As the assistant manager of the spiritual care department at St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, California, much of Sister Terry Maher’s ministry boils down to one simple thing: listening.
Be it with the family of a patient in the emergency room, the parents of a newborn fighting for life, or a co-worker experiencing a personal loss, Sister Terry is there, listening through tears and fears.
“A lot of what I do is being a listening presence,” Sister Terry said. “It’s being able to be present to a lot of needs.”
Through peace, comfort and compassion, Sister Terry brings God to where God is most needed.
She recalls a woman in the emergency department who was about to have a medical procedure. Sister Terry noticed a rosary in the patient’s hand and asked the patient if she would like a priest to stop by. The woman nodded and Sister Terry saw relief in the woman’s face.
“Sister Terry is absolutely amazing,” said Donna Grisham, former emergency department manager. “She’s very supportive of all of our emergency room patients and their families as well as the staff. She’s been very instrumental in encouraging our patients.”
In other instances, patients speak of the warmth they feel when Sister Terry prays with them. Sometimes patients feel lost and continually burdened. Prayer comforts them.
Those are the moments when she most clearly sees God working through her.
“Whatever their faith is or isn’t, we meet people at their most vulnerable time,” Sister Terry said. “In my mind it’s how to be present, open and accepting of them because I can be the face of the church. It’s not necessarily a specific denomination but I can be that welcoming, open face of God that they may not have seen.”
As chaplain for both the neonatal intensive care unit and the emergency department, Sister Terry often prays over babies who are struggling. She leaves notes for the parents, and if a parent is still in the hospital she’ll go visit them to see how they are doing and find out what they need. Often she’ll consult with the medical staff on the child’s condition and relay the information in ways they can understand.
A most challenging part of her ministry is consoling a family who has lost a loved one. In supporting others in times of crisis, she draws upon the deaths she has experienced in her own life, including that of her brother, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty.
“I can use the scars that experience gave me to be present to people and to know if I need to say something or if I just need to be with them,” Sister Terry said. “Sometimes it is just sitting quietly.”
When she joined St. Bernardine seven years ago, she was asked to initiate a program in which someone stays with patients who are near death. Volunteers stay with dying patients who have no one, or just to give family members a break. They leave notes of support for the families. Patients who have died are remembered at a Mass the Sunday following their death and at quarterly memorial services.
The program is modeled after one in Oregon. In that case, a patient asked a nurse to sit with him, but by the time she had finished her nursing duties, he had died.
A native of Philadelphia, Sister Terry’s father spent his career in the United States Navy, which took the family to many places, including cities along the east and west coasts while she was growing up. Her family moved back to California when she was in her teens and she established roots there. Her nieces and nephews are in California while her extended family lives in the east.
Entering religious life was never something Sister Terry expected, but she got to know the Precious Blood Sisters through the parish school her siblings attended. While studying history and religion at the University of San Diego, Sister Terry began thinking about religious life more seriously. She worked as director of religious education at a parish in Oceanside, California, after graduation and continued to contemplate a religious vocation.
“I call it a niggling,” she said. “You never know where God is going to pull people from. I had to pursue it.”
A highlight of her journey thus far was an internship at the United Nations in New York during graduate studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. For four months she lived in Spanish-Harlem, took the train to Grand Central Station and walked to the U.N. She was
studying the social teachings of the church and the impact of Catholic nongovernmental organizations.
“That was a good experience,” she said. “I enjoyed that very much, hobnobbing with all those delegates and ambassadors.”
After profession, she continued parish work in California and Ohio, and worked in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s youth office. It was all a good foundation for her current ministry at St. Bernardine.
“It’s a different sense of community,” she said. “Once I was able to think of the hospital as a parish, it made sense to me.”
Though no day is the same, each workday brings Sister Terry new opportunities to experience God. She reflects on those moments and continually looks to see God’s face. It can turn up anywhere, in a smile, in a prayer or the in the relief of a nervous patient.
“It can be extremely humbling, depending on the experience I’ve had,” Sister Terry said. “I get to reflect on pieces of life that I’m not sure I ever would have.”
Story and photos by Dave Eck