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In the darkest moments of life, everyone needs someone to lean on, someone who will listen.
So it was for Father John Mannion as he left the room of a 21-year-old patient at St. Francis Hospital in Beech Grove.
For weeks in his role as a hospital chaplain, Father Mannion stopped by the room of the young man who had AIDS.
During his visits, the priest saw the young man dying. He also listened to the mother of the young man as she talked about her only child. In the woman’s words and tears, Father Mannion knew that the young man was his mother’s life and her greatest love.
It was a time of suffering and anguish for the son and his mother. It was a time of heartbreak and struggle for Father Mannion as he tried to comfort both of them.
When the young man died, Father Mannion left the hospital room devastated. The priest who had cared for so many people needed someone who could comfort and counsel him.
So he paged his close friend and fellow chaplain, the Rev. Darrel Crouter, a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They met and walked a mile together outside, with Father Mannion pouring his heart out to Crouter. Finally, Father Mannion stopped and told Crouter, “Thanks for talking.”
Crouter looked at Father Mannion and said, “You know, I didn’t say a word the whole time.”
Friendships can start with a common interest in almost anything—playing sports, dancing, sewing, parenting, fixing cars, collecting stamps or sharing faith and compassion with people in the most vulnerable moments of life.
Ever since Crouter and Father Mannion started as chaplains at St. Francis Hospital in the summer of 1988, they have shared a bond that has continued to grow and deepen. Now, after nearly 22 years of working together in the hospital’s department of spiritual care, the two friends—who are both 68—have decided it’s time to cut back dramatically on their pastoral care for hospital patients.
Father Mannion will leave his post as the director of spiritual care at St. Francis Hospital to take up a lighter schedule as a priest-on-call who will continue to offer sacraments to patients. Crouter will step down as a full-time chaplain and fill in on nights and weekends when needed.
The friends will be honored in a celebration at the hospital on March 26, a celebration that will also honor two chaplains who are retiring—Father Ruta Cabazi and Annette Barnes.
For Crouter and Father Mannion—and everyone who knows the two friends—the March 26 event will be a time to celebrate and reminisce about the kind of friendship that most people hope for, a friendship that even thrived following a moment that could have damaged or destroyed a similar relationship.
That moment occurred 12 years ago when St. Francis Hospital administrators approached Father Mannion about becoming the director of spiritual care. In deference to Crouter, who had been hired at the hospital a month before Father Mannion, the priest asked his friend if he was interested in becoming director. Crouter told him he wasn’t because he preferred to stay in close contact with patients and their families. Then came the potentially divisive moment.
In the department of spiritual care at St. Francis, the chaplains vote on the hiring of any employee, including the director. There were 10 chaplains when a vote was taken about Father Mannion becoming the director. Only one chaplain voted against him—Crouter.
“I told him, ‘John, you and I are friends. If there’s something I fail to do or do poorly, you won’t confront or correct me if you’re the director,’ ” Crouter says, recalling the reason for his vote. “That’s come true a number of times over the past 12 years.
“That situation is telling of him and me. We do talk to each other. We’re there for each other, and we look out for each other’s back. We’re part of that generation that feels when you’re hired to do something, you do it.”
One quality that marks the deepest friendships is trust. Sometimes, that trust gets expressed in words. Often, it’s displayed in actions.
Father Mannion has placed Crouter in charge of his estate. The priest has also put his close friend’s name on his checking account and his savings account.
“When you do that, it means you trust someone,” Father Mannion says. “I always tell him if he hears I’ve dropped dead, the money is his to spend. I share everything with him. I’m left-handed, but Darrel is my right arm. I’m the youngest of seven. I had brothers, but they were in high school before I even started grade school. To me, Darrel is the brother I’ve never had.”
Sitting nearby, Crouter isn’t surprised by his friend’s praise. He has heard it before; he cherishes it still. He describes Father Mannion as “a person who will do anything for you,” including baking a cake for the people he loves and the hospital staff members he admires and respects.
That tradition started in his years as a parish priest in the Lafayette Diocese. When he distributed holy Communion to the
shut-ins of his small, rural parish, he also brought them their favorite dessert—having spent the previous night in the kitchen, making cinnamon rolls, chocolate cake, and lemon, cherry and apple pies.
“He’s a hard act to follow,” Crouter says. “He used to bake cakes for the birthdays of the staff [on the intensive care unit]. When I replaced him there, they let me know that he did that. I told them I don’t bake.”
They do share certain gifts, according to the woman who may know them best.
“I’ve seen those two together for 20 years,” says LaRena Brown, the office manager of the department of spiritual care. “I’ve seen them develop, grow old together, and go through some ups and downs. They have a huge impact on people. If something needs to be done, they do it. It’s a special relationship.”
Yet, 22 years ago, their friendship didn’t seem destined to become so special.
When Father Mannion interviewed for a chaplaincy position at St. Francis in 1988, the Franciscan sister doing the hiring confided to him that she hoped she had done the right thing when she hired a Protestant—Crouter—as a chaplain just a short while earlier.
And Crouter offers an insight into himself when he shares this comment about one of the influences that Father Mannion has had on his mindset: “I learned to trust Catholics. I came to deeply appreciate and to care for the whole Catholic movement because of who John is as one of its representatives.”
Their nearly 22 years of offering spiritual care to patients, families and hospital workers have also created a lasting impression on their approach to faith.
“My 21-plus years here have been the happiest of all my priesthood,” Father Mannion says. “What I found in hospital chaplaincy is that the patient is the teacher. The minister or the priest standing at bedside is the pupil. The patient opens us up. The patient makes us realize what life is all about. And all the barriers of the different Churches are like the Berlin Wall. They just come tumbling down.”
Crouter nods and adds, “We’re sensitive to the people who show up, whether they’re Buddhists, Jewish or a member of a Christian denomination. A doctor who believes in the Hindu faith asked me to pray for his wife who was in the ICU [intensive care unit]. Being ecumenical is one of the strengths of our program.”
Crouter was present when Father Mannion baptized one of Crouter’s grandchildren, Colette, as she entered the Catholic Church eight years ago.
“I couldn’t think of two more gentle, compassionate souls to bring her into this community,” says Jennifer Crouter-Clouse, the daughter of Crouter and the mother of Colette. “They’re kindred spirits. They both have the ability to be in the moment when they’re with you. I think that’s what makes them such gifted chaplains.”
As a man of faith, Crouter believes “every person is on a spiritual journey.”
He also believes that Father Mannion continues to be one of the great fellow travelers on that journey.
“He’s the extrovert, I’m the introvert,” Crouter says. “He’s just out there for people. It’s effortless for him. Sometimes my evil side says I’m envious of him. But my good self has been invited and inspired to be the way he is. He’s made me share more openly the things I’ve felt. He reminds me of my vulnerable side, and I remind him of his strong side. That’s why we’re good for each other.
“We both care deeply. That’s the nature of our spirituality. Caring is what you do as a chaplain.”
It’s also what you do as a friend. †