“Donning and doffing,” or putting on and taking off personal protective equipment like masks and gowns, used to cause a lot of anxiety for Father Victor Fernandes, OCD.

A chaplain at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, Father Fernandes makes regular visits with Catholic patients five days a week. His visits mostly consist of offering conversation, prayer, and the sacraments like Holy Communion or anointing of the sick.

When COVID-19 suddenly broke out in Vancouver, he found himself learning a new set of health protocols while information about the virus was still emerging and the hospital was rushing to react.

“In the beginning I was really not sure,” he said. “I was wearing that mask, N95. It was terrible in the sense that you can’t speak too much and that mask is so tight and you don’t feel comfortable.”

When he first went to visit a patient with COVID-19, he was filled with anxiety, trying to follow proper sanitary procedures and learn how to anoint the patient without risk of spreading the virus to others. He described the first few days as chaotic.

But now, says Father Fernandes, much of that is routine. He welcomes the daily temperature check at the hospital’s entrance and can “don and doff” all the appropriate gear in five minutes.

Father Fernandes prepares to suit up for pastoral visits at St. Paul’s Hospital. (Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press)

He has been with three patients suffering from the new virus. Two of them have almost completely recovered, he said. One has died.

The death of one of the COVID-19 patients he had anointed struck him just as the death of any patient does.

“We work in the hospital. We come across these kinds of situations. It’s not something new for us: patients die, obviously, because of their situations,” he said. “It’s not only COVID. We have so many other cases, so many other situations. People are feeling depressed, lonely. Some want to die. Some don’t want to die.”

When people ask him about his job, he struggles sometimes to know what to say.

“I don’t like to see so many people suffering. It’s hard.”

He draws his strength from his ministry and what he knows God has sent him to do.

“Especially in this pandemic situation, you see, we are risking our lives. I would say ‘No. I don’t want to go there.’ But I have to. I go there and at least anoint that patient, because that’s what the ministry is calling for. Courage is coming from the Lord. He has anointed us. He has called us to do his work. That’s where the courage is. Humanly speaking, I wouldn’t have done that. It is not easy.”

Despite the extreme emotional toll pastoral visits can take on him some days, Father Fernandes keeps on going back to St. Paul’s Hospital. (Jonathan Hayward, Canadian Press)

He adds that being a chaplain can be rewarding. Seeing a patient who seemed to be on the brink of death making a quick recovery a few days later brings him joy, as does their gratitude that he was there to anoint them.

Then there are Catholic medical and other staff, who like most Catholics are experiencing the loss of Mass and Holy Communion due to church closures.

“I say: ‘If you want, I can give you Holy Communion.’ I can do that for the staff. They were so happy. Some of them really, really.”

Despite the extreme emotional toll pastoral visits can take on him some days, Father Fernandes keeps on going back to St. Paul’s, secure in the knowledge that he is ministering “to those faithful who are suffering and struggling.”

After all, “the Church is always there for them.”