Unity Health System axes chaplain - Catholic Courier

Unity Health System axes chaplain

Catholics in western Monroe County are protesting a decision by Unity
Health System — which includes the former St. Mary’s Hospital in
Rochester — to lay off its priest-chaplain, Father Winfried M.

During the weekend of Jan. 10-11, scores of parishioners at Our
Mother of Sorrows Parish in Greece — where Father Kellner also serves
as sacramental minister — signed a petition calling for his
reinstatement at Unity.

“A Catholic priest is more than a minister of the Word of God,” the
petition read. “Not only does he provide a consoling word to the
patient and family (a valuable task), but he is also a conduit of God’s
sacramental life.”

Unity was originally formed out of an alliance of St. Mary’s
Hospital and Park Ridge Hospital in Greece. The Daughters of Charity
had founded St. Mary’s Hospital in 1857, an affiliation that ended in
December 1999 when Ascension Health — formerly the Daughters of
Charity National Health System — announced that it was withdrawing
from Unity Health System.

Father Kellner, who was laid off Jan. 1, said he has been working
for Unity 20 hours a week since July 2001. His duties have included
sacramental ministry, talking with patients and their families, and
celebrating Mass twice a week. His layoff resulted in the elimination
of both Masses.

Unity also reduced from 36 to 20 the hours of Sister of St. Joseph
Barbara Gulino, who also works in the chaplain’s office.

According to Unity spokesman David Mancuso, Father Kellner and
Sister Gulino were being paid from the budget for Unity’s three
skilled-nursing facilities. A $150,000 gap in the nursing homes’ 2004
budget was cited as reason for the layoff and cutback, which will save
$50,000. Mancuso noted that funding cuts were made in other areas of
the nursing-home budget as well.

He added that the vast majority of patients at Unity’s nursing homes
are on Medicaid or Medicare, and that for the last three years the
system has been financially challenged. For example, he said, the
nursing homes lost $750,000 in Medicaid/Medicare funding in 2002 and
$600,000 in 2003.

Mancuso said Unity will continue to provide pastoral care to its

“Obviously, we’re committed to spiritual care, and it’s very
important,” he said.

In addition to having two other Catholics — a nun and a lay woman
— on the pastoral-care staff at its Park Ridge Hospital, Unity has a
volunteer network of more than 30 clergy that serve both the hospital
and the nursing homes. Mancuso said he was unable to provide data on
how many volunteers are Catholic priests or how many of Unity’s
patients are Catholics.

Both Father Kellner and Mother of Sorrows’ pastor Father Alexander
Bradshaw have sent letters to Timothy McCormick, Unity’s chief
executive officer, protesting the decision to eliminate Father
Kellner’s position. Both priests’ letters noted that when Unity was
formed, assurances were made that Catholic sacramental and pastoral
ministry would continue throughout the system.

“When a resident from one of our three nursing homes requests
pastoral care from a Catholic priest, we will continue to see that
their needs are met through on-call arrangements we have established
with area clergy,” Mancuso said in response to the priests’

Yet Father Kellner told the Courier that Unity does not
understand the importance of having an on-site Catholic priest. During
an average day as chaplain, he noted that he would anoint the sick 15
to 19 times, in addition to his other duties. Now, these sacramental
ministries must be performed by volunteer priests.

“I’m not a eucharistic minister, I’m not a volunteer who comes in
and reads storybooks,” Father Kellner said. “That’s not my job. I hear
confessions, I do anointing of the sick, I celebrate the Mass.”

Now that he is gone, many Catholic patients may be bereft of the
sacraments, Father Kellner said. He noted, for example, that when he
was called to anoint someone on his last day at Park Ridge, he wound up
anointing four other patients whose needs became apparent only after he

“If I hadn’t been there, they would have fallen through the cracks,”
he said. “(Patients’) spiritual advocate will no longer be there.”

Father Bradshaw said the priests of Greece and the surrounding area
were “dismayed by this decision” to lay off Father Kellner.

“There’s only so much they can do,” he said of priests who volunteer
their time at Unity, noting that these priests have other obligations.
“A chaplain on site makes all the difference in the world.”

Michael Tedesco, spokesman for the Diocese of Rochester, also
expressed disappointment about the decision.

“As many medical studies have indicated, faith and prayer are
important parts of the healing process for those who are sick or
injured,” Tedesco said. “Father Kellner and Sister Gulino have provided
tremendous support to many who have been cared for at Park Ridge.”

Tedesco added that the diocese will hold discussions with Unity on
how to meet patients’ short-term and long-term spiritual needs.

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