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Caring for the human spirit

Hospital chapel provides sanctuary for all

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/9/2013 (1282 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Several times a week, the scent of one religious service lingers in the air just before another begins in the same sacred space located at the heart of the city's largest hospital.

Welcome to the Sanctuary at Health Sciences Centre, where people of many faiths -- or no faith at all -- gather to reflect, pray, or just find a small, still space any time of day or night.

HSC's spiritual health specialists Taras Kowch (from left), Daniel Barclay, Ruth Ross, Lorelie Nolasco, Anne Whitford Fast and Kurt Schwarz.


HSC's spiritual health specialists Taras Kowch (from left), Daniel Barclay, Ruth Ross, Lorelie Nolasco, Anne Whitford Fast and Kurt Schwarz. Purchase Photo Print

"The space is intended for use as a multicultural, multi-faith space," explains Beth Sawatsky, manager of the hospital's spiritual-health services.

"There are no symbols in there, so it's comfortable for everyone."

Recently, officials at St. Boniface General Hospital quashed rumours that all religious symbols would be removed from the chapel to convert it into a non-denominational space. Founded by the Roman Catholic Grey Nuns, the hospital now has a Christian chapel and a Muslim prayer room.

Health Sciences Centre takes another approach to spiritual care. Their chapel is a sanctuary, and the 16 or so people who provide spiritual care prefer to be called spiritual health specialists rather than chaplains.

"We want to care for the human spirit in everyone," says Sawatsky. "So for some, they would like religious care, for some, they are not identifying with a religious tradition, but they identify with a spiritual path. And there are many who don't identify with either."

Located on the second floor in the green-owl zone -- the hospital was recently organized into colour-coded zones identified by native Manitoba species -- just around the corner from the cafeteria, the Sanctuary bears no visible signs of any faith tradition.

Instead, the space provides a calm oasis in the midst of a busy hospital, with its light maple walls, a circular labyrinth inlaid in the floor for walking meditations, and a niche in the centre of one wall cladded in natural stone. Equipped with movable chairs, the room is used for religious services, a gathering space for families facing difficult times, and even weddings.

Sometimes, people from very different religions find themselves praying next to each other, Sawatsky says, with aboriginal smudging ceremonies regularly following a Roman Catholic mass in the Sanctuary's schedule.

"The wax from the (mass) candles mixes with the smelling of the smudge. It's quite beautiful," she says.

The dozen or so faith groups that regularly use the space store their candles, drums, prayer mats and other accessories in the room's cabinets.

Next door, a smaller space called the Hope Room, decorated in the same muted colours, is available for smaller groups or individuals. Both the Sanctuary and the Hope Room are vented to accommodate smoke from aboriginal smudging, and last summer, a family honoured their deceased mother and grandmother with a smudge in the Hope Room.

"I think that's our strength -- the intentional incorporation of diversity," says Sawatsky.

"We start from a wide place and we want everyone to feel that they're invited."

Over at Misericordia Health Centre, where a new sacred space is still on the drawing board, the same spirit of inclusion is expressed differently, explains the director of spiritual care.

"A space that has no religious images is just an empty room," explains Rev. Vince Herner, who has worked at Misericordia for 19 years.

"I think it is important to acknowledge the variety of faith groups, but one does not throw away what one is."

Three years ago, the original St. Luke's Chapel was demolished to make room for new construction and the chapel was relocated to a temporary space. Herner says the new chapel will reflect its Roman Catholic history and will incorporate plaster statues and painted frescoes from the old chapel.


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Updated on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 at 7:55 PM CDT: Added colour photo.

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