Sister Brenda Whelan cares for many sick children as director of pastoral service at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. As a Sister of Mercy, she has worked daily with children for almost 30 years, first teaching kindergarten at Annunciation School in Elma before working in pastoral care at the hospital.
In joining Sisters of Mercy, Whelan selected a religious community that stresses service to women and children. One of about 60 nuns who live at the mother house on Abbott Road in South Buffalo, Whelan marked her 25th jubilee in 2012, the same year she turned 50.
Whelan has a certificate in clinical pastoral education and a master’s degree in pastoral ministry. She is currently working on her master’s in mental health counseling.
On this Mother’s Day, Whelan plans a three-mile walk around the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.
People Talk: As a chaplain, you are like a mother to so many children. How will you mark Mother’s Day?
Sister Brenda Whelan: My own mom is gone. I don’t have my own children. My family home is gone so wherever I go I’m plugged into what everybody else is doing. Certainly I have friends who invite me over, but there’s a piece of not wanting to be with other people on some holidays. I’m fine to be by myself. There are days that there are tugs of not having your own kids and your own family, but I also would never change what I am doing.
PT: As hospital chaplain, do you serve the entire family?
SBW: I think I’m there more for the parents than the kids, but I think that my relating with the kids helps me to reach the parents. Kids see me walking in and out of the room, and they know I’m not going to hurt them. That’s where the mother thing comes in even if it’s just for minutes because I have to be ready to go to the next room. I’m a mom by the minute.
PT: Describe your job.
SBW: People come into the hospital every day and they basically need someone to be with them, someone not medical, someone who is not making judgment calls. Sometimes I don’t have to say anything at all. I just put my hand on their back and they know I am there. Praying with them is the least of what I do, unless they specifically ask for it. We respond to every trauma code in the hospital maybe just to get the family something to drink, or to stand with the family when they’re getting news. I have to say that in 17 years, there are six families that I am very close to. You have to keep boundaries, but there are families who steal your heart.
PT: How do you keep boundaries?
SBW: As far as getting close to families this is part of my philosophy: You know the glass sliding doors at the hospital? I trust that when a person goes outside those doors there are resources outside the hospital. I use the doors as a separator of where my job ends. I also try not to physically walk a person to their car.
PT: Do you sometimes get too close emotionally to the situation?
SBW: Nine days out of 10 I love my job. On the tenth day I get in the elevator, I don’t push any buttons and I cry – not figuratively, but that’s how the job catches up with you.
PT: What are some of the reasons children are hospitalized?
SBW: It kind of follows the seasons. In the summer we have more motor vehicle accidents. We have more kids on bikes who are hit, more drownings. In the winter, you have asthma, house fires from space heaters. I think because of our economy right now we have a lot more abuse cases than normal. People are out of work and stressed. Some people don’t know where the next meal is coming from. Kids get in the way.
PT: What have you learned from children?
SBW: The kids have taught me to put everything in perspective. If something looks huge and monumental to me, I look at what the kids go through on a daily basis, and I find I have nothing to complain about. They’ve taught me to roll with the punches. They’ve taught me to believe in miracles. I’ve seen people’s lives changed by the good and the bad. I’ve seen people who have every reason to give up, and they hang on.
PT: How do you get through to a sick child?
SBW: When I’m meeting a child for the first time I always try and take something in with me like a pillow or a blanket or a stuffed animal. We do a lot with bears. When I go in and hand your child a bear, there is a connection and we automatically start talking. It’s almost like a peace offering. It’s soft and comforting. We have moms who lose a baby, and we give them some kind of stuffed animal to hold onto. Even for adults there is something about a teddy bear that breaks through.
PT: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
SBW: I’d like to be in an office doing individual counseling with women. I don’t see myself with kids forever. I see myself moving more with the families. I just finished doing drug and alcohol counseling. I would love to combine that with mental health counseling.
PT: When did you decide you wanted to be a nun?
SBW: At an early age because my second-oldest sister is a nun, so I saw how she did things and how things were. She’s 20 years older.
PT: As a Sister of Mercy, you take four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and service to women and children. Did any pose a problem for you?
SBW: When I was younger I would have said obedience. Now I would say poverty. I see us as a community with new people coming in, but we’re also an aging community. The reality is less and less of our people are working, and our resources are more limited. The other side is I make a good salary, and that money is not mine. It goes to the community. So a lot of times, there are things you want to do, places you want to go, and you just balance it off.
PT: What if you want to go to Aruba?
SBW: That won’t be happening. I mean we get vacation money but certainly not enough to fly to Aruba and stay – unless I have some real good friends. I mean our home is beautiful. Our life is perfect.
PT: What are you known for in your religious community?
SBW: Some people would say I am artistic. I love photography. I love to read, and I think I’m somebody who works hard and plays hard.
PT: What was it like to be a young nun?
SBW: Well, I’m still a young nun, one of the youngest in the community. I think as a young sister I didn’t know any different than what was, so it was just doing what you were told to do. There was a lot of formation, a lot of learning about our history. I was doing something different every day.
PT: What does your religious community do for fun?
SBW: Actually our whole community – well most of us – have pedometers on because we’re doing the Wegmans challenge. We formed groups and compete in categories like numbers of steps taken, number of fruits and vegetables eaten. It’s on a weekly basis. It’s nice to see some of the older sisters who are sometimes on walkers or scooters trying to walk more just to get steps in.
PT: Your numbers are shrinking. What will keep the Sisters of Mercy a viable organization?
SBW: I think a lot of people look at religious life and say it’s a dying breed. It’s really not, and I think if people had a clear picture or clear sense of how we live and what we do and that we really do have fun together, there would be more people coming in. And I think people look at the vow piece and think they could never do that, but it’s not that hard once you are in the midst of it. We celebrate together. We laugh together, and I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else.