EAST CHICAGO — If you took a walk outside St. Catherine Hospital with Deacon Michael Halas, he'd be able to tell you how some of the linden trees got there — that's because he helped plant them.
Before he donned the robes as a Catholic clergy member, he worked as a landscape maintenance supervisor for Allen Landscape — an occupation he said he relished.
"I walked away from a job," Halas said. "I had a company vehicle and ran an entire division of a company. The owner had an exit plan for us. When he was ready to retire, each one of us would've had a part of the company. I loved it — the benefits, the whole nine yards."
Starting in 1999, Halas chose to enter the Diocese of Gary's Diocesan Ministry Program. He said he was encouraged by Father Larry Kew at St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Hammond. Halas' wife, Bobbie, whom he married in 1984, also was supportive.
"From the second I met him, I knew that was his calling," she said. "His love for God and religion is just amazing."
In the last of four years, one must complete a practicum. Halas, as a Hammond resident and with his landscaping job, requested he be assigned to St. Catherine Hospital. This would allow him to meet the requirement to be within one hour of a call-out's location.
Halas was supervised by Sister Viviana Custo, O.P., at the hospital, and shadowed under Chaplains Orlando Toledo and Skip Dallemolle. In 2003, Dallemolle, a Catholic chaplain, decided he would resign. That's when Custo wanted Halas as a replacement.
"She was relentless," Halas recalled.
Halas said he could be out planting flowers, and Sister Custo, with a heavy Maltese accent, would come to tell him, "My dear, I need a Catholic chaplain."
He joked, saying he theoretically could park his truck a few blocks away at the McDonald's on Columbus Drive and Sister Custo could probably find him.
"You talk about taking a leap of faith and putting your trust in what God is calling you to do," Halas said. "When he called Peter, James and John to come follow him, these guys left their lucrative lines of work to follow Jesus. He was calling me through Sister."
Halas submitted his letter of resignation to Allen Landscape. He completed his clinical pastoral education and joined the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. He was officially ordained in June 2007 and received faculties to preach in 2008. He was assigned to St. James the Less church in Highland. Halas took on the chaplain position Dallemolle had left. His wife, Bobbie, also started working at St. Catherine Hospital in 2007, taking a patient care technician position.
Like Santa Claus making his list and checking it twice, he'll set out each workday with an itinerary of faces to see. He'll travel the elevators and hallways, knocking on doors at opportune times to administer prayers and sacraments.
"We try to help bring some comfort and and peace of mind, especially when they're facing serious procedures or illness," Halas said.
But the work of a chaplain at St. Catherine Hospital goes beyond formal religious services. Halas also takes time to give Mass in the hospital's chapel, eat breakfast with patients in the behavioral sciences ward and blesses newborn babies in the maternity ward. Special Christian holidays also fall during the year, such as the Feast of St. Luke, in which Halas will lead a ceremony and bless doctors' hands. Halas and Toledo also serve on the hospital's ethics committee and ask families if they would consider organ donation for Gift of Hope.
"Our chaplains play an integral part of the multidisciplinary team in that we provide not only for the physical well-being of our patients, but also the spiritual ... a holistic approach to caring for our patients," said Teresa Pedroza, director of Mission Integration and Volunteers at St. Catherine Hospital and St. Mary Medical Center. "Our chaplains minister to our patients and their families, as well as to our staff, physicians and volunteers. I am so proud of the work they do and honored to serve as their director."
The situations pastoral care handles also dip into scenarios of mortality. From performing emergency baptisms in the birthing center to seeing gunshot victims hanging on by a thread, Halas has seen a range of dire instances and the family situations that play out.
"You see family dynamics," Halas said. "Each family is different. What do we do with end of life issues? What would Mom or Dad want? They take that stuff for granted."
Although Deacons Halas and Toledo, and their spirituality, may be a bright spot in patients' and workers' lives, Halas humbly maintains the true heroes are the hospital staff.
"The staff can come in stressed, angry, but over time their better qualities come out," Halas said. "Our Lord's healing presence is here at St. Catherine's."