Chance Encounters

“Sometimes the slightest things change the directions of our lives; the merest breath of a circumstance, a random moment that connects, like a meteorite striking the earth. Lives have swivelled and changed direction on the strength of a chance remark.”

Bryce Courtenay

Call it coincidence, destiny or fate but just one chance encounter, an unlikely meeting of minds between strangers, has the power to shape a life. Mary Ringstad knows first-hand what impact these moments can have on a person’s path; after all, her own life has been richly shaped by chance encounters instigating new paths of opportunity.

For over 17 years, Mary has been quietly treading the corridors and wards of Calvary Mater Newcastle, going about her day-to-day duties as the hospital’s Pastoral Care Manager.

With an abundance of knowledge and an equal measure of warmth, Mary is perfectly placed to spiritually care for the hospital’s patients, their families/carers and staff. Heading up a team of five Pastoral Care Practitioners, Mary describes her team as “compassionate, competent, creative and untiringly committed”. The team members, just like Mary, go about their jobs humbly, visiting patients in all clinical areas, allowing them the opportunity to acknowledge their spiritual needs and discuss their experiences. There is
no other agenda.

“One person may see the experience of being in hospital as simply an inconvenience, but to another person it can be catastrophic. It has the potential to create a whole host of fears and anxiety, and ultimately can change the way a person thinks of their life. Pastoral Care invites the patient to explore these varied thoughts and emotions, finding some shape and meaning amongst the uncertainty and confusion,” said Mary.

Each team member looks after one or more clinical areas. Mary’s area of responsibility is Palliative Care, where she assists patients and families to explore their spiritual and emotional needs. Whether that is honouring them through a ritual, listening to life stories, or helping with the simple things that allow patients and family members to be fully present during this difficult time, Mary is there to lend her support.

“No person is the same when facing their own mortality. I help each person be present where they need to be, helping meaningful encounters to take place. Each moment needs to be complete in itself, authentic and real.”

Softly spoken Mary is as authentic and real as they come. Two awards glisten on her office shelves that are both a testament of Mary’s contribution to Pastoral Care and her commitment to looking after the spiritual needs of the community. Her empathic, respectful and warm approach is admired by many.

This year, Catholic Health Australia (CHA) honoured Mary with the CHA Award for Excellence in Pastoral Care 2015.

Mary was also recognised with an award for ‘Best of Care’ at the Spiritual Care Australia National Conference in Hobart. Mary lives and breathes her role; she is the very essence of Calvary’s Mission, ‘Being for Others’. “We need to be confident to enter the lives of those who enter our hospital seeking our care – we need to open our hearts and our minds.”

“Pastoral Care affirms the human face of health care. It’s the human encounter that changes people’s lives. We need uncompromised commitment to Pastoral Care in all health facilities.”

Listening to Mary speak about her role with such passion, it is hard to comprehend that Mary has not worked in Pastoral Care all her working life, and yet that is the reality.

Mary’s working life started as a secondary school teacher in Sydney, specialising in geography, social sciences and religious education. It was here she ‘dipped her toes’ into Pastoral Care in her role as a Year Level Coordinator. Mary later moved to Melbourne in search of pastures new, and added ‘Careers Advisor’ to her CV, a role she thoroughly enjoyed. “I loved grounding the students in their learning – aligning their talents and gifts with their dreams.”

It was while working in Melbourne that a thirst for knowledge and a desire to add more depth to her original teaching degree saw Mary embark on a Theology degree. Armed with enthusiasm for her new city and with the desire to make a contribution, Mary started volunteering at a women’s house in Fitzroy, a community house for women who have chronic and long-term housing problems.

Mary comments, “Women’s homelessness is well hidden in the city; women may not be always visible sleeping in parks, but homelessness does exist. The house was pivotal for this group of vulnerable women. I loved the hustle and bustle of the place, the many people you got to know on a personal level. There were, of course, confronting scenes but this made me aware of the needs and raw beauty of vulnerable people and triggered something in me that wanted more of this experience.”

Consequently, Mary began teaching part-time and became the co-ordinator of the house. In 1992 she resigned from teaching, allowing her to dedicate more time to the house and its women. “I went from one world to another and life was good. I was completing my pastoral care education while working and living with some amazing people.”

A few years later whilst sitting in one of the women’s bedroom, a lady with serious illnesses and drug problems, Mary was confronted with the notion that perhaps it was time for her to move on. “I can remember her saying to me, with affection and concern, ‘what are you doing still here? You need to go and live your life. We are alright.’”

Mary recalls it was this raw truthfulness that prompted her to make a decision about her own direction. She was in her 30’s, she was not in a relationship, and she felt she needed to do something – take a risk and this was her time. Bags packed, Mary embarked on a journey back to Sydney, including a driving stopover with close friends living in Pambula.

Once back in Sydney, she was to fly to Chicago to take part in intensive training in spirituality and leadership, as part of her Masters in Pastoral Studies. “After an emotional and reflective day of driving, I ended up at my friend’s house eating dinner. Sitting opposite was their good friend Jack, who had just moved to the area. He knew I was moving to Chicago and suggested we keep in contact, as he was keen to hear my take on the United States. He even told me my first drink in Chicago was on him. So of course, what was a girl to do? I posted him my receipt when I had that first drink!”

Mary settled into life in Chicago, while continuing to communicate with Jack via a series of letters, audio tapes and late-night phone calls, often noting that the 12,000 kilometres of shark-infested waters between them suggested something of the tenacity of their relationship!

When Mary’s first academic year was over, she came back to Australia for the long summer break and it was then Jack met her family, and she his, and he proposed. Mary returned to Chicago (without Jack) to embark on her 12-month internship. Eight months later, Jack flew to Chicago and they were married in a small and simple affair. “It was just perfect,” said Mary.

After the wedding, Mary continued to work in Chicago until the end of her internship. One blustery Chicago day, a little envelope arrived in the post from her father. In it was a cut-out advertisement for a Pastoral Care Manager position at Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital (now known as Calvary Mater Newcastle).

And the rest you may say, is history, that is until the next chance encounter.