Mary Lou O’Gorman believes Catholic chaplaincy work in hospitals is the best-kept secret in the Church.
decorated career in the field began after she was a stay-at-home mother
to three sons and took courses at a Catholic seminary in Denver which
were part of a master’s degree program in pastoral care. “My journey
into chaplaincy started in really trying to sort out (what next) to do
with my life,” she said. “I had no intention of ministry being the next
It turned out more than OK. She was 43 when she began her
career and worked for 31 years. O’Gorman was honored this summer with
the Distinguished Service Award by the National Association of Catholic
Chaplains (NACP) for advancing educational requirements for chaplaincy
certification and the spiritual component of patients. She was also
recognized for the compassionate care she offered to patients, families
and medical staff during her career.
The classes at the seminary
helped her discover a call to serve — what she calls “an essential
component of the Gospel.” In her training, she worked with first-year
seminarians in Boulder, Colo., visiting patients. “You learn that if
someone is really having a hard time and needs to talk about it you need
to be present, understand, listen and pay attention. You need to
understand what is the impact of this illness on this person’s life.”
St. Louis foundation
(maiden name Matteuzzi) grew up in St. Louis in the old St. Mark Parish
and attended Visitation Academy in St. Louis through high school. She
lived across from the former St. Ann’s orphanage in north St. Louis
operated by the Daughters of Charity. “One of my early visual memories
of Church was seeing these women caring for children and pregnant women.
It was really formative,” O’Gorman said.
Many years later she worked for the Daughters of Charity and told staff about the “amazing ministry” of these women.
Her family later moved to Frontenac and became parishioners at Our Lady of Pillar Parish.
Visitation Sisters also made an impression on her, the firstborn of
nine children. When her mom was in the hospital for childbirth, she
stayed with the Visitation Sisters in their boarding school. She also
attended Georgetown Junior College in Washington, D.C. “The sisters were
an extraordinary nurturing part of my life. They really became second
mothers,” O’Gorman said.
The Visitation Sisters, she said, “taught
me to believe in myself. They taught me about my faith. That not only
included how to worship and how to pray, but also about service. They
taught me that being a person of faith involves caring for others, not
just looking inward but looking outward and recognizing the call to live
O’Gorman met her husband, Bob, at Saint Louis
University, from where she earned a bachelor’s’s degree with studies in
English and economics. She taught at Our Lady of the Pillar School, and
he taught at St. John Vianney High School for two years before they
moved to Belgium, where he continued his education. She taught in a
Catholic international school in Brussels. They returned to St. Louis
where Bob taught at the divinity school at Saint Louis University.
On the move
Denver, the exposure to working in a hospital helped her see it is
where she needed to be. Her husband took a job in Nashville, Tenn., in
1981 to teach at Scarritt College, and she enrolled at Vanderbilt
University for a master’s degree in divinity. “I am eternally grateful
for that education,” she said. “I learned about Scripture, about ethics,
about theology. It was very, very powerful.”
She eventually understood that she wasn’t training for a job, she was training for a vocation.
worked for a year in a training program for chaplaincy with Vietnam
veterans at a Veterans’ Administration hospital in Nashville, helping
patients understand issues of needing forgiveness, making sense of their
experiences and more. For 20 years, she worked in what she called
“bedside” chaplaincy — canonically known as a lay ecclesial health care
minister — in the intensive care unit, ER and elsewhere at Saint Thomas
West Hospital in Nashville. In 2005, O’Gorman was named director of
pastoral care for Saint Thomas and in 2013 she was named executive
director of pastoral care for St. Thomas Health, part of Ascension
Health. She retired in 2016.
With NACP, O’Gorman served on the
board twice and was chair in 2015-16. It was “a lifeline,” she said,
noting that when she began work in Nashville there were no other
certified Catholic chaplains in the area, and it provided peer support
In the mid-1990s she worked with two physicians, an
anesthetist and a nurse in improving end-of-life care and imparting
that to other staff, especially in recognizing when treatment no longer
helps a patient and working to enhance this phase of the patient’s life.
continues to do education of staff in end-of-life care and in
addressing spiritual needs. She was on the planning committee and
co-chair of the NACP’s national conferences in 2018. She leads a monthly
grief support group at her parish and gives presentations in adult
education on topics related to her field, including palliative care. She
serves on ethics committees at a hospital and a hospice organization.
She’s also part of an advisory group for an educational training program
O’Gorman and her husband, who retired in 2013 from
Loyola Pastoral Institute in Chicago, went to Israel with a parish group
recently and they return to St. Louis frequently. Their son, John
O’Gorman, senior vice president of development and community initiatives
at Forest Park Forever, and his family live here. An avid Cardinal fan,
she took a granddaughter to Chicago this summer. “She wanted to wear a
Cardinals shirt to a Cubs game,” O’Gorman said.
grandchildren go to St. Roch School, at the parish where her parents
were married and where her husband presented her with an engagement