Sister Terry Dalla: 50 years in ministry
Every human life is proof of God's wondrous action in and through a person, and Sister Terry Dalla's life is no exception. What was behind her call to religious life as a CSJ, and behind her tremendous effectiveness as chaplain to countless numbers of sick and dying people in three great medical centers? We discover the answer in Sister Terry's own words.
"Growing up, my most ardent desire was just to be a 'good person.' A skiing accident left me with a shattered back, lying flat on my back for a year, with only one option: 'to look up.' A very caring priest friend's suggestion that perhaps God was calling me to religious life ended my running in search of the 'something more' I was sure life had to offer. Home is a concept very dear to me, and a subsequent interview with Sister Mary of the Cross in Montreal left me with a distinct feeling of 'being at home.'
"I've always been a person who had to see meaning in what I do. Subconsciously, I am sure this was related to my vocation decision to become a Sister of St. Joseph. Hospital work always appealed to me, so when an opportunity opened up to work as a secretary in Admitting at St. Michael's Hospital, after I pronounced my First Vows, I accepted the position. I enjoyed the contact with patients, but it was very impersonal and brief. The hospital administrator asked if I would work with a priest in setting up a chaplaincy department. At about this time, the CAPE Programme was organized, and I applied, as I wanted more personal contact with patients. Actually, I pioneered for women in Canada, being the first woman to be certified as chaplain in Toronto."
That was the beginning of a remarkable career, Terry! What followed?
"I was hired as staff chaplain, assisting in training programs, training lay pastoral visitors, etc. After ten years at St, Mike's, I was hired as the first full-time chaplain with responsibility for developing a Pastoral Care Department at Lyndhurst Hospital. From Lyndhurst, I returned to my first love, as staff chaplain to sick and dying people at St. Joseph's Health Centre, and my last three of 13 years there were spent at Our Lady of Mercy, responsible for the spiritual care of patients and, when invited, officiating at funerals, and in meetings dealing with placement, ethical issues, etc."
Terry, you are written up in a wonderful book, Join Us for Coffee, by Norma Alloway, published in 1978. How did that come about?
"Norma had seen a write-up about me in the Toronto Star and, as she was doing research on women in ministry in Canada, she asked if I would give her an interview."
I read the book, and find the chapter on you so inspiring. Your answers to her questions are clear, intelligent, to the point, and deeply reflective, allowing a glimpse into your interior life of prayer and dependency on God. You speak honestly of your own struggles with faith, of how you get back on track when you fail to use the faith God has given you. You make it clear that in your ministry very deep resources are needed for the situations you meet, such as depression, fear of dying, and guilt in patients who harbour secret pasts. It is obvious that prayer plays a large part in your life.
"Yes, I have always had a strong 'God-dependency.' The situations I deal with are a responsibility so great that I just have to hand them over to God. Even now, in my ministry to cancer patients at Wellspring, I continue to need God as I counsel and support them in their difficult journey. My volunteer ministry at the Newman Centre keeps me grounded and gives my life the balance I need at this time."
Terry, I'd like to end with the closing words of Norma Alloway in her interview with you:
"I saw an unassuming, honest person, one who understands personally the battle of the will, the discipline of obedience, and the peace of acceptance. God does hold her in his hand, and from this conscious security she reaches out to share his compassion and love with others." — Join Us for Coffee, Alloway, Norma Windward Press 1978, p.79.
Anne Lemire CSJ
Photo by Elaine Guidinger CSJ