With merger, religion regains prominent role at Southwest hospital

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter



Southwest Washington Medical Center has come full circle.

The Catholic-based hospital was opened in 1858 by the Sisters of Providence and Mother Joseph.

In 1967, what was then St. Joseph Hospital was handed over to a community association void of religious underpinnings.

And now, Southwest Washington Medical Center is becoming the Catholic-based PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

While religion will once again be prominent at the hospital, the essence of the medical center and the core values of its staff won’t change.

“Spiritual care or meeting the spiritual needs and/or the religious needs has always been at the heart here,” said the Rev. Mary Katherine Lookingbill, Southwest’s spiritual care services manager.

“What I do see happening here is a greater verbalization of spirituality,” she added.

Southwest will adopt the PeaceHealth mission to carry on Jesus Christ’s healing mission by promoting health, relieving pain and suffering and treating each person in a loving and caring way. The message is similar to the foundation on which Southwest was built and which was maintained throughout the years as a community hospital.

“It’s not the doctrine and dogmas of the church that we are here for. We are here to continue the healing mission of Jesus,” said Sister Kathleen Pruitt, who served as PeaceHealth’s vice president of mission integration and sponsorship until stepping down earlier this month. She still serves on the PeaceHealth System board of directors.

“The healing mission of Jesus is not about healing Catholics,” Pruitt said; instead, that mission is to care for people of all walks of life and all faiths, she said.

Blessing ceremony

The open-armed, all-inclusive approach was evident Tuesday afternoon when about 350 people of various faiths gathered at the medical center to bless the merging of Southwest and PeaceHealth.

Religious leaders from St. Joseph Catholic Church, Chabad Jewish Center, Cowlitz Indian Tribe, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Ukranian Assembly of God and the Islamic community all spoke during the hourlong blessing ceremony.

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of the Archdiocese of Seattle blessed a local stroke survivor who represented all patients who have been and will be seen at the center. The ceremony also included candle lighting to represent the hospital’s past, present and future.

Blessing ceremonies are common within the PeaceHealth system, Pruitt said.

“What a blessing ceremony does is publicly witness to the sacredness of the work and the place in which the work is done,” she said.

As the merger transition continues, the hospital’s Catholic foundation will become more apparent.

That won’t mean forced attendance at Catholic Mass, and there won’t be religion knowledge tests before being admitted for care or hired on staff, Pruitt said.

The statue of Mother Joseph in the medical center’s Heritage Chapel won’t be removed, and chaplains of various denominations will continue to be available to patients seeking spiritual healing.

The change will mean peace crosses will be added to patient rooms. The center’s mission statement will be posted throughout the hospital. It may also mean Catholic Mass will be offered to patients, Pruitt said.

Language at the medical center will also change, she said. The people at the medical center are caregivers, not employees. The work they do is ministry, not a job. And they do their work in a sacred place, not a building.

As a Catholic-based medical center, the hospital will not provide elective abortions or physician-assisted suicides. However, as a community hospital, Southwest does not offer those services either, Pruitt said.

In the case of lifesaving abortions, Pruitt said caregivers will save the life they can.

At its core, the mission of the medical center is to continue the work of Jesus by healing the body, mind and spirit of all who walk through the doors, Pruitt said.

“He cared for everyone, even when it cost Him his life,” she said. “We are the hands, the feet, the heart, the eyes of Jesus.”

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