By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — The Alex George Auditorium at St. Joseph Medical Center was full of hospital staff, leadership, volunteers and a large group of children, students at St. Thomas More School, who would later entertain the adults with selections of Advent-oriented carols and songs. The room was very quiet, however. Bishop James Johnston, Jr., was expected momentarily. When he walked in, the room erupted in applause.
“What a surprise,” he said, “like walking into a surprise party!”
Father Anthony Williams, Director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at both St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs, introduced the bishop with a glowing bio — “oldest of four children … Eagle Scout … graduated from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 1982 with a degree in Electrical Engineering … veteran hiker … with two other priests, received the Citizens Award for Bravery from the U.S. Department of the Interior for saving the lives of a father and son in Glacier National Park … ordained a priest for the Diocese of Knoxville in 1990 … earned Licentiate in Canon Law at Catholic University of America 1996 ordained sixth Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in 2008 … installed as seventh bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Nov. 2015” —to more applause.
Randy Knight, CEO of St. Joseph and Providence Medical Centers, declared that day to be “the rebirth of St. Joseph Medical Center as a Catholic Hospital, continuing the legacy of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who started their healthcare journey in 1874 with the founding of St. Joseph Hospital.”
Lori Davis, the 155-bed medical center’s marketing and communications manager, told The Key that the hospital leadership wanted to re-introduce the Catholic identity of St. Joseph’s to the public. “It had lost its Catholic identity, but it’s getting it back!”
Following the performance of the St. Thomas More Children’s Choir, Bishop Johnston thanked the hospital leadership and staff for the opportunity to visit “one of the great gifts to our community.”
He then told a story about his recent annual physical. “As I was sitting on the exam table waiting for the test results and the doctor to come back in, it dawned on me that we are all very vulnerable, especially during annual physicals. The questions doctors ask during a physical are kind of like going to confession … have you been eating right, exercising? It was a reminder to me of what a great vocation healthcare is. I am grateful for your vocation and for your response to that call.
“After my physical, my doctor asked if he could pray for me. Of course I said ‘yes.’ I was sitting on the exam table, he sat on a stool and it was a beautiful moment. An example of melding faith and work.”
Bishop Johnston asked if during the day people in service to others at the hospital took a minute to whisper a prayer for those they serve, assistance in challenges or any number of reasons. Everyone in the room nodded.
“All that we do in a hospital,” he continued, “especially one with roots like this one, with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet … we are still connected to those roots. It’s a work of love, service, charity and faith, following the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. He is part of the hospital’s identity. Never take for granted what we receive through him.”
The bishop then blessed the members of the medical center’s Board of Directors. A tour of the medical center followed with a special blessing of the Emergency Room.
Walking into the ER, he looked around at the staff and commented, “My little brother Steve is an ER doc in Memphis, so I know something about your hectic lives. You are appreciated.”
He said, “I want to bless the ER and you all most of all. You who administer and minister to the sick in any way are doing the work of God.” He picked up the aspergillum and walked around the department, sprinkling the staff, the floors, walls, windows and especially the doors with Holy Water.
After the blessing and the rest of the tour, Bishop Johnston said his farewells. He was to visit St. Mary’s Medical Center in Blue Springs for a meet and greet, blessing of the board and the Emergency Room and tour the hospital that afternoon.
At St. Mary’s, Father Anthony Williams introduced Bishop Johnston to the Board and several staff members. CEO Deb Ohnoutka gave a brief history of the 146-bed hospital, founded in downtown Kansas City by the Sisters of St. Mary in 1909, relocated to Blue Springs in 1981. Both St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s medical centers had been purchased by Prime Health in 2014. “Today is the rebirth of our Catholic identity,” she said, “Dec. 16, 2016!”
She added that the blessing and installation of the Board would help ensure “that we may do everything for God’s glory.”
Bishop Johnston spoke to the staff and board members present, saying he was grateful to be there, and looking forward to the tour since he had heard ‘good things’ about St. Mary’s of Blue Springs.
He commented on how vulnerable he had felt during his annual physical. “But in this season of Advent and Christmas, you can’t get much more vulnerable than a little child. The birth of Jesus is a sign of God’s love. He wants to be close to us.”
To go into the healing services, “you have to be a special person,” he said. “Catholic healthcare is treating the whole person — body, spirit, dignity and more. And the dimension of faith is included, an irreplaceable thing, lifting patients up to God.”
This hospital grew out of an act of faith of the Sisters of St. Mary. I am grateful to Prime Health for the opportunity to maintain and hand on its Catholic identity.
There are four Catholic medical centers founded by orders of religious sisters in the Kansas City area now owned by Prime Health: Providence Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan., St. John’s in Leavenworth, Kan., St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s.
The meet and greet continued with the singing of the “Our Father,” the blessing and installation of the new Board and visiting with the senior team, ethics committee and medical executive team. Then Ohnoutka took the bishop on a tour of the hospital, ending at the Emergency Room.
Bishop Johnston blessed the ER saying, “Father of Love, show mercy to those suffering. And let us remember that whatever we do to one of these, we do to you. This emergency department was erected for the care of the sick. Doctors, nurses and staff, receive all those who come here with welcome and kindness, so that if it is your will, those who leave here will be healed and refreshed.
He took up the aspergillum and, as at St. Joseph’s, sprinkled Holy Water on staff, walls, windows, floors and especially the doors, as they are the way people, and God, enters and leaves.