by MICHAEL OTTO
AUCKLAND — Accompanying dying patients and their families, comforting people after a loved one has died, conducting funerals and memorial services, praying with and for patients and staff and providing any help asked for — all those have been part of Sr Mary Keane’s hospital chaplaincy.
On January 31, Sr Mary retired after 17 years of being a hospital chaplain at Middlemore Hospital in Otahuhu.
“I’ve been in every ward,” Sr Mary, 78, told NZ Catholic.
“When I left, I had a great farewell, because everybody knew me,” the Josephite Sister said.
During her work around the wards, Catholics were her first priority, but she talked to anyone and everyone who wanted her company and support on the journey to death.

Sr Mary Keane, RSJ

“I never knew what to expect, but I went along in faith. . . . I’d go there and be with them and see what they wanted. And of course [for Catholics], I would always call a priest, naturally, to anoint because I couldn’t anoint, but in the meantime I would pray with people, pray for the patient and the people. I would respect them, really, [and] see what they wanted,” Sr Mary said.
One time, when praying with a dying patient, the family asked her to say a decade of the Rosary, which she did. But halfway through, one of the family called out, “No, stop that”. The person probably couldn’t cope, Sr Mary said.
“So I stopped immediately, because we have to respect what people want,” she said, adding that this was the only time this happened.
“But usually they are very supportive and accept whatever I do. We leave it to God. I am there with them, just to be there. You don’t have to say anything. Just let them see that you care. And all they want at a time like that is peace, just peace to be with their loved one.”
She could sense when people were tired and didn’t want to see anybody.
Her work has seen her come across many sad situations. A husband and father was shot when he was in a bank in a case that attracted national media attention.
The man’s mother wanted someone from the Church to be with her and her son, so Sr Mary was called. She sat with the woman and listened to her. They went to Intensive Care, where the man was very sick.
“After a couple of minutes [his], wife came in bringing [his] little boy, a nine-year-old. And he was in an awful state — ‘My Daddy, my Daddy’ [he said], oh it was very sad to see it all. And I stayed with them for a while and then left. I prayed with them. Then I went to the funeral and I stayed with them after — it was on TV.”
She recalls another case where an American woman travelling to Australia to be at her daughter’s wedding suffered an embolism at Auckland airport. Admitted to Middlemore, the woman lasted another two or three days. The wedding was postponed for a year. Sr Mary became very close to the family during that time. They were “people of great faith”, she said. A special Mass was said at Otahuhu parish, which Sr Mary recalls fondly. The family made a donation to Middlemore’s spiritual centre.
Sr Mary has often worked with people from other Christian denominations and of other faiths. One Methodist woman who she visited asked Sr Mary to conduct her funeral, as she didn’t know any minister. Sr Mary did so, at the Manukau Memorial Gardens, creating a simple service that included hymns the woman liked. Afterwards, she often visited the woman’s husband, who was “broken-hearted”. His late wife had told Sr Mary of her fears that he would suffer greatly after her death.
Sr Mary also once conducted a funeral for an elder in the Presbyterian Church. She had prayed with him as he approached death and his wife told Sr Mary that he wanted her to conduct the service. “You are the one who helped him, not his minister,” the woman had told her. The woman was a great friend of one of Sr Mary’s fellow Josephites.
Being on call at the hospital meant Sr Mary could be asked to see people whose own minister was not available. She was usually very well received.
Her care was not limited to patients and families. Sometimes she cared for staff members who lost colleagues or loved ones, or who found a situation at the hospital difficult. “I’ve been to about five different crematoriums in Auckland. I’ve been to a lot of funerals.” She went to funerals of staff members to help support their families and other staff.
Sr Mary once organised a service after several infants died in quick succession in the Special Care Baby Unit. The charge nurse was worried because staff were anxious and grieving. So Sr Mary organised a little service with incubators, babies and employees. She also blessed a special quilt that had shells and messages on it. This was put on a wall in the neo-natal unit.
Another patient she prayed with was a young Muslim man. After being asked to visit him, she prayed with him and asked if he would like to see a Muslim minister. He said no and later asked staff if Sr Mary could come back and pray with him, which Sr Mary said was “affirming”.
There have been countless other instances where Sr Mary has provided solace and support. Families of stillborn babies, burns victims, spinal unit cases, mental health patients and more have all been cared for and prayed with.
For the past three years, a special service and afternoon tea have been held for families of people who have died in Intensive Care. Sr Mary has helped arrange this.
Before she started her hospital chaplaincy work, Sr Mary spent decades teaching and being a principal of schools. She was principal for 22 years at Catholic schools in Eastbourne, Dallington, Port Chalmers, Matata, Pleasant Point and Temuka. Teaching positions included Panguru, Tokaanu and Rotorua. “I’ve seen a bit of the country,” she said. Sr Mary also spent three years at a house of spiriturality for the Josephites in Australia.
Although her hospital chaplaincy days are over, she is not putting her feet up.
She will work for one and a half days a week at Marian Rest Home in Mission Bay and will also help out at the nearby Mary MacKillop Centre and be an assistant sacristan at the Josephite Sister’s chapel on the same site.
Her sister, Sr Veronica, is at Mission Bay with her and she also has a brother, Fr Patrick Keane, who is parish priest at Huntly.
But after so many years working in the hospital, Sr Mary has some advice on the qualities needed for a good hospital chaplain.
“First, you must be prayerful and have trust in God. You have to be a good listener and be open-minded. It is very important. Be empathetic. Take people where they are at. Don’t preach, and pray with them if they want you to pray and, if not, just accept it.They are the main things, really. Be prayerful, understanding of people, know when to speak and when not to speak, that’s important.
And know when you have said enough, when they have had enough of you.”
Sr Mary misses Middlemore, which, she said, is a special place, a very friendly hospital.
“I loved it, I loved every minute of it. But I’m 78, going on 79, so I think it is time.”

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