Lifting spirits at a time of illness and uncertainty 

Being in the hospital, whether due to illness, injury, or the need for surgery, can be a challenging and stressful time, and spiritual care can be an important part of the healing process. That is why the value of hospital chaplains cannot be overestimated.

“We’re here to treat each person in mind, body, and spirit, and I think that is important,” says Peter Czerwinski.

As the Catholic chaplain at MaineGeneral Health in Augusta, Czerwinski says he is there to support patients, their families, and the hospital staff, letting their needs be his guide.

“It’s all about their wishes and how we can help them,” he says. “It’s how can we help and meet the patients and families wherever they’re at.”

For those active in their faith, it often means praying with them, bringing them Communion, or arranging for a priest to come to give them the sacrament of the sick.

“Some people are very prayerful and spiritual, and you can feel that immediately. Then, I will offer to pray with them if they want to. If they want Communion, I bring them Communion,” he says.

For others, it is just being present and being someone with whom they can talk. He says that while some patients will tell him they don’t want a visit, with others, he’ll spend a great deal of time.

“Because we come in as chaplains and we’re not medical staff, we can just sit with them and talk about, ‘Oh, I need a new roof on my house.’ And that’s OK because that is what they need to talk about. They’re worried about something. And when you visit them the next time, maybe something else will come up. As you build trust, then things come up and they start talking about their faith. They start talking about deeper questions like where are we going or where did we come from, questions like that. Some patients are used to running away from the problems that they have in life, and then they get stuck in the hospital, and they can’t run. They have to deal with them. It’s difficult,” he says.

Czerwinski says for some patients he meets, the worry and stress comes from not knowing what is wrong with them.

“They are here for a test or whatever, and they could be here for days without knowing what’s happening. Many times, that is even more stressful for the patients and the families,” he says. “Some people are at the end of life. They want to talk about comfort measures and withdrawing treatments and getting things ready before they die. Sometimes, that is hard for the family to accept, so that is a conversation you have with both the patient and the family.”

He says while in the past priests may have had personal connections with a lot of the families and been aware of who was sick, that is often no longer the case, because even those patients who identify as Catholic may not be regular Mass goers.

“In the past, the priest could just come up here and go through the corridor because he knew who was sick, but nowadays, many people don’t have that connection to their church and to their parish, so to have somebody come and represent the Church is important because then those people are not forgotten,” he says. “Most Catholic patients I see are maybe not regular churchgoers, but they still have faith. They still have a belief. They still try to live a good Christian life.”

Without a Catholic presence in their time of need, he says people may lose whatever connection they had to their faith. He says that is also true for families, especially when a person is dying.

“Especially at the end of life when a patient is passing, many times they call me and say we would like to have the priest come and say a prayer, but if the patient is already dead, we can’t really give the viaticum, and I think that my role then is to explain that we can’t give the sacraments, but to say, if you want to, we can pray together and bless their loved one’s body and commend the body. Most of them are very grateful for that,” he says. “I think it’s important that even if a patient has passed, that we show up, because if we don’t, we have missed another opportunity to be present and to evangelize. Otherwise, they might say, ‘My mother died, and the Church didn’t show up.’ Then we have lost them again.”

Czerwinski says patients will sometimes tell him that they left the Church because of a negative experience they had with someone. He says his presence gives them a chance to share their story and to, perhaps, move forward. While Czerwinski says he never enters a patient’s room looking to evangelize, he knows, at the same time, that Christ is beside him during each visit.

“I see myself more as a vessel than anything else because, many times, I say, ‘I have no idea what I did or what just transpired.’ It is just God working through me,” he says. “If you take this into the Eucharistic Revival, you see that the real presence of Christ is found within the worshiping community, which extends to people who are sick and dying. They are part of our community. They are the Real Presence, and I am there to be present to them. I think that is being eucharistic in a real sense.”

Czerwinski says being a hospital chaplain can be difficult because you do form relationships with patients and journey with them.

