June 29, 2021 // Diocese
Longtime hospital chaplain stepping down
Years ago, Father Henry Byekwaso wanted to do some pastoral work nearby as he was preparing for his final exams in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, so he approached the Dominican sister managing the pastoral care department at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center. “You’re a godsend!” she replied, since the previous chaplain had recently resigned to move closer to his aging parents.
Father Byekwaso was happy to fill in, saying Mass and being on call for emergencies. He began in July. When the permanent position hadn’t been filled by November, he decided to give it a try for a year or two. That stretched into 32 years, through several administrations and the entire hospital moving from South Bend to a brand-new campus in Mishawaka.
He finally stepped down this year at the end of February and has taken the ensuing months to attend to his own medical needs and organize his life for its next chapter.
“Being a hospital chaplain has been a joy,” he said, “but this isn’t my ministry. I’m just continuing the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, who called me and empowers me to do it. I depend on Him to give me the ability to be present to people in these challenging moments.” He loves to pray with frightened people, giving them hope and support.
That ministry has meant so much to many patients and their families that they often ask Father Byekwaso to baptize their children or witness their marriages, although he is always careful to get permission from the pastor of the parish where the sacrament will be recorded.
True to his area of graduate study, Father Byekwaso said the highlight of every day is being able to say Mass in the hospital chapel. The Mass has drawn others besides hospital staff and patients’ families. Two Masses are offered every Sunday.
On June 15 he returned to the Archdiocese of Kampala, Uganda, just in time to celebrate the 44th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. He is also reconnecting with his two brothers and so many nieces and nephews that he has lost track of the number.
“In Uganda,” he explained, “there is no retirement party. I expect to continue ministering as long as I can.” He hopes to be assigned to a parish where he can mentor some of the many younger men who have heard God’s call to the priesthood.
It was as a second-grade altar boy that Father Byekwaso first became interested in being a priest, so he has always had a soft spot for altar servers. Since there were as many as 20 acolytes at each Mass he served, there wasn’t much for each one to do but vest and line up then sit, observe the celebrant and learn the prayers. “I’d like to do what he’s doing,” he thought of the priest. With his parents’ encouragement, he entered seminary in seventh grade.
Before that time, his family grew all their own food and never went to a supermarket. He walked 2-1/2 miles each way to get to school
Like many bright young seminarians, he was sent to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for his theology studies. Arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was a culture shock. He was especially surprised by the size and number of cars on the roads. He was ordained a deacon in the United States but returned to Kampala for his priestly ordination.
After only three months at a parish, the new priest was assigned to teach in a seminary. Teaching pastoral theology helped him realized he wanted to learn more about liturgy. The University of Notre Dame had the best program, so after two more years as a parish priest, he enrolled and continued his studies.
Father Byekwaso has always had a heart for hospital ministry, especially after a motorcycle accident shattered his femur. Cut off by a trash truck that turned into their path, he and a priest companion thought they’d better say their goodbyes and give each other final blessings in the ambulance. As he was drifting in and out of consciousness, he requested that a priest anoint him; The words of those prayers accompanied him to the operating room. The devout surgeon decided to do everything possible to restore his leg rather than amputating it; he knew the able-bodied young priest had many years of service ahead of him. Father Byekwaso wound up being in hospitals for nearly a year — much of it in traction.
After being on the receiving end of the hospital experience, he came to appreciate profoundly the importance of visitors. So even if he is assigned to a parish in Uganda, Father Byekwaso hopes to continue visiting the sick and home-bound, as well as encouraging younger men in their vocations.
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