With gift of presence, Msgr. Klimek comforts Sacred Heart patients

July 1, 2013

Lifetime Achievement Award

The patient was nearing life's end. Msgr. Edmund J. Klimek dropped in for a chat.

"With all the effort she could muster, she sat up and said, 'I'm the happiest person alive today. I'm going to Jesus,'" Klimek said. "She died a couple hours later. She was faithful. She died in peace."

Her tranquility and courage was a privilege to witness, Msgr. Klimek said, as he pondered his 45 years as a chaplain at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, Wis. He said a chaplain represents Jesus at the bedside — sometimes by speaking, other times by listening, always simply by being there.

"Sometimes the best thing we can do is to listen, to let people express their own fears and thoughts," he said. "What we can offer most is our time and our presence."

At 85, Msgr. Klimek plans to continue working as long as he can. He has lived in the hospital since he began working there in 1968. His apartment is only 10 steps from the hospital chapel, where he starts each day by celebrating 7 a.m. Mass. He enjoys his mission.

"If I could, I'd live it all over again," he said.

On call, day and night
Sr. Joel Jacobi, OSF, said Msgr. Klimek is dedicated to patients and sensitive to their needs and worries. Sr. Jacobi, 96, is a member of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, the sponsoring order at Sacred Heart Hospital; and, before moving to Springfield, Ill., she lived in the hospital's convent for 40 years, much of that time teaching nursing down the street at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

"He spends time with the patients, day or night," she said. "He cares enough to remember everyone's names. He has a dry sense of humor that reassures. And he has almost had a sixth sense for where he is needed in the hospital."

Msgr. Klimek's steady dedication has earned him CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award. He accepted the honor at the Catholic Health Assembly's June 3 awards banquet in Anaheim, Calif.

Bishop William Callahan, of the diocese of La Crosse, Wis., praises Msgr. Klimek's "tireless energy in the service of God's people." Sr. Jomary Trstensky, OSF, provincial superior of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis, said the monsignor's name "has become synonymous with that of the hospital."

For his part, Msgr. Klimek said he accepted the award on behalf of all hospital chaplains. "Not for me," he said, "But for how it symbolizes the importance of offering spiritual care in the hospital."

Msgr. Klimek grew up in Arcadia, Wis., a town of 3,000 people about halfway between Eau Claire and La Crosse. He graduated from St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee, was ordained in 1953 and was assigned to a parish in Wisconsin Rapids, west of Green Bay. He also served as one of the first teachers and administrators at Assumption High School in Wisconsin Rapids, now a school of 600 students. From 1961 to 1968, he was pastor at Saints Peter and Paul parish in Independence, Wis., near his hometown.

He was visiting a fellow priest in Eau Claire when his friend noted that the chaplaincy was open at Sacred Heart Hospital. Msgr. Klimek thought it might be an interesting change, and he obtained permission for the assignment.

Preparing the dying to meet God
In 1968, he said, priests who were hospital chaplains primarily administered last rites to dying patients. He saw an opportunity to do more.

Msgr. Klimek said he was inspired while attending a speech by Dr. Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross, whose book, On Death and Dying, had been published in 1969. Recalling her speech, he said, "She told us that people are dying, and nobody is talking to them. Families were afraid to talk about it, thinking their loved one would give up. Doctors would say the patient is going to get better. We were doing our patients a disservice by not letting them speak about death."

Msgr. Klimek said chaplains usually visit people who will recover. Those can be lighthearted visits, offering patients and families prayer and cheer. But it is the dying who deserve special attention, especially from priests who are preparing people to meet God.

"We have people who have tremendous faith and those who have very little, and by going to their rooms, we can let them know that the hospital cares about them," he said. "We need to be able to see Christ in everyone. And we need to be able to help them prepare for the day they die."

Ecumenical sensibilities
In 1972, Msgr. Klimek created the pastoral care department at the Hospital Sisters Health System hospital and, two years later, he invited pastors from other denominations into an ecumenical effort to tend to the sick. Called the Night Chaplaincy Program, its members took turns serving one evening per month in the hospital. He said it helped to smooth barriers among denominations.

"Sometimes a patient would think I was trying to proselytize and tell me to get out," he said. "With the night chaplaincy, the ministers would meet to discuss their experiences and then speak of them back at their churches. Attitudes began to change.

By 1979, the Pastoral Care Department had grown to 10 people, including two Protestant ministers. In that same year, Msgr. Klimek made a career decision that speaks to his sense of mission — he asked for permission to be relieved of administrative duties so he could tend to patients.

"I was spending more of my time in meetings and dealing with personnel," he said. "It made me reflect upon my life. I decided I could do more good seeing patients than sitting in an office."

He got his wish. One of the hospital administrators assumed those duties, and someone has ever since.

Love and loss
Ever-percolating with ideas to serve the sick, Msgr. Klimek organized a three-day seminar in 1977 for clergy of all faiths to better serve cancer patients. In 1989, he oversaw creation of the hospital's bereavement center known as "The Healing Place," where counselors and support groups help patients and their families cope with illness and death.

Sacred Heart Hospital demonstrated its gratitude in 2000 by creating the Father Klimek Healing Presence Award, given each year to a hospital colleague "for being a humble servant of the sick and (going) beyond what is necessary to bring joy into the lives of those served."

Msgr. Klimek was elected to monsignor in 2005. In January 2012, Bishop Callahan granted him senior status. He's still on the job.

Mary Ellen Bliss, administrative assistant for the pastoral care office, has worked with him for seven years. Bliss said Msgr. Klimek lives his mission with dedication every day. One of her insights is through her own mother, Mary Soller, 78, who has been a patient in the hospital several times.

"He visits her. He doesn't have to stay long — he has a very gentle touch, a way of making a patient think she is the only person in the world," Bliss said. "He has such a calming effect. His presence truly is Christ-like."

One of Bliss' duties was to write the hospital's nomination essay for the Lifetime Achievement Award. "Without a doubt, it was the easiest assignment I ever had," she said. "It's his love for the people he serves that makes all the difference."


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.