Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 30, 2007
U of A chaplain reflects Jesus' love
Priscilla Edwards has ministered to the young and old for 30 years.
- WCR photo by Bill Glen
If time permits, U of A Hospital Catholic chaplain Priscilla Edwards spends moments of reflection in the hospital's chapel.
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
Priscilla Edwards has been bringing the presence of the Lord to patients at the University of Alberta Hospitals for 30 years. If the Catholic chaplain has her way, she will be doing it for 30 years more.
Edwards visits patients who have had heart transplants or broken bones mended. She pops in to see patients with mental illness.
She also sees sick children, many with cancer, in the Stollery Children's Hospital.
She listens to the family, consoles them and tries to bring peace at a difficult moment in their lives.
In my prayers
"I tell them I keep them in my prayers. It's very hard on the children, and very difficult for the parents to have sick children," she said.
Edwards has also seen spiritual transformations.
"One man was an atheist who became Catholic. He went back to his faith. He would call down to the pastoral care office wanting to talk to me," she said with a smile.
"He was so excited about coming back into the Church. I gave him some books to read. It made me feel good to see that. It was powerful."
Edwards' own journey is one that gives her considerable empathy with the sick.
Born orphaned and with tuberculosis, she was not expected to live. She spent the first five years of her life in a children's hospital before moving from foster home to foster home in Malden, Mass.
"I guess I was kind of a miracle baby," said Edwards, who was honoured April 18 by the Edmonton Archdiocese and the U of A Hospital where she has been Catholic chaplain for 30 years.
She developed Pott's disease, a tubercular malady characterized by softening and collapse of the vertebrae, often resulting in a noticeable deformity of the spine. Unfortunately, Edwards was not spared from this symptom.
Sitting in a chair doesn't fully reveal her daily struggle, until she stands and begins to walk the hospital hallways.
Yet, Edwards can be found on any floor at any time, says the Rev. Paul Bergen, manager of the hospital's pastoral care services.
"Priscilla is kind of everywhere. She comes in every morning around 7 a.m. and often doesn't leave until 4:30 p.m.," Bergen said.
"You can walk through the hospital and see her in one place. You go down to a different floor and 20 minutes later, there she is.
A critical ministry
"There is a huge amount of territory and she meets a vast number of people. Priscilla brings a ministry here that is really critical to a lot of people's well being and healing."
Edwards once had a friend who had moved to the Madonna House in Combermere, Ont. She suggested Edwards follow her, as the then young woman hadn't yet decided what to do with her life.
Edwards took her friend's advice. She completed studies in pastoral care and was sent to the Marian Centre in Edmonton, a mission of the Madonna House.
Edwards decided she wanted to dedicate her work to hospital ministry. She is grateful to Archbishop Joseph MacNeil, who ensured she received all the support she needed.
"He was very good to me. He paid for everything - my plane fair and tuition to St. Paul University in Ottawa. I took clinical pastoral education in different hospitals and the archbishop paid for that. That's why I decided to stay with Catholic patients.
"What Archbishop MacNeil did meant a lot to me."
Finding her faith
As a little girl, Edwards would run to different neighbourhood churches during recess. She was particularly struck by the Catholic church across from her school. She liked to sit with the priest and ask what he was doing.
Edwards would sneak into Catholic school libraries where she would spend hours looking at books with illustrations of the saints and the early fathers of the Church.
Edwards was admitted to hospital with lung problems as a teen for another long period. Two Irish Catholic siblings who still lived at home - Natalie and Janet O'Brien, nursed her.
They left pamphlets about the Church and rosaries by her bed. They invited Edwards into their home for feast days.
"They knew I didn't have anyone. They were just really good people."
Edwards took it upon herself to read documents on the Church and its teachings. In her early 20s, she knocked on a rector's door.
When the monsignor answered, she whispered to him: "I want to become Catholic." She was invited in and told she would need some sponsors. She chose the O'Brien sisters.
A few years later, Edwards found herself at the Madonna House.
It's who she is
"She has a faithful presence. She is like the presence of God in that sense," Bergen said. "Her relationship with Jesus is palpable. Her spirituality isn't something she does Monday to Friday. It's who she is."
Now, Edwards carries a flip chart with print outs of some 42 people she visits daily. Many of them request the Eucharist.
"I've been here so long, when I walk in a room some of them say, 'Oh, you're still here.'"
She says that her own childhood experiences help her to understand the patients.
"Just to be there with them means something," Edwards said. "I had no family back then. I know what it's like. I don't pass judgments. I pray with them. Some are unable to because they are too sick, but they've requested I visit."
Edwards puts the feelings of the patients ahead of her own. She is touched when a returning patient remembers her.
"It's humbling because I'm just God's little instrument. I see a strengthening in many of the patients when we pray together," she said.
"I really love my work. I love working for the Lord and letting him use me the way he wants to use me. I really don't know what else I would do."