St John and St Elizabeth Hospital is quite remarkable in having a beautiful 158-year-old Catholic chapel at its core – a chapel that is even more astonishing for having been moved brick by brick from its original location to St John’s Wood in 1899. 

Father Hugh is the hospital chaplain, who – under normal circumstances – conducts two masses per week at the chapel but spends the majority of his time ministering to hospice and hospital patients of any denomination, as well as their families and the hospital staff.

COVID-19 presents a unique challenge for Father Hugh MacKenzie; at a time when many people are feeling isolated and need reassurance, he is required to keep his distance from those who need his help. Here he talks about his role, and how he is overcoming the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. 

There are two aspects to my role as chaplain: ceremonial and counselling

The Hospice allows and welcomes people from any and all religious traditions and my basic role as chaplain is to be there to listen to patients, particularly as they search for meaning. I’m there to accompany them and their families.

From a priesthood point of view, my highest ministry is to fulfil a Catholic’s desire for the sacraments and prayer. If they’re not Christian but have particular needs, I help provide access to those needs through another religious minister. Over the years we’ve developed a reliable list of telephone numbers for ministers of other Christian denominations and religions.

My role forms part of the holistic support offered by the Hospice. The Hospice is there to control pain through palliative care as well as helping the patient gain peace. It’s great to be part of such a dedicated, skilful team, that shares the same goal.

My time is divided between four areas of the hospital.

My four areas of work are the Hospice inpatient ward, the Hospice day centre, the Butterworth Centre for dementia patients, and the hospital more generally.

I spend most of my time in the Hospice inpatient centre – which I’m still visiting though less often – and then a minority of my time in the main hospital, which relies upon callouts. Data protection means it’s hard to discover people who it might be helpful, to engage in a brief introduction. They need to request spiritual support on admission, if they’re able.

My engagement with the inpatients, outpatients and the Butterworth Centre has all increased in light of coronavirus. The day centre closing reduced my physical workload a little, but I’ve kept contact with three of the people from the day centre over the phone, at their request. The telephone ministry, for priests generally, has grown; people are wanting reassurance and to talk. If you have a spiritual relationship or counselling, that doesn’t stop, especially for someone who’s living with a terminal illness.

The pandemic is changing the way I carry out my work – but not stopping it. 

In light of the new social distancing measures, I’m going to be staggering my visits in order to minimise my travel to the hospital. I’ve made it clear to staff that they now need to let me know via telephone if there are any requests for me to go in. Obviously, if they’re urgent I would go straight in, but if they’re not urgent I’ll be arranging my visits so I’m going in less often.

In the last week, in my ministry generally, I’ve spent a lot more time using WhatsApp or texting as well as the phone. Often we just chat. It’s really important to me to form good relationships with everybody, including atheists, even if they don’t particularly want to chat about religion. In light of the Coronavirus, I’ve ensured I’m available if someone simply wants to have a chat – particularly if they’re on their own.

We’re adapting our ceremonies, as well as our interactions. 

I have to follow the precautions set out by the Hospital to limit any chance of Coronavirus spreading, so when I have any close patient contact I now have to put on a full apron, mask and gloves.

The other restrictions are ceremonial. We have a Catholic sacrament of anointing for the sick; it’s based on the Bible, where it says that we should anoint people who are very ill with oil. That’s called a sacrament, which is our word for the invisible love of God becoming visible. So we believe it’s really Jesus touching the sick person, in solidarity with them.

In order to do that for anyone with suspected Coronavirus, we have to administer the oil using earbuds, which is a new measure, because we can no longer have skin-to-skin contact. We use the earbud to create distance, we wear gloves and then burn the earbud afterwards. For extra safety, we can’t put our thumb back in the oil container once we’re done. These are the little restrictions the Church has come up with to enable us to continue to administer this sacrament.

If we’re giving Holy Communion, again we have to avoid any skin contact, so that has to be done carefully as well.

Our chapel is one of the only places of worship still open in the UK.

We stopped our public services in the chapel even before the Church did – simply because we’re inside a hospital. It’s right at the centre of the geography and the ethos of the hospital, as well as opposite the Hospice Inpatient Unit which is at the centre of the hospital dynamic and also remains open. Even though there aren’t any public services taking place, I think it’s now one of the only chapels in the entire country that’s still open – notwithstanding that it’s for patients of the hospital – and that feels very special to me.

If anyone would like to speak with Father Hugh MacKenzie please call the Hospice reception on 02078064040 and we will ensure you are allocated a time for him to call you back.