Last summer I was at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Toledo on a Sunday morning. The program said there would be a guest priest that day. It turned out to be the Rev. Hiltrude Nusser-Telfer. It was impossible not to notice the reverence, quietness, and humility with which she celebrated the liturgy. She also had a thick German accent and she spoke, with great feeling, about a trip she had made to the Holy Land.
What, I wondered, was this woman’s story?
I also noticed that, some time after the offertory, someone had come in off the street, and was sort of huddled by the door. I seem to recall that he sat down, maybe on the ground. I may be wrong about that. But he kept his head down and did not come forward, as if poised for escape. He looked to have been “living rough,” as the English say, with no permanent home. A great thing about that church is that, because of its ministries, and its location, people just walk in. And the visitor might be a poor man passing through, or a rich man visiting on business, or somebody looking for something still not fully formed in his mind, or the woman at the well.
Communion came and the man huddled in the back stayed hunched and hidden. He didn’t budge.
But then Ms. Nusser-Telfer left the altar, followed by a chalice bearer carrying the cup of wine, and they walked slowly all the way to the back of the church — to the huddled man. There was no singing, no organ playing in process. The church was silent. And it seemed like an awfully long walk. I wondered if the man would even look up.
But he did look up. In fact he lit up. He positively beamed. And he received communion.
I felt like I was in a real church. And that God might be there too.
When I met Ms. Nusser-Telfer, a few days ago, at her office at Flower Hospital, I recalled this moment to her. “You saw that?” she said. For her, too, it was a privileged moment, a moment of grace.
I think it takes a special sort of clergy-person to get out of the way, and make room, for a spontaneous spiritual force.
Ms. Nusser-Telfer has been a chaplain at Flower since 1997. She has been an Episcopal priest since 2002. She has written a book called “Outcomes of Faith During Hospitalization.” It is about the medical benefits of prayer — the healing power of prayer.
A few years ago, I accompanied my mother on a horrifying journey through medical trial and error — my mother’s last journey in this life. I remember a well-meaning but rather tiresome and self-absorbed hospital chaplain coming to see her for the third or fourth time and my mother saying: “Give me the express version, padre.”
If I were in the hospital and Hiltrude Nusser-Telfer came to see me, I would feel lucky. She is a healer. And a rock-solid but gentle witness to her faith.
Her road has been long and winding. She grew up in Germany during World War II. She remembers most two things: the bombs falling and the terrible hunger. She married an American serviceman, and she became a military wife (and, in 1968, a U.S. citizen). Raised a Roman Catholic, she began teaching Sunday school as a young mother. Her involvement with the Church deepened. She was stationed with her husband in Thailand during the fall of Vietnam, and there she helped develop a parish mission to the poorest of the street poor. Eventually, she studied theology at the Catholic University at Leuven in Belgium, an ancient and great university.
She raised three sons. She loves the Episcopal Church for its tolerance, accountability, and embrace of reason. She still prays the Rosary. The other important pilgrimage in her life was to Lourdes.
When studying at General Seminary in New York City, Ms. Nusser-Telfer went to the Twin Towers during 9/11 to do chaplaincy work. “Initially we were looking for survivors. As it turned out, all our work was with the families of the dead.”
World War II, Vietnam, and 9/11. As a chaplain, Ms. Nusser-Telfer has worked in hospice, a trauma hospital, and acute care. She radiates two kinds of peace — compassion and devotion. No matter where you are standing in the church, that sanity reaches you.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.