By Dave Jolivet
TAUNTON, Mass. — Last year at this time, Deacon Anthony Cipriano, director of Pastoral Care of the Sick at Morton Hospital in Taunton, and ministering at St. John the Evangelist and St. Vincent de Paul parishes in Attleboro, was assisting the Catholic Appeal, explaining in a promotional video how the generosity of faithful across the diocese touches many in need in the Diocese of Fall River (see screen capture on right).
Today, Deacons Cipriano and Philip Bedard, also ministering to the Taunton Catholic Churches North, are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 at Morton Hospital.
In early April that Taunton facility was designated as a care center for Coronavirus patients only, and an often difficult ministry became more so and more dangerous as well.
The Anchor reached out to Deacon Cipriano to ask him to share with readers what ministering in such a fluid and ever-changing environment has been like.
He was very quick to point out that the healthcare workers and the priest chaplains are the real heroes. “All of the glory goes to God,” Deacon Cipriano told The Anchor. “I am a servant and nothing more.
“Father [Richard] Wilson, Father [Edward A.] Murphy and Father [John] Murray are my heroes.
“I was called to serve and be a chaplain. Every C-19 patient is embraced by God; I just stand and pray in Jesus’ Name to every patient in that hospital.
“But, the true heroes anoint, pray and in Jesus’ name remove sin before those who are on the verge of death pass. The priests are my heroes.”
The deacon, who professed as a Secular Franciscan along with his wife in 1990, shared that St. Francis had a great fear and abhorrence of lepers. One day Francis met a man with leprosy and despite his “horror and disgust” kissed the man and out of compassion offered him money. “But when Francis mounted his horse again and looked all around, he could not see the leper,” added Deacon Cipriano. “It dawned on him that it was Jesus Whom he had just kissed.
“I have always seen Jesus Christ in every patient. It does not matter to me if they are religious or atheist. We are all created by God.”
Ministering in a secular hospital, the deacon encounters many patients who are not Catholic or of any Christian faith, yet he is always there to pray for them and with them if they choose.
When asked if he sees more of a reliance on God among the COVID-19 patients he encounters, surprisingly he said for the most part, no. “Men, most men, I find they are in denial,” he shared. “If I bless them, they think they are dying.
“Women are stronger and prone to pray more than men. Women welcome a blessing. Women are more Spiritual by nature while in the hospital.”
The pastoral care team also works with family members. “I only get to meet family members when the patient is dying or died,” Deacon Cipriano told The Anchor. He added that he always shares chapter 14 in John’s Gospel which begins, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe in Me also” (Jn 14:1). The Gospel story shares Jesus’ comforting His Apostles despite telling them about His imminent trials and sufferings. The great hope the Lord shares is that He will be with them again.
“It brings great comfort to family members that their loved ones are with Christ,” the deacon said. “Sometimes I am present. I wait for a question or a statement. I console the family to the best of my ability.”
It isn’t only the patients and families who receive words of hope and comfort from Deacons Cipriano and Bedard. They are also there for the heavily burdened health care staff.
“I think a high percentage of nurses have post-traumatic stress,” Deacon Cipriano told The Anchor. “It is difficult and painful to see so many people die in such a short period.
“I promised doctors, nurses, CNAs, and environmentalists that I would pray for them every day. I now wake up at 3 a.m. and read my morning prayers. Then I go back to bed and get up at 4:25 a.m., and I am at the hospital at 6 a.m. I write a new prayer every day and go from station to station to pray with the third shift and the first shift coming in.
“Last week I spoke about PTS and offered to listen to anyone who would like to talk about this emotional roller coaster life and death.
“I was approached by a nurse who was sobbing because a whole family died from the virus. The mother was her age; the daughter was the same age as her daughter, and the husband was fighting for his life, not knowing his wife and daughter passed.”
Despite the constant threat of death around them, Deacon Cipriano says the healthcare workers are extremely strong and resilient. “They all work closely together, including nurses from around the country,” he added. “Nurses are very knowledgeable when it comes to complex situations. I find them to be very confident in their skill set.
“By working together, they communicate exceptionally well. I marvel at the way they work together. When a patient crashes, about eight to 10 nurses and doctors work in concert with one another. One doctor calling out the commands, and everyone in that room knows exactly what to do.”
But like everyone going through the COVID-19 pandemic, the healthcare workers are human. “A nurse last week was in a corner crying,” the deacon shared. “I asked her if she wanted to talk. She told me she was embarrassed to tell me what was going on. I promised her I would never judge her in any way.
“She told me her daughter was just rushed to a hospital and was going to be in a psych ward. Her daughter is 12 years old and is a cutter. She told me her husband had put a tremendous amount of pressure on her daughter to become a lawyer. When she spoke to her daughter on the phone, the first words out of her daughter’s mouth were she didn’t want to be a lawyer. I couldn’t imagine so much pressure on a 12-year-old.
“I told her she should go home and be with her daughter. She needed permission in her mind to go home and not worry about the crisis at Morton.”
Every day we all see the images and hear the dialogues on television or on social media about the pandemic. Many have opinions, suggestions, political views and slants, and suggestions.
What we don’t see every day on these outlets are those who are affected most by this plague — the ground zeros, the rooms of COVID-19 patients and hallways of hospitals and nursing homes bustling with people trying to help their brothers and sisters heal, be less afraid, to provide comfort in their final hours, or be a Christ-like presence to family members who are heartbroken and despondent.
We see the numbers, much like in the 60s when national television would soberly broadcast daily the number of dead, injured or missing soldiers in Vietnam. We see the numbers, but not the stories — the stories of priests, deacons, chaplains, nurses and doctors. Stories of fatigue, fear, helplessness, hope, encouragement, healing, loss and faithfully doing what God has them there for, regardless of race or color or religion.
In Morton Hospital in Taunton and in hospitals and nursing homes and other such facilities, Christ is there walking the halls in the presence of others.
“Every blessing is the same,” Deacon Cipriano told The Anchor. “If the person is a Christian, I remind them of their Baptism, washed in the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
“I tell them the Blood of Christ is flowing into their hearts and out of their hearts and into their veins and their arteries.
“The Blood of Christ is flowing through their brain and significant organs to give them the healing they desire.”
Words of hope in turbulent times.