Invest in keeping Catholic presence in our health system


Gordon Self

November 25, 2013

Two years ago we lost our baby granddaughter. She died in utero from a rare congenital disease. Although much time has passed since Ava's death, autumn remains a bittersweet time.

Readers who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or death of a young child know this lingering empty feeling. This is a disenfranchised grief given societal discomfort in being able to openly talk about pregnancy loss.

But healthy grief requires being able to talk about the experience and affirm the person's continued presence in our lives. We keep Ava's memory alive and will not forget her.

Each time I look up in the constellation Cassiopeia, I see the star we named after her, knowing that our daughter Michelle can see the same star in her backyard in southern B.C., connected to each other and to Ava in the stillness of the night.

The need to keep alive our memories is a fundamental expression of humanity. Beginning with All Souls Day and extending throughout November we are invited to remember those who have gone before us. We have a moral responsibility to remember in gratitude their lives.

But it is not just people we must remember, and the gift of their lives, but also their charitable works. We are now celebrating 150 years of Catholic health care in Alberta, recognizing the pioneering spirit of Catholic sisters who responded to the unmet needs in our communities.

It is a ministry of the Church characterized by quality, compassionate care, pastoral and sacramental presence, and wise ethical reflection and decision-making.

The Health Ethics Guide is informed by the clinical experience and ethical reflection that many of us learned from the sisters, who epitomized that balance between thoughtful judgment and imminently practical action in serving the sick.

Yet, other stories of the sisters' work evoke bittersweet memories, leaving a lingering, hollow feeling. Even today, there is disenfranchised grief over the loss of the Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary.


Despite the opening soon of Holy Cross Manor and St. Marguerite Manor in the Evanston district – supportive living facilities named in honour of the Grey Nuns – this does not erase the loss of the acute care facility earlier. The loss of a Catholic hospital is never a popular topic, but rather than avoiding the subject, we must tell the story to acknowledge its history and contribution to Calgarians of all faiths and traditions in need of care.

There are other important reasons the story must be told – to ensure the loss of a Catholic hospital never occurs again. Much as when an adverse event occurs in the delivery of health care, immediate corrective steps must be taken in a non-punitive and non-blaming just culture to prevent such incidents from re-occurring.

Even if the harm that resulted cannot be undone, there is consolation to families if shared learning can prevent similar events from occurring to others. Ava's death led to important genetic testing and close prenatal observation and obstetrical management resulting in the safe delivery of her brother, Aiden, my youngest grandchild, last year.

In February 2008 the Bishops of Alberta wrote a pastoral letter, The Saving Works of Catholic Health Care, in support of our faith-based institutions. That pastoral letter is a reminder that we must continue to advocate for and support the legacy of the sisters' work to ensure that legacy is not lost.

As the bishops wrote: "Efforts to ensure a just and viable allocation of financial resources and governance oversight in support of faith-based health care in this province require the Catholic community to lend its public voice.

"We the Bishops of Alberta are committed to supporting faith-based health care. The entire community of the faithful must always be ready to advocate on behalf of Catholic health care to ensure the continued presence of our institutions into the future."


Their message is even more relevant today given the essential, value-added contribution Covenant Health plays as part of one, integrated health care system in this province. Just because this is not always understood or appreciated does not mean it is not true, nor at risk of being threatened.

The memory of the Holy Cross Hospital is a gift to be fully acknowledged and honoured. The bishops have lent their voice to help us remember, and to keep fighting for the ongoing presence of Catholic health care in Alberta. Is the rest of the Catholic community willing to speak up and advocate for this continued gift?

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at