After the last communion in the chapel at Trinity Hospital of Augusta, after the last of the Blessed Sacrament had been carried to a nearby room, the Rev. Gerald P. Ragan reached up and took down a red candle from the wall and handed it the Most Rev. Gregory J. Hartmayer, bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, who blew it out.
At the last Catholic Mass at the hospital after 65 years of them, it was a signal that the chapel was no longer a place of Catholic worship but will continue on as a non-denominational place of consolation.
Bishop Hartmayer presided over the final Mass before the chapel was deconsecrated, with his predecessor, the Most Rev. J. Kevin Boland, Bishop Emeritus, looking on, and many of the other priests in Augusta or from the hospital’s history in attendance.
Sister Clara Vincent, who worked as a nurse and director of pastoral care at the hospital for 44 years, and for whom the chapel is named, was also on hand for what Hartmayer called a “bittersweet day.”
Bitter because it is the last mass but “sweet for all of the favors who were received in this chapel,” he said.
He was there to “give it the respect it is due” for the role it has played for the patients and staff who worked there, Hartmayer said. Having that faith presence in the hospital over the years made a difference for them.
“It is not just a task, it is not just a job, it is something we are doing in service,” he said. “It would be more of a blessed event if we brought God into it. This is a ministry that I hope is not diminishing because it is an integral part of healing. It gives us an energy that comes from nowhere else. It is God working through us.”
The hospital, which began life as St. Joseph Hospital, is being sold to University Hospital at the end of the month and the chapel will continue as non-denominational, much as University has in its hospital down the street from Trinity and at University Hospital McDuffie, University spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester said.
“They are interfaith, non-denominational chapels where staff, physicians, patients and their family members are free to go 24 hours a day to seek solace and pray according to their individual beliefs,” she said. “There have been weddings and funerals performed in our chapels, along with denominational services upon request like the blessing and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday. There is a box in the chapel where prayer requests are left for our chaplains, who collect them daily. We anticipate the beautiful chapel at Trinity will continue to be used for reflection and worship in much the same way.”
The Rev. John Markham, who worked at St. Joseph and University as a gastroenterologist for 26 years before becoming a priest 14 years ago, got a chance to say the penultimate Mass on Wednesday.
“It was joy and thanksgiving tempered by sadness,” he said. He expects the welcoming, more laid-back atmosphere at the smaller facility to continue and the culture not to change, even without weekly Mass and daily prayer.
“I don’t really think so because when you look at the leadership and staff at University now and in the years past, they are people of faith and they are very conscientious in the care they provide,” Markham said. “That won’t change.”
Vincent, who retired to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet retirement home in St. Louis a few years ago, came back this week to help oversee the distribution of different items from the chapel. Some of the priests took different items with them as they left and tears welled in her eyes as she watched workmen climb a tall ladder to begin taking down the big crucifix that hung from the chapel’s ceiling, which will go out to St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grovetown, while some other items will go to nearby St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church until another church needs them.
The sisters just wanted them to be used, Vincent said. Some items, such as the statues of Mary and Jesus ensconced in a chapel wall, will go back with her to St. Louis to the order. Others, like the statue of St. Joseph, will stay, as well as the popular Nativity Scene that appears on the hospital’s lawn during Advent.
“Of course, we’re happy about that,” Vincent said. Even as she watched some of these items disappearing, she was confident the spirit would remain.
“Some of the our old employees have been so imbued with the spirit of faith and love and prayer that a lot of that will continue, I feel,” Vincent said, just without the Catholic identity with which the hospital began. “We believe in God. He continues to watch over and heal folks and that’s what we want.”
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213