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Hirst leaves legacy of spiritual care at Bethesda

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 06/12/2018 9:00 AM

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Lydia Summerville, incoming chaplain of Bethesda Place and Bethesda Regional Health Centre, and retiring chaplain Larry Hirst, are seen in the Bethesda Place chapel. The two will work alongside one another for the month of June.


Lydia Summerville, incoming chaplain of Bethesda Place and Bethesda Regional Health Centre, and retiring chaplain Larry Hirst, are seen in the Bethesda Place chapel. The two will work alongside one another for the month of June.


Though he doesn’t sport a white coat and stethoscope, Larry Hirst knows a thing or two about bedside manner.

As chaplain for Bethesda Place and Bethesda Regional Health Centre, Hirst has spent the last 17 years providing spiritual care to individuals of all ages and from all walks of life, often during the hardest chapter of their life.

On June 29, one week after turning 65, he will retire, handing over the chaplaincy to Lydia Summerville, a longtime Steinbach resident and graduate of Providence Theological Seminary and Tyndale Seminary who is shadowing Hirst for the month of June.

Seated in the familiar surroundings of the Bethesda Place chapel earlier this week, the soft-spoken Hirst reflected on the challenges and rewards of being a hospital chaplain.

"I’ve learned what a wonderful community this is to work in," he said.

Unlike most jobs, the role of an institutional chaplain comes with two distinct sets of colleagues. As he strives to meet the spiritual needs of patients and residents, Hirst must work alongside health care staff and liaise with community clergy.

Knowing a chaplain is present at Bethesda creates peace of mind for local pastors, who sometimes don’t immediately learn of a parishioner who’s undergone surgery or been hospitalized for a sudden illness, explained Dave Dickey, co-chair of the Steinbach and Area Ministerial Association (SAMA) and a congregational care pastor at Emmanuel Evangelical Free Church.

"I’ve heard a variety of pastors all express appreciation," he said.

Nearly two-thirds of those ministered to by Hirst don’t have an active church connection, making the contact he establishes even more important, Dickey noted.

In other ways, the chaplaincy is also a solitary position. Unlike the pastor of a large church, Hirst can’t knock on the door of the next office to talk through a difficult workday.

"I’ve worked alone all my life," he said.

The chaplain’s primary external support comes from meetings every other month with SAMA, which represents 28 local churches. Since 2005, the association has funded 50 percent of the position through a unique, renewable three-year arrangement with Southern Health.

A joint advisory committee provides further supervision and support.

While ministering almost exclusively to those with health challenges may seem incredibly difficult, Hirst said he’s simply tried to be fully present to whomever he sat down beside.

"I don’t carry the encounter from 10 minutes ago into the next encounter," he said.

Shepherding the two institutions, which together contain 145 beds, requires both flexibility and continuity. Hirst sees short-term ER patients and long-term Bethesda Place residents. He must also accommodate a variety of requests, and care for souls in an institution focused primarily on physical health.

"Larry has done very well in all of those dimensions," Dickey said.

The position has also afforded Hirst a front row seat to Steinbach’s ever-evolving religious landscape. While he belongs to the Baptist General Conference of Canada, as chaplain Hirst said he has related to those from many different faith traditions.

He recalled sitting with patients who were Hindu, Sikh, or atheist, and said he learned to appreciate their perspective by practicing a "respectful curiosity" that views people as humans first, allowing them space to identify their own needs.

According to Dicky, Hirst excelled at being sensitive and avoiding pushiness because of "the depth of his own spiritual life."

"Larry finds ways to have conversations that allow people to process the meaning of their life when a crisis rolls in."

Despite the unique challenges of the chaplaincy, the job’s biggest challenge is one familiar to every pastor.

"You never finish your work at the end of the day," Hirst said.

Calling the chance to worship alongside patients and residents his "favourite time of the day," Hirst said he will most miss the six services he conducted each week.

His work, which he embraced as "wonderfully varied," included not only bedside visitation and prayer, but also rites of passage.

Hirst estimated he’s performed 400 funerals, and has also officiated a few weddings, including one in a hospital room. When a parishioner can’t attend their home church, he’s also worked with their pastor to organize a bathtub baptism. Dickey said Hirst also initiated what became an annual service for families who’ve lost a young or pre-born child.

Hirst’s retirement caps off a lengthy ministry career that began with seminary training in Phoenix, Ariz. and Denver, Colo. after a childhood spent in southern Pennsylvania. Before arriving at Bethesda, he pastored a Winnipeg church from 1981 to 2000, and a church in Strasbourg, Sask., a community north of Regina, from 1978 to 1981.

As Summerville steps into the Bethesda chaplaincy, she said continuing Hirst’s practice of non-judgmental listening will be a top priority.

Bethesda’s first female chaplain said she looks forward to drawing on her formal training in spiritual direction, a ministerial approach that foregrounds listening and gentle rearticulation.

Walking alongside is more supportive than walking ahead, she explained.

Summerville comes to Bethesda from Providence, where she cared for students as a resident director, and has also completed chaplaincy training at Riverview Health Centre and St Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg.


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