the emergency room.

“I woke up and I thought, ‘This has to be a dream,’” said Sister Rose Marie. “I looked around and thought, ‘This seems awfully real,’ and then someone noticed my eyes were open and began to talk to me. Then I thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t a dream.’”

“I told her that she collapsed while doing the first reading at church, and she was absolutely horrified; she couldn’t believe that it happened,” said Sister Diana. “She didn’t feel [ill], and said, ‘I don’t know why I’m here.’”

The doctors told Sister Rose Marie that she was, in fact, “dead” until Father Pennings shocked her heart back into activity. The doctors, satisfied that she was stable, decided to send her to the Nebraska Heart Institute in Lincoln.

To be prepared

Father Pennings was as startled as anyone when Sister Rose Marie collapsed, but it wasn’t exactly a new experience.

While he was an associate pastor at the Church of Nativity in Leawood, he saw people collapse on three consecutive Sundays. Usually, a doctor or nurse in the pews would take charge, so he didn’t have to intervene.

But if the need arose, Father Pennings was eminently qualified to meet it. The priesthood is his second vocation. For 18 years he served as a paramedic, and made his last ambulance run with Johnson County MedAct on Dec. 20, 1994.

Not only that, but he had some very recent personal experiences to draw on. Just six months earlier, Father Pennings had a heart attack and underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery.

“These nurses were assessing her, and I looked over there and realized that this is not good, so I immediately went to retrieve the defibrillator that we had just been given recently by Tom Creal,” said Father Pennings.

Tom Creal, a member of the Church of Nativity in Leawood, is co-founder of First Biomedical, Inc., of Olathe. After Father Penning’s heart attack, Creal gave him two reconditioned automatic external defibrillators.

Father Pennings had only recently taken them out of storage and installed them — one in the church; another in the school. Although they were charged and ready, training on them wasn’t scheduled until September. No one, other than Father Pennings, knew how they worked.

After consulting with the nurses, Father Pennings shocked Sister Rose Marie, restarting her heart. After that, he stepped back into the role of priest and quickly anointed her.

“It’s been 12 years since I’ve defibrillated anyone,” said Father Pennings. “Things have changed, but the basics [of defibrillation] remain the same.”

After Sister Rose Marie was taken away, Father Pennings invited the congregation to pray for her, and then he resumed the wedding. After the wedding, he went to the hospital and anointed Sister Rose Marie again before the helicopter carried her away to Lincoln.

Sister Rose Marie’s experience, as well as his own, has led him to a deeper appreciation of his life as a paramedic, his life as a priest — and just his life, period.

“My experience is making me a better person and a better priest,” he said. “You appreciate once again the gift of life, and how we only have so much time here. And out of gratitude to God for what he’s given us, we should make the best use of our time.”

“So, I was very grateful after my heart attack for my vocation and my experience as a paramedic,” he added.

Life is a race and a pilgrimage, he said. Don’t live in fear, but persevere and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.

Thanks and gratitude

The next day, doctors in Nebraska found out why Sister Rose almost died.

It wasn’t her arteries. Her pipes were as clean as a whistle. And best of all, there was no damage to her heart — thanks to the quick action by the two nurses and Father Pennings.

That day at the lectern, Sister Rose Marie had suffered a cardiac arrhythmia, caused by problems with electrical impulses going to her heart. Surgeons fixed it by implanting a small defibrillator in her chest. By Monday she was back at Mount St. Scholastica. She felt like she’d been “kicked by a horse,” but was otherwise fine and on her feet.

Sister Rose Marie’s collapse has led to some introspection for those involved.

Sister Rose Marie and, indeed, all the Sisters at Mount St. Scholastica say they have a new, albeit unofficial, “saint” in Father Pennings. And, drawing from Benedictine sensibilities, they define “saint” as someone through whom God works the wonderful.

“It’s important to take time for people and to have a sense of gratitude,” said Sister Rose Marie. “What strikes me as I hear people tell me the story of what they saw . . . is that the miracle was people — people getting up and immediately helping. That makes miracles possible. Nobody sat there and waited for God to do something. God used them.”

This experience has changed her view of death. There was no terror — she was simply gone. She thinks that rather than fearing death, we should figure out life — mainly how to love and be grateful.

“I’ve spent a little more time thinking about how grateful I am for Rosie’s life and her presence in our community,” said Sister Diana. “St. Benedict tells us in The Rule to ‘keep death daily before our eyes.’ It comes home very clearly when something like this happens, so you realize how precious life is and how unimportant are many other things.”

“That’s probably why Benedict put it in The Rule,” she continued. “He wanted his monks to be sure and understand that every moment of our lives is a gift, and we can’t squander that gift. . . . I also think it’s easier to tell someone that we love them when life is more precarious, and we need to tell people that we love them more often.”

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