Aug. 5-18, 2004
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Hospital Chaplain Retires After 18 Years of Service
“And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.” — James 5:14-15)
Father Alfred Bebel has done much more than fill the traditional duties of hospital chaplain at Upstate Medical Center and Crouse Hospital over the past 18 years. In addition to providing daily patient and family spiritual care and offering support to doctors, nurses, staff and volunteers, Father Bebel has dealt with end of life issues, families who are coping with catastrophic trauma and prisoners who are ill. “He does it all with a lot of graciousness and faithfulness,” said Rev. Terry Ruth Culbertson, SUNY Upstate Medical Center’s spiritual care manager. Like many others at Upstate, Rev. Culbertson was sorry to see Father Bebel retire in July. Rev. Culbertson has worked with Father Bebel for eight months. Previously, she worked with him when she was consultant for the hospital. She said that Father Bebel is probably the most dedicated, faithful person she has ever met. “This was supposed to be a part-time job and he has made it a job and a half,” said Rev. Culbertson. “He’s here all the time –– often getting called back two and three times a night. For us, that kind of faithfulness is why he is so beloved,” she said.
Rev. Culbertson said that Father Bebel’s strong faithfulness helps him comfort families of trauma patients and help them understand their concept of God and God’s will. Father Bebel visits the prisoners in the 10-bed prison unit of the hospital and deals with the challenges they face being sick and incarcerated. “He has the capacity to go to very dark and challenging places to minister to those in need,” said Rev. Culbertson. The role of a hospital chaplain has changed over the years, especially at Upstate. “This hospital has taken on creating a much more substantial spiritual care unit,” said Rev. Culbertson. “We are building a training center here to train seminarians and clergy for their ordination requirements.” Upstate now offers Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) courses –– an interfaith professional education for ministry. According to Rev. Culbertson, Upstate Medical Center is the only place in Central New York that has embraced the program. The program is designed to provide theological students and ministers with the skills to provide intensive and extensive pastoral care and counseling to persons in crises,as well as develop the ability to make effective use of one’s religious/spiritual heritage and theological understanding. The program will expand the spiritual care staff at Upstate as well as provide a greater understanding of all faith traditions. “Faith traditions have merged and melded in America,” said Rev. Culbertson. “In the old days, chaplains ministered to their own faith. Now we work across all traditions and make ourselves available to everyone.”
Rev. Gerald Shave is another hospital chaplain who has worked with Father Bebel since he began his work at Upstate. “He has been here 18 years. I’ve been here forever,” said Rev. Shave. “Father Bebel ministers to and is well received by people of all faiths. He does a lot of work with the eastern farm workers –– donating time, funds, clothing and transportation and has worked to build up our spiritual care volunteers. The fact that some of the volunteers have been here for years affirms their loyalty to him and his loyalty to them.” One such dedicated volunteer who has worked with Father Bebel for 13 years is 89-year-old Helen Filipsack. Filipsack, who is a Catholic lay chaplain, said that it’s hard to find the words to describe Father Bebel. “He’s a wonderful man, a great person,” she said. “He has taught me so much.” Filipsack graduated in 1986 from Le Moyne College with a degree in religion and philosophy. “I was looking for something to do. I met Father Bebel at a 50th anniversary gathering for priest jubilees. He invited me to join the CPE program and I loved it. I thought I had learned so much at Le Moyne, but working with Father Bebel has taught me so much more,” said Filipsack.
Filipsack said that the Holy Spirit led her to her work at Upstate. “I never thought to enter hospital work. I never knew that there were lay chaplains,” she said. Filipsack said that she is always eager to accompany Father Bebel when he is administering the anointing of the sick. “I’ve never experienced that before. His prayers are so touching. The family would be in tears.” While Father Bebel greatly impacts the patients and families he ministers to, he also touches the lives of staff members as well. A registered nurse at Upstate wrote a tribute to Father Bebel upon his retirement. “I will never forget your being at the bedside of an infant patient of mine who was dying. Her parents were very young but had put all the love and caring they could into parenting Katie,” she wrote. “You never, never forgot the caregivers at the bedside. I felt you could always see that as we supported the families in saying goodbye to their children. We as nurses or physicians needed the time to say goodbye too. You always recognized how hard the loss hit us, especially when the child had been hospitalized for a long period or multiple times. You always asked how each individual was doing, demonstrating such a true, caring attitude. Your presence and care helped Katie’s parents be able to let go of her physical presence but always know that her spirit was with them, and me. You will certainly be missed.”
Father Bebel has the same respect and admiration for the nurses and doctors he works with. “Spiritual care is not just given by spiritual ministers,” said Father Bebel. “A lot of nurses and doctors are spiritual care givers which is a very noble part of their calling. I am in awe of the faith [that] families, nurses, doctors and those who are ill and dying have,” he said. “Among so much grief and loss, their faith is evident.” In addition to his ministry work at Upstate Medical Center, Father Bebel served as associate pastor and pastor at St. Ann’s Parish in Binghamton and as chaplain at Binghamton General Hospital and Wilson Memorial Hospital in Johnson City and at Broome Community College. He also served as chaplain at Broome Developmental Center and Hutchings Psychiatric Center. Father Bebel said that one of the biggest differences between parish ministry and hospital ministry is his relationships with the people he served. “One of the big differences is that in parish work you minister to the same people and you get to know those people –– their names, the names of their children. You baptize them and marry them –– different generations of the same family,” said Father Bebel. “In hospital work, you meet more people but you don’t form permanent relationships with them. The relationships are not as deep.” Father Bebel finds his hospital ministry very fulfilling, however. “To be present with people who are suffering; to know the appreciation of your being there during their suffering is fulfilling,” said Father Bebel. “To listen to their pain, their stories of estrangement from family or the church. Someone has to receive it, to hear it. There is healing going on. I’m energized by it, not drained by it.”
In addition to his spiritual ministry, Father Bebel has been very involved in the support and nurturing of Jesuit novices as well as acting as a chaplain mentor for first-year medical students. The newly-designed program requires the students to accompany a chaplain on institutional rounds in order to recognize that faith often plays an important part in the healing process. Father Bebel is also a member of the ethics committee and is involved in tackling ethical issues that come with advanced technology. “It is a challenge to somehow see, to weigh the advantages of research and new methods of technology against the precautions and teachings of the church,” he said.
“I feel I am doing what God wants me to do –– caring for the sick and the poor. This is what He wants of me. It is a joy to bring the sacraments of the church to the patients,” he said. A Father Alfred Bebel Spiritual Care Fund has been established. The funds will support spiritual care services, provide for the chapel’s on-going needs, and strengthen professional chaplaincy education and training. For more information, call (315) 464-4416.