When his pager goes off, Rev. Father Emmanuel Nyong smiles and says: “I know somebody loves me. They need my love so I offer my love.”
His days often start at 6 a.m. and nurses have seen him leaving long after the sun has set.
“He’s so incredibly caring. A patient can be upset and agitated and he’s unflappable,” said Marie Deardorf, an IU Health Methodist Hospital nurse in same day surgery. “He loves what he does. It shows in the way he ministers to others.” He also ministers to the staff, praying with nurses and blessing the hands that serve their profession.
Every patient is different and every need is different. Father Emmanuel (as he prefers to be called) carries a small notebook as he heads out on his daily rounds. His goal: To see every patient within the first 48 hours of admission. He usually cuts that time in half. He approaches each new face as if it’s his only visit of the day.
“Eat all of your breakfast. You’ll make me happy,” he says to one patient. To another he jokes: “You must have done something wrong if Father is paying you a visit.”
He seems to have an instinctive sense of the patient’s mood and immediate needs, and he always wants to give them more than they can expect from his visits. As he enters the room of a woman who is deaf, he points to his collar and makes the sign of a cross as his silent blessing.
“One of the things I regret is that I never learned sign language,” he says as he walks out of the room. This confession comes from the priest who speaks more than six languages including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
“This all helps me come together with people of all different backgrounds,” he said.
He Knew His Calling Early
Father Emmanuel became an ordained priest in August of 1988. But he knew long before that he would follow a path of divinity.
“I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church where the priests were nice and loving to kids. I knew from the age of seven or eight that was what I wanted to be and it never changed,” said Father Emmanuel. “I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. I’ve seen the blessing and miracles in my life and the lives of my family.”
The oldest of 10, Father Emmanuel’s childhood was filled with family time. By custom, his grandfather had several wives, so he has many cousins. He smiles as he thinks about all the family gatherings and the food. He looks forward to his yearly visits back to his homeland. One of Father Emmanuel’s favorite memories was when he was about 12 and he participated in a customary rite of passage that continues today with his nephews.
“I was sent into the dark forest and I had to find my way out. You could hear all sorts of sounds – from the sounds of a body to the roars of lions. When I came out all of my family was there to welcome me with song and dance. It taught me about fear.”
It’s an exercise that has served him well throughout his life.
Death Teaches About Life
About the same time he was transitioning to adulthood, his mother died during childbirth. She was 35. “Death is the toughest area of our lives but also the greatest. I’ve been brought into a life of caring so I’ve taken that into the Catholic priesthood. I understand what it means to care for others and to have them care for me. “
Because of his mom’s untimely death, Father Emmanuel says he is able to show greater empathy for mother’s grieving the loss of their children. It is those calls that define his toughest days in the hospital.
He holds the hands of his patients as he prays: “May the Lord strengthen you.” He anoints their foreheads, palms and feet with oil. And when he is talking to someone who is sick he says: “Everything will be OK. We have good doctors and nurses and they will take good care of you.”
Nurse Rosie Alley sees the impact of Father Emmanuel’s presence firsthand. “He gives patients a sense of confidence,” she said. “I think every patient needs to be ministered to in mind, body and spirit. He does that.”
Father Emmanuel views his role not only as a minister but a teacher of sorts.
During my training as a priest I was also trained as a teacher – to help others learn about spirituality and healing. He not only worked with doctors but also lawyers and numerous other professionals. Once when he became sick in Nigeria, it turned out that one of his former students was his doctor. “That sickness was not meant to kill me because he was there to heal me. You see, this is the way to believe and to have faith,” said Father Emmanuel. It is that same faith that he shares openly with patients. He listens intently as a one gentleman tells about his complications from surgery and how he has not been able to attend church lately.
“It is good to have hope and that’s why the church comes to you. That’s why I am here, to take care of God’s children,” said Father Emmanuel. “When you come to the hospital, we want you to have everything you need to get better.” He then administers communion to the man and repeatedly chants: “Things are getting better.”
And on this day, Father Emmanuel will go home at night after the sun has set. He will listen to African music, he may even dance, he may go for a run or a long walk, and then he will continue to pray for each patient that things will get better.
--By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.