CCH welcomes its first chaplain: Mary Jo “Mitch” Shemek
Mary Jo “Mitch” Shemek thinks God was always preparing her for her role as a hospital and hospice chaplain.
She has been a chaplain since 2004, serving in that role at hospitals in West Point, Norfolk and Yankton, South Dakota, and a private hospice company in Norfolk. In October, she became the first chaplain at Columbus Community Hospital.
Shemek is the youngest of five. While growing up on a farm near Ewing, she earned her nickname because she enjoyed watching the television show “Sing Along with Mitch.” She came from a family of strong faith. Two women in particular, her mother and grandmother, were examples of that devotion.
“I grew up with a very Catholic mother and a very Methodist grandmother,” Shemek said.
Experiencing different religions when growing up has helped Shemek in her chaplaincy because, as she said, “there are lots of different roads to the dance hall.” She is Catholic but is nondenominational in her chaplaincy. Personal challenges and struggles have also helped her have compassion when providing emotional and spiritual care for staff, patients and their families.
“We all have a history. I can’t ever walk into a room judging someone because I don’t have a leg to stand on,” Shemek said with a laugh. “I’m here to meet people where they are.”
Shemek found herself removed from what she called a “sheltered life” with her family in rural Nebraska after graduating from high school. She attended Wayne State College to study education and English. She then transferred to the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she earned a bachelor’s degree in general education and religious studies.
Wanting to spread her wings after college, she took a job working with high school students in a religious-based outreach program in the Washington, D.C., area. After time there, Shemek went through a rough patch of life decisions that she referred to as a “broken road.”
An unplanned pregnancy and addiction to alcohol led to a strained relationship with her parents and other life difficulties. She said God helped her find her way through intervention, alcohol treatment and ongoing recovery work. That led to restoring family relationships.
In 2000, Shemek married her husband, Gene, after meeting at a dance in Columbus. Once her son graduated high school and became a Marine, Shemek decided to pursue another direction for her life. A friend was a chaplain in Yankton and invited her to shadow her for a day.
Chaplaincy appealed to Shemek because it offered her the opportunity to make one-on-one connections with people who were trying to find and make meaning in their lives.
“It was just a calling for me. I know that sounds trite, but I had looked for a job like that for all my life,” she said. “It may be employment, but it doesn’t ever feel like a job.”
Shemek trained to become a certified chaplain by taking pastoral education classes through Avera Sacred Heart Hospital in Yankton. Shemek was a staff chaplain at Avera from 2005 to 2015. She was also the chaplain at Asera Care Hospice in Norfolk from 2006 to 2009. She then studied for and was a provisional licensed addictions counselor at Catholic Charities in Columbus. Prior to coming to CCH, Shemek was the chaplain at Franciscan Care Services in West Point for six years.
Shemek said it is a bit intimidating being the first chaplain at CCH. It is also a challenge to be a chaplain during the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s navigating different ways to tend to the spiritual and emotional needs of people using technology and not just meeting in person.
Through her job as a chaplain, Shemek hopes to build trust and relationships with those at the hospital. She wants to be a listening ear and a supportive presence for staff, patients and their loved ones.
“The core of chaplaincy is the validation of the other person and where they are. It is being in the moment, whether that is being with someone who just lost their spouse, just got a bad diagnosis or is really frustrated with their teenager. Chaplaincy is mainly being a supportive presence physically, emotionally and spiritually. It is tending to the whole person in a time of need,” Shemek said.