A Quiet Place: Chaplaincy Team Offers Space, Healing and Comfort to Many

Dec. 8, 2022
Chaplaincy staff and clinical pastoral education (CPE) students. Clockwise from back row: Rev. Patti Blaine (GCH chaplain), CPE students Rachel Reid, Allyson Turner, Chaplaincy Services Director, Rev. Robin Franklin, and CPE student Victoria Bonners.

Sometimes, you just need a minute.

No one understands that better than Rev. Robin Franklin, who is the director of Chaplaincy Services at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The Interfaith Chapel at Strong Memorial Hospital provides an open space for anyone wanting a moment of peace to pray, sit quietly, or simply be alone.

The Chapel, located on the first floor of the Medical Center, was built in 1959 thanks to supporters from the School of Medicine and community donors of different faith backgrounds. Since it opened, the space has hosted weddings, memorial services and even yoga. At any given time, you can find hospital visitors, staff and students there.

The legacy of the chapel and its team of chaplains—available 24/7—is rich. They offer safety and freedom to grieve, celebrate, and express oneself with no strings attached. We caught up with Rev. Franklin, who shares more in this Q&A.

Why is having this shared space so valuable to the URMC community?
Space is such a big challenge in hospitals in general, and this hospital in particular. It’s nice to have a space this size where family members can get out of the room of their loved one without the noisiness of the cafeteria or when they don’t want to go outside. It’s just a nice space to come and to sit and not have anybody bother you. We run into some people who are crying, and I’m sure part of the reason is that they don’t want to cry in front of their loved one, so they go someplace to cry by themselves. The space allows for that.

When do you know whether to approach someone who’s visibly upset, and what do you say?
It’s hard to leave somebody who’s obviously crying, and not approach them. I usually just introduce myself and say, “I wondered how you’re doing.” Most people will tell you. I have never had anybody say, “Could you just let me have some space? I don’t really want to talk,” and I don’t know any of my chaplains have had that experience either. We’ve just managed to find people at a point where they’re ready to talk about what’s hurting, what’s bugging them—why they’re down there at all.

You leave paper and pens for people to write down prayer requests. What happens next?
Every Friday we read those prayers out loud during our morning report. It was something we got from a former student who said it was a Korean way of doing prayer. It’s sad knowing what people are going through but I think it’s comforting to know that somebody’s praying those prayers.

If people will put their loved one’s name down, we have to be careful about how we follow up, because sometimes the intent of the person who’s praying is different from the person in the bed. People will sometimes put their names and numbers and we’ll check and see if the person is still in the hospital. Many times the person died or was discharged.

How does your team cover around-the-clock needs?
We have a group of per diem chaplains who’ve been through our Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. In many ways, they are our backbone because most of them have been around a long time and took CPE and still want to work with patients. Our year-long students are like staff chaplains and get assigned to units. They cover the more serious units (ICUs, Wilmot, NICU, solid organ transplant, heart transplant) so there is some continuity, particularly where people might be there for a long period of time.

I think what’s rewarding for me is the combination of educating and supporting students, and watching them evolve into effective, confident caregivers who don’t have to try to make people feel better. They work to help people to talk: What is painful, what is hard, what is joyful?

When it comes to bedside visits, many people don’t consider themselves religious or spiritual. How do you bridge the gap and offer support?
On occasion, my chaplains will walk into a patient’s room and the first thing out of the patient’s mouth is, “I’m not religious.” I give my staff credit. They’re very creative in responding with things like, “We don’t have to talk about religion,” or “Tell me more about that.” There are all kinds of ways to talk to people about how they make meaning.

Explain what you mean by “make meaning.”
A very basic definition of spirituality is how people make meaning and deal with things beyond themselves. There are a lot of definitions of spirituality and the people who work in that world don’t agree on one definition, but the common thing is meaning. Can we talk about what’s meaningful to you? We don’t have to talk about religion or spirituality.

There are people who take meaning from relationships with their family. It’s not religious in the traditional sense. They can get meaning from being outside, walking, or just being in nature. That’s their spirituality or their religion. Just letting them know I’m not here to talk about God or to lay anything on you. I just want to know how it is for you and how you make meaning in your life, especially at this time.

Do you ever hear from patients or families after they are discharged?
Yes. People sometimes call and sometimes send a thank you card. Every once in while someone will make a donation to Chaplaincy Services because they want to support what we do. Families will sometimes ask a chaplain to officiate at the memorial service or funeral of their loved one. The latter happens because the chaplain developed a meaningful relationship with the patient and/or family. Another reason is because they don’t know anyone to do the service.

How can visitors or staff contact a chaplain?
We’re in the building 24/7 and can be reached by page. Sometimes we’ll be walking by and catch staff in a moment when things are tough and they just need somebody to talk to. Our staff have been involved with debriefings when something traumatic happens. We’ll be there to offer support although there is a whole team called UR Support. A few of our chaplains have been called when a debrief is needed, or a unit asks for staff support, or an unusual event or a really loved long-term patient died suddenly. Sometimes students, sometimes nurses–so, a little bit of everybody.

What else would you like people to know about your team and what they do?
I’d like to emphasize that we don’t just do the religious things. We’re here for more than just encouraging people or praying for people. That’s part of what we do, but really the focus is you (the patient or staff person with the patient)—how is this hospitalization affecting you and your family? That has a whole lot of strings attached to it.


History of the Chapel

A 1958 article in the Rochester Review previewing the opening of the Interfaith Chapel. The original tile mosaic at the front of the room depicts the 23rd Psalm, and was designed by Virginia G. McCurdy who was married to Gilbert J.C. McCurdy, a University trustee and leader of the chapel's building committee. In addition to the mosaic, Virginia also designed the stained glass windows at the chapel on the University of Rochester's River Campus.

Donors of many faith backgrounds, from the School of Medicine and in the Rochester community, provided support for the chapel. Gilbert J.C. McCurdy led the group that included Donald G. Anderson, Raymond Thompson, J. Milo Anderson, and Dr. Lawrence Kohn. Records note that Kohn, who retired shortly before the space opened, helped make this project a reality thanks to his "energy and devotion" for many years.