In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation that created the National Asylum (Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, and one year later, the Togus campus was established as the eastern branch of the Soldiers’ Home. The Soldiers’ homes were created to provide care for volunteer soldiers who were injured during the Civil War. Medical care wasn’t the only modality of care given, but also spiritual care.
The Togus VA Medical Center Chaplain Service, within the VA Maine Health Care System (HCS) is celebrating 148 years of providing spiritual care. Before the Consolidation Act of July 1930, in which Congress made Togus a part of the Veterans Administration and the transformation into the Togus VA Medical Center, the Reverend Moses Kelley served as the first chaplain of the Soldiers’ Home in 1867. The first chief chaplain at Togus was Eugene Pilgrim and Fr. Leonard LeClair was the first Catholic chaplain.
The original chapel, known as the Ward Memorial Chapel, was built in 1870. In 1953, the facility replaced it with the present chapel, located in Building 235. This chapel is part of the medical complex and is accessible from outside or from within the medical center, through interconnected buildings. An additional chapel was built inside the Hospice Unit in 2011.
Over the years, there were many changes in the way spiritual care was delivered. VA Maine HCS Chaplain Service was the first chaplain service in the New England VA Healthcare System to implement and utilize telechaplaincy. Veterans and their families in need of spiritual or pastoral care can see a chaplain from the medical center via telehealth cameras located in a Community Based Outpatient Clinic near their home. They were also the first in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to implement and utilize clinical video telehealth tablets for Veterans to use at home. The hospital provides Veterans with these tablets to interact face-to-face with chaplains, via a cellphone network, without ever having to leave their homes.
The VA Maine HCS Chaplain Service was the first within VHA to create and host a combined mental health summit and clergy day event, a three day conference held in September of 2014. Subject matter experts within mental health, spiritual care, and pastoral care came together to train 84 community clergy and mental health providers to more effectively care for Veterans in their parishes and agencies. The VA Maine Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities cited the VA Maine Chaplain Service Mental Health Care as a positive influence on Veterans, stating they were the first chaplain service which they observed working collaboratively and effectively with the Mental Health Service.
Chaplains are responsible for providing all spiritual, pastoral, sacramental and religious care to patients at the medical center, but also at the eight CBOCs and three outreach clinics within the state of Maine.
In addition to assigned inpatient and outpatient clinical areas, VA Maine HCS chaplains also are involved in bi-weekly spirituality groups in the inpatient psychiatric Unit, the monthly chemical dependency recovery outpatient program and the tobacco cessation outpatient group, and creating a chaplain-led moral injury spirituality group with combat Veterans.
Chaplains serve on all of the interdisciplinary treatment teams and meet weekly or daily with staff from other disciplines to create treatment plans for individual Veterans in their assigned clinical areas. The VA Maine HCS Chaplain Service plans for and adapts to the needs of a changing and diverse Veteran culture.
About the author: James Luoma is chief or the Chaplain Services at VA Maine Health Care System