Through the doors of… Croydon University Hospital chaplaincy


By - Tuesday 28th April, 2015

From bleep to bedside: in the latest of her series on faith communities in Croydon, Rosie Edser meets the chaplain of Croydon University Hospital


photo author's own

The St Barnabas chapel and babies’ book of remembrance. Photo author’s own.

On the last Friday each month Hilary Fife, the senior chaplain at Croydon University Hospital, cleans her Smart car then reverently lays out a purple drape and fills the car carefully with small white caskets. Acting as funeral director, she drives this poignant cargo to Croydon crematorium where staff help carry them into the chapel to the accompaniment of organ music.

Each casket has a baby’s name and a butterfly on it, along with a small posy of flowers, including rosemary for remembrance. Dignified words of farewell are said (spiritual but not specifically religious), the parents’ loss is remembered in silence and the babies are commended on their ongoing journey into love, light and peace. The ashes are scattered in the crematorium’s children’s garden of remembrance and the babies’ names and the date of the funeral are all meticulously recorded.

To ensure that the cultural beliefs of all are respected is no small task amidst such diversity

These are the collective baby funerals for those who miscarried and whose parents didn’t hold an individual funeral – an example of best practice in the field and typical of the hospital chaplaincy’s focus on care, detail and dignity.

photo author's own

Reverend Hilary Fife in the chapel garden.
Photo author’s own.

A calligrapher then writes names in the babies’ book of remembrance, used to honour the departed, which has a page for each day of the year. Parents visit, bring flowers and cards and someone placed a twenty-first birthday card there recently. There is also a roll call of these names in the twice-yearly butterfly memorial services where the memory of each child is celebrated. It’s profoundly comforting and validating that this meticulous record keeping done by the chaplains… an acknowledgement that every life that passes through the hospital, however fleetingly, is precious.

Chaplains are there to help NHS trusts fulfil their obligations to ensure that the privacy, dignity and religious and cultural beliefs of all their patients are respected – no small task in a context as diverse as Croydon.They are there to serve patients, relatives, carers and staff and the NHS pays for two full time chaplains at Croydon University Hospital, Reverend Hilary Fife (Anglican), and Reverend Leena Knowles (Ecumenical), co-ordinating rigorously trained volunteers within Ecumenical, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Sikh teams. That rigorous training includes ensuring that nobody has an agenda to proselytise or evangelise.

Put aside all erroneous notions of vague clergy drinking leisurely cups of tea before gliding into wards and waffling irrelevantly! These professionals are focused, patient-led, people-skilled, endlessly resourceful and dealing with a myriad emotionally harrowing and ethically sophisticated matters every five minutes. A chaplain is on-call twenty-four hours a day every day of the year with a target of bleep to bedside in thirty minutes, although possibly not wearing earrings if it’s 4:00am.

photo author's own

Reverend Leena Knowles.
Photo author’s own.

No two days are the same for the chaplaincy team. A day might begin with the sadness of conducting a baby funeral, then move on to navigating the legal and practical complexities of arranging a joyful wedding for terminally ill patients at short notice, followed by helping a Muslim couple begin to find peace about their decision to have a medically necessary termination, holding a bedside thanksgiving service for a newborn baby, contributing to a staff debrief after a distressing medical outcome and ensuring the cub scouts plant the daffodil bulbs the right way up in the chapel garden! All this with a calm demeanour and scrupulous regard for the twin mantras of hand-washing and confidentiality.

The chaplains are trusted with a fair amount of freedom by the Croydon Health Trust and it’s refreshing to see a system working so efficiently and with so much wisdom and integrity. In a misguided cost-cutting exercise in a hospital in the Midlands, one trust tried to dispense with hospital chaplains and was forced to backtrack in response to a media outcry.

Since all compasses point to the MRI department, arrows on the floor indicate the direction of Mecca

A visible part of the chaplaincy is the sanctuary of the St Barnabas Chapel near the Woodcroft Road entrance. It is open (or open-able) at any time of day or night and I was struck by how many local people have contributed to its richness and beauty: some Hindus from the Hare Krishna Community donated Bhagavad-Gitas to the multi-faith library, there’s a vivid stained glass window, gorgeous flower displays and beautiful tree wall-hangings suitable for the part of the chapel which can be screened off for Muslim and Jewish prayer and – since all compasses point towards the MRI department – there are arrows on the floor to notify Muslims of the direction of Mecca. A male minister even consecrates reserved sacraments for those participating in the Christian communion ritual who can’t accept female vicars.

Rather than a neutral or bland multi-faith space, this is a carefully-designed and beautiful worship area over-flowing with peace and beauty, conducive to people of any faith or none spending quality spiritual time.


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Rosie Edser

Rosie Edser

Rosie is a member of the team at Croydon Refugee Daycentre. She's a teacher of both adult English learners and (in her day job) children. She relishes the fact that her own offspring have attended a school in Croydon with over forty first languages spoken. She lives in Waddon.

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