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In touting hospital chaplaincy work, volunteer cites service as ‘essential component of the Gospel’

Chaplain honored for impact over three-decades of service

Mary Lou O’Gorman believes Catholic chaplaincy work in hospitals is the best-kept secret in the Church.

Her 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 step.”

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

O’Gorman (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.

The 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 the Gospel.”

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

In 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.

O’Gorman 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 and education.

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.

In retirement

O’Gorman 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 for ministry.

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.

Their three grandchildren go to St. Roch School, at the parish where her parents were married and where her husband presented her with an engagement ring.

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