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Catholic priest who created 24/7 chaplaincy at Nightingale describes experiences on wards

A Catholic priest who has spent weeks at the bedside of coronavirus patients at the maiden Nightingale hospital has set up a 24-hour chaplaincy system to help tend to the religious needs of the seriously ill and their families.

Fr James Mackay, 40, who was raised in east London near where the temporary NHS hospital currently stands, said he was compelled to help at the ExCeL the moment he heard it was being converted into an overflow health facility in the wake of coronavirus.

He said he and his colleagues had been called on to read the last rites for patients and carry out baptisms, as well as spending time with those battling the virus.

And he said the extremity of the situation was taking its toll on him and his colleagues.

“Death is a reality in this situation and we are there for people when sometimes sadly the inevitable happens,” said Fr Mackay.

“It does take its toll on us, I’m not gonna lie.

“It’s kind of part of the job, as priests we are often going into hospitals but in this environment it’s slightly more concentrated, it’s every day.

“There’s a danger you don’t attend to your own emotional needs. I think what happens then is exhaustion – I get to the end of the day and I’m tired.

“My emotional and mental wellbeing needs to be taken care of, and that’s why conversations with brother priests is so important at this time.”

Fr Mackay, parish priest of Our Lady of Walsingham, Royal Docks, has arranged a team of nine priests, with at least one in the pop-up hospital from 9am until 5pm each day.

Outside of those hours, the priests operate an on-call system, to respond to requests from patients’ families to be with a man of God.

He said: “The on-call system is working beautifully at the moment.

“A priest called me at 10am – it wasn’t his day on – and said he got a call for a patient at 4am.

“It meant so much to the family member that a priest was there giving the last rites and was able to be there in that patient’s final moments.”

Fr Mackay said he and his colleagues were inundated with requests for their time since they began attending.

He said: “This is the thing at the hospital – religious practice is a reflection of society in general, it’s not necessarily top of everyone’s list.

“I was walking down the concourse at the Nightingale last time I was in and I was stopped five times. Four out of those five times they started with: ‘I’m not religious, but…’

“I think that engagement in conversation with someone who is a symbol of perhaps the transcendent, something outside of this pressurised environment, is proving so important for people spiritually and psychologically.

“I can’t move now without a conversation starting up. It is so important for us to be present in this way.”

Picture: Fr James Mackay outside the Nightingale Hospital. The priest, who has spent weeks at the bedside of coronavirus patients at the maiden Nightingale hospital, has set up a 24-hour chaplaincy system to help tend to the religious needs of the seriously ill and their families. (James Mackay/PA).

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