Letter from inside a hospital chapel

Every Tuesday evening, a shadow’s length removed from the lights on the Magnificent Mile, volunteers, staff, patients, and a priest gather for Mass in a small chapel room at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). Ranked #1 for twenty-five years in comprehensive physical medicine and rehabilitation care, RIC, located on east Superior Street, provides care to patients from all over the world. The Mass on Tuesday night is shortened to thirty minutes because patients have limited energy after a full day’s therapy. The volunteers who assist span all walks of life. Our ages range from me at twenty-nine to Father James Roache at a respectable eight-one.

At first I was disappointed and overwhelmed by my assignment to RIC. I joined the Ministry of Care program through Holy Name Cathedral with the intention of taking Holy Communion to the sick, elderly, and homebound. I envisioned serving one elderly person each week, similar to what my mother had done back home in Ohio. Holy Name Cathedral assigned me to RIC, and Reverend Beth Reece, the chaplain at RIC, asked if I could help set up Mass on Tuesday nights as my primary activity instead. They needed people. The assignment felt impersonal compared to what I had originally signed up for, not to mention I had no background in healthcare, limited experience with the sick, and like most people, did not enjoy lingering in a hospital.

I quickly observed how the volunteers follow the same well-worn paths each week. Male volunteers, known affectionately as “the men,” bring patients from their rooms down to the chapel. Meanwhile, Trish, Debra, Arlene, and I set up the altar and push furniture aside to make room for the wheelchairs. Trish has volunteered each Tuesday at RIC for more than thirty years. She only misses twice a year, for her biannual trips to Las Vegas. If the candle I set on the table is off-center, she’ll move it. Trish is completely original and doesn’t always know when she’s said something funny. One Tuesday evening, she and Debra were discussing a well-respected podiatrist working at a nearby hospital. With a straight face Trish added, “He wrote the book on bunions.”

The only person who surpasses Trish’s tenure at RIC is Fr. Roache. He served at Holy Name Cathedral in downtown Chicago beginning in the 1960s and has presided over Mass at RIC since 1962. When he retired to Wisconsin in 2001, Fr. Roache kept his commitment to RIC and has traveled across the state line every Tuesday for the last fifteen years of his retirement. During my two years at RIC, he’s only been late once, when President Obama was in town. Father is eighty-one but doesn’t look a day over seventy. He speaks quietly, making his bone-dry sense of humor even more refreshing, and he winks when you shake his hand.

The last volunteer to arrive before Mass is Robert. Built like Terry Bradshaw, he is tall and athletic-looking. He calls me “kiddo.” He and Trish bicker over college football. She’s a Florida State fan and his allegiance is to Notre Dame. He golfs any chance he gets and is undeniably proud of his grandkids attending colleges across the country. Robert’s role on Tuesday nights is subtle but precious. Because the service takes place in a small, carpeted room, and the group gathered rarely exceeds twenty people, patients usually feel timid. As we sing, Robert’s voice naturally booms the loudest. Patients can sing along without feeling like the room is a stage.

We’re a small congregation centered around a makeshift altar. A man props what remains of his right leg on the extended footrest of his wheelchair. A young woman appears to gaze at the wall behind me. She recently lost the last of her eyesight from a condition unrelated to the physical injury that initially brought her to RIC. She told me a joke when she first arrived. A teenage girl in a head brace has periodic outbursts and her mom pats her on the shoulder. Once I looked across the u-formation at the faces of a mother and father watching their five children. The teenage son’s brain cancer was terminal. He bounced his baby sister on his lap throughout the service. Some patients will be discharged by the next week, and new ones will come. Each Tuesday night’s group leaves its own fingerprint on the chapel.

One week Robert didn’t show up. I learned from Beth that he suffered a stroke and had been admitted to RIC. A couple of Tuesdays later he was well enough to attend the service. Included in the group of patients in wheelchairs sat Robert, our friend and fearless leader in song. He was able to sing that week, and the weeks following. On his last Tuesday as a patient, his voice cracked when he talked about the angels on his floor, the doctors and nurses who played a part in his recovery.

Every few months, Fr. Roache, Beth, the other chaplain, Anne, and the volunteers head over to the lounge at the Ritz on east Pearson Street for drinks and a cheese plate. We circle around the table in our nook with pop, wine, or for Father, a Beefeater martini with two olives. On our most recent visit, we talked about pets. Father told us about a black cat he recently befriended. The cat was initially very timid and stayed on the windowsill of his room at the rectory in Wisconsin. One late afternoon after mixing his martini, Father put a saucer of milk on the windowsill. Over the next few weeks as the cat grew more comfortable, Father started placing the dish further inside the room and away from the window. Now he and the cat have happy hour together.

“What did you name her, Father?” I asked.

“A-vil (pronounced ah-veal), because it’s the closest thing to evil,” he said, smiling.

I moved to Chicago on my own three years ago and found community in an unexpected place. Nights at RIC show people in this city doing extraordinary work in unglamorous settings. I’ve been heartbroken and inspired by patients and their families, and I got to watch Fr. Roache, a man who served the city for over forty years, blow out the candles on his birthday cake when he turned eighty. On nights like these as I walk home, finally allowing the evening to sink in, I think, “Only in Chicago.”

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