From 1947 to 1979, people who died at Metropolitan State Hospital or the Fernald School were buried at Metfern Cemetery in Waltham, Massachusetts. Many lived with mental and/or developmental disabilities before they died. My family and I stumbled across this cemetery recently while walking in Beaver Brook Reservation. We were drawn to the flat gravestones labeled P or C for Protestant and Catholic. A Buddha statue—clearly placed there more recently—looks down from the small hill where people are buried. As my kids wondered about the people buried here, I thought about those who did the burying—the chaplains at Metropolitan State Hospital and the Fernald School.
I know about these chaplains through research I conducted for my latest book, Spiritual Care: the Everyday Work of Chaplains. I saw the names of Catholic and Protestant chaplains who worked in these institutions in the archives I visited during the research. I also met an older priest who worked at the Fernald before it closed in 2015. “You can pick the building up and move it, but we own the land” is what the priest remembered being told as he tried to figure out how to close the chapel as its last day approached. “We examined picking the building up, but the way it was built, you couldn’t move it. It would have collapsed. So that was just abandoned eventually and torn down.”
Much like this chapel, chaplains—in Boston and across the country—tend to fly below the radar with little attention outside of emergency situations. While the public profiles of chaplains increased during the early months of the pandemic, they have long been present in the military, healthcare organizations, prisons, colleges and universities, and a range of other settings. In my research, I’ve found that chaplains play an important—if overlooked role—in local religious ecologies particularly as they serve more and more people who are not religiously affiliated or members of local congregations. They support people around end-of-life issues, through transitions, and in moments of intense vulnerability. While that work is rarely in public view, it is and has long been an important part of the care religious leaders provide across the country.
“Chaplains play an important—if overlooked role—in local religious ecologies particularly as they serve more and more people who are not religiously affiliated.”
Historically, most chaplains were local clergy who worked as chaplains on the side. Before 1945, most chaplains in Boston were Protestant or Catholic men who served hospitals, prisons, and colleges and universities. The Boston Fire Department welcomed its first chaplain in 1906 and many chaplains were active in military and veteran contexts in Boston after World War II. Father Richard Cushing, the first Boston-born Catholic Archbishop, built workmen’s chapels at Logan Airport (Our Lady of the Airways), South Station (Our Lady of the Railways), the port (Our Lady of Good Voyages), and other settings that were also tended to by chaplains.
With time, more full-time positions for chaplains emerged in healthcare organizations including hospice, the military, prisons, and colleges and universities. As fewer people are religiously affiliated and traditional congregations close, more theological schools have started degrees specifically for those interested in chaplaincy and spiritual care. Chaplains are diverse religiously, racially, and in terms of gender and sexuality today. In Boston, chaplains serve staff and patients in major medical centers as well as those who are unhoused, who are grieving the loss of pets, and who are working with victims of violence.
Much of what chaplains do is hold space for people; “there is a tenderness and a kind of noticing that chaplains do,” one who works in healthcare reflected, “that can make a world of difference for a patient moving through the chaotic and fast-paced medical center…. that stillness and presence of mind and soul is really… important in this setting.” She continued telling me, “There are liminal moments for patients who are facing a crisis of some sort and family members and having a person—and if it’s me, having the opportunity to be the person—who creates a bit of a holding space and can validate what a person is feeling and give them some sense of hope or stability in the midst of chaotic times… that is an extremely valuable contribution.” Chaplains see themselves making a difference not by answers they share about life’s difficult questions but in the spaces they name and help people hold. It is in these spaces, most believe, people can come to their own answers eventually.
“Chaplains see themselves making a difference not by answers they share about life’s difficult questions but in the spaces they name and help people hold.”
People who are religious and those who are not both engage with chaplains. Chaplaincy is a service accessed broadly by a wide range of people according to a national survey we conducted in March 2022 at Brandeis in partnership with the polling firm Gallup. The survey found that one quarter of Americans have had contact with a chaplain, the majority through healthcare settings including hospitals, hospices, and palliative care.
It is in end-of-life situations that chaplains are most frequently present—helping people prepare to die, being present as they die, caring for loved ones after a death, and helping to manage death for institutions. “We were a bridge,” one chaplain told me reflecting on a recent death, sometimes to notions of God or the holy and others time to bigger questions of meaning and purpose that have guided people on their journeys. While I do not know how many of those buried at Metfern Cemetery were tended to by chaplains—in life and in death—some were and their names, like so much else related to chaplains’ work, live on in institutional records and in the stories I tell in my book.
Featured image used with permission from MetFern Cemetery.