“We’ve seen a lot of people come and go, and sometimes, it’s quite sad, but you also have to understand that this is what we do,” he says. “You have to be professional, but you [also] have to be personable. And that’s a fine line to walk. Many of us, and it’s the same for doctors and nurses; we do shed tears. You have to. If you don’t, maybe you should think about doing something else because then you’re just this stoic professional. You don’t personally engage in it. But, on the other hand, you have to be able to be professional and handle situations the right way.”

On any given day, Czerwinski says there are more than 40 Catholic patients at MaineGeneral Hospital, and that is not counting those in the emergency department or in maternity care.

“I try to visit some of the new patients who come in. I follow up with some patients who have been here a while, and I go to [the Critical Care Unit]. I try to go there every day because that is critical care,” he says.

He will also be called to help those receiving behavioral health services, and he visits the hospital’s Alzheimer's Care Center in Gardiner, where he celebrates a monthly Communion service and assists at a monthly Mass. He will also visit area nursing homes, and at times, he has traveled to MaineGeneral Health’s Thayer Center in Waterville when Father Patrick Agbodi, SMA, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, hasn’t been available.

Along with patients and families, Czerwinski says it is also important for him and other members of the hospital’s spiritual care team to be accessible to staff, who may be going through a difficult time either due to their work or home life. He says that part of his ministry took on added importance when he first started serving at the hospital in August 2020, because it was at the height of the pandemic, and again in October 2023, following the Lewiston mass shooting.

“Many of the staff had family and friends that grew up there, so what we decided to do the first week or so was to concentrate on the staff. We walked the floors and made sure we were checking in on the staff to make sure they were OK. And we had opportunities that were available at our spiritual center if they wanted to talk to us or something like that,” he says.

Czerwinski says the members of the spiritual care department at the hospital also support one another. While he is the only Catholic chaplain, there are six other members of the spiritual care team. Czerwinski says they get together every Friday to debrief, eat breakfast together, and pray.

“We pray for the chaplains and then we pray for the patients and the staff,” he says.

Czerwinski says he also starts each day by pausing to pray in the hospital’s spiritual center because it is through prayer and from his faith that he derives his strength.

“It’s always been a part of my life, and it still is,” he says. “My faith is part of me. I don’t think you can compartmentalize it. It’s not something that you are from 8 to 4, and then you’re not. It’s something that is continuous. That is how I look at it. It just helps me be who I am.”

Czerwinski says his faith has been central to his life since he was a child growing up in Sweden. He says as an altar server, he was introduced to the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMMI), leading him to discern a vocation with them, first spending time in formation in Australia and then in San Antonio, Texas.

It was there that he decided it wasn’t his path. While in San Antonio, he met his future wife, Gina, who now serves as pastoral life coordinator at St. Michael Parish in Augusta. It was that position that brought the couple to Maine.

Czerwinski is now a candidate for the permanent diaconate. He says while his job as a hospital chaplain may not change much if he is ordained, he still believes there will be a difference.

“It is the affirmation that you have. You represent the Church in a different way,” he says. “It’s more official, which is also scary, but that, I think, is important. It’s about service. You’re ordained for service. That’s the deacon’s role. "He

He points to the time, centuries ago, when deacons served as bishops’ right-hand men, keeping them in touch with their flock.

“I think deacons can help people to pray and to bring people to the Church,” he says. “We can help with some of the sacraments, but I also think it’s about worship and prayer and being the presence of the greater Church. "With

With a warm smile and a friendly greeting, it’s a presence he is already helping dozens of patients experience each day.

“I think that Peter does a fantastic job, and we couldn’t do it without him around here,” says Carrie Davila, spiritual care supervisor for MaineGeneral Health. “He is a huge asset for us.”

How the Catholic Appeal supports hospital chaplaincy

Through the Catholic Appeal, priest and lay chaplains are able to be present at Maine’s largest secular hospitals, including Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine Medical Center in Portland, MaineGeneral Health in Augusta, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford and Sanford.