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Recertification marks 30 years of service at St. Luke’s for Father Petrich 

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

In November, Father John Petrich received his recertification from the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, granting permission of the national bishops to function as a Catholic hospital chaplain.

Father John Petrich

His first certification was 30 years ago, in 1992, and he’s been serving in that role at St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth since even before that, in 1990. 

Father Petrich, who also serves as pastor of St. Joseph in Duluth Heights in addition to other chaplaincy work, said the certification takes place every five years and involves paperwork and a jury examining things like ethics, theology, and professionalism, as well as continuing education. 

Father Petrich said the hospital ministry often deals with end-of-life issues and hospice. 

“It also deals with a lot of crisis ministry, with people who are newly diagnosed with serious stuff that can happen, cancers and other things,” he said. 

Chaplains are often called in emergencies, ranging from car accidents to people hitting their heads. 

“And then St. Luke’s has an in-patient mental health unit that is oftentimes filled to the brim with people who have many different mental health disorders,” he said. 

Father Petrich said he tries to bring a calming presence and “have a listening ear and a listening heart.” Sometimes he helps by being a connection for people, making sure they understand what the doctors and nurses are telling them. 

Sacramentally, he brings Communion to many people and also frequently celebrates the Sacrament of the Sick with them. 

Interestingly, Father Petrich said he often forms a history with patients who “kind of rotate” through the hospital, connecting with the stories of what’s going on in their lives, and he celebrates quite a few funerals, many of them in a funeral home, because his ministry reaches many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, who have lost a connection with a parish. 

“There are times when I meet Catholic people who haven’t been in church for a long, long time,” he said, “five years, 10 years, 20 years.” 

He said sometimes it’s laziness, other times it’s resentment over something that happened years ago with a particular pastor. Sometimes it’s anger over a church teaching that may or may not be misunderstood. 

“There have been times when people have reconnected with church after meeting with hospital chaplains,” he said, including both himself and Father Tom Foster, who has carried out a similar ministry at Essentia in Duluth. 

Father Petrich said chaplains try to “reconnect and try to show them that the church is not an ugly ogre.” 

He said one thing that’s changed in the ministry over three decades is concern for quality of life and allowing people to be kept comfortable without aggressively pursuing things like major surgeries to extend life at all costs. 

There’s also been a reduced stigma around mental illness. “It’s become more of a commonplace thing to admit that you have a mental illness,” he said. “… And that’s a good thing.” 

Other changes he’s observed are few situations where people are dead on arrival, due to improvements in the speed of getting people to the hospital and caring for them and improvements in care, and a more holistic approach to family relationships with hospice and palliative care, allowing family to be present rather than getting a call in the middle of the night that a loved one had died. 

“Those are really good things,” Father Petrich said. 

Caring for people in difficult circumstances can be demanding. On one recent day, he said four people had died by the time it was 1:15 in the afternoon. Father Petrich said he often remembers people at Mass. “The prayers and rituals of the church — they sustain me, I know that,” he said. 

And they sustain others. Father Petrich said he had recently anointed a retired priest who asked him if he had brought the ritual — but doing it so often, Father Petrich has it memorized. He said in 34 years he has anointed nine or 10 different priests and two bishops. 

“That’s what we’re called to be and called to do,” he said. Each day he prays for the people he sees, remembering them, and tries to get exercise, skiing or going to the gym. 

He said working so long at the same hospital, he has built relationships with the staff. “That ministry of presence, ministry of example, ministry of witness, whatever you want to call it, you’re there,” he said.