Volunteer work brings chaplain face-to-face with human tragedy
By EFFIE CALDAROLA
A body is found along a lonely stretch of the Parks Highway at four in the morning. A man discovers his wife at home, who had just committed suicide. A woman, holding a gun threateningly, is shot dead by Alaska State Troopers.
Who do you call when tragedy strikes? In each of these cases, along with the Alaska State Troopers, Father Bill Fournier responded in his new volunteer capacity as a chaplain serving with the troopers.
“We get called mostly for incidents which involve death,” said Father Fournier, “and our role is two-fold. We minister to the troopers themselves, and we support the troopers in ministering to the people who have been affected.”
In addition to his chaplain duties, the priest with a sense of humor and an infectious laugh is also pastor of the 800-family Sacred Heart Church in Wasilla and the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Anchorage.
Despite the full schedule, Father Fournier saw a need and responded.
“I felt strongly that in a lot of community ministry in the (Mat-Su) Valley, we were lacking a Catholic presence,” he said. So, a little over a year ago, he responded to the trooper ministry coordinators when they approached him. Now, every other week he’s on call midnight Sunday to midnight Friday. Trooper dispatch has his cell number.
Priests are familiar with death and dealing with those who have just experienced the death of a loved one. But Father Fournier finds that the trauma and violence he sees often pushes the envelope.
Speaking of one bloody incident, when he sat with a family member waiting for the medical examiner, he said, “It took days to get that image out of my mind.”
When next of kin need to be notified, it’s the chaplain who goes along with the trooper to break the news. It’s always done in person. And more often than not, the calls come in the middle of the night.
“I have been so absolutely impressed with the quality of care the troopers provide in these circumstances,” Father Fournier said. “I can’t say enough about their sensitivity.”
After the message is delivered, however, the troopers usually leave. But the chaplain remains — sometimes for hours.
“Are there people you need to call? Are you connected with a church? Do you want to call your minister?” These are all questions Father Fournier gently asks, while listening to the questions and “if onlys” that survivors utter through shock and tears.
Occasionally, Father Fournier asks to ride along with troopers during their shift to get to know them.
“There is a high rate of divorce and stress among law enforcement workers,” he said. “They’re involved with people at their worst, not their best, and sometimes they need someone to talk to. By riding along, they get to know us. It’s important that they know who we are. It’s their call whether to call chaplain dispatch, and they have to feel a comfort level with us to do that.”
Husband and wife team Boyd and Debra Waltman formed the official State Trooper chaplaincy program in May 2008. Before then, they had volunteered as chaplains in the Mat-Su area since 2002.
“We love Father Fournier,” Debra Waltman said, adding that many troopers are Catholic, and it was important to have a priest involved.
“We can always count on Father. He’s very professional and always does what the troopers ask,” she said. “I joked with him by asking if we could clone him ten times, and he answered, ‘only if you make me taller with more hair.’”
After some particularly troubling events, it’s the troopers themselves who need ministry. For example, after troopers shot the woman outside her cabin in the Valley, a “critical incident stress debriefing” was automatically held for those involved. A credentialed facilitator conducts these debriefings. Waltman said that all 15 of the current state trooper chaplains would eventually be trained in doing these debriefings.
Chaplains wear a light blue clergy shirt, clerical collar, trooper pants with the stripe up the side, jacket with a badge on the sleeve, a chaplain badge on front and “always a bullet proof vest,” said Waltman. Chaplains never carry a weapon.
The Mat-Su Valley currently has four chaplains, including Father Fournier and the Waltmans. Four chaplains are located in Dutch Harbor, two in Fairbanks and others in places like King Salmon, Glennallen and Talkeetna.