Today will mark the end of an era in the Diocese of Derry and Raphoe as Rev Canon David Ferry retires after 20 years’ service as a hospital chaplain in Londonderry. “I’ll miss the miracles,” the Tyrone man says of his “special calling”. He will be succeeded from tomorrow by the Rector of St Augustine’s Church, Rev Nigel Cairns.

Canon Ferry retired as Rector of the Balteagh group of churches in 2019 but carried on ministering to patients, families and staff in Altnagelvin and Waterside hospitals. It was a role he had first embraced under the late Bishop James Mehaffey.

“Chaplaincy’s a special calling,” Canon Ferry says. “It’s one of the ministries that Christ set apart – care for the sick, care for the disadvantaged – so to be called to that, and to be involved in that, always spoke to me about some sort of special vocation. It’s just an enormous privilege. To be with people, to hear people’s stories, to have the end of life conversations with people, to be the last person to say a prayer with them, it’s an amazing privilege.

“The last two years have been particularly trying, given how Covid has affected hospitals. Canon Ferry and his colleagues found themselves supporting not only patients and relatives, but staff too. “That was a big part of it, but I think their lives were being refined too. There’s nothing like a good furnace to do a bit of refining – so Scripture tells us. There was a whole mixture of bad things [during Covid] but, in that, there was a whole lot of good stuff happening as well, an awful lot of good stuff.“

The last two years tested your vocation,” Canon Ferry concedes. “Everybody in the hospital was tested, whether they knew it or whether they didn’t. Nurses in here were trying to organise not only their nursing life but home education for their children, so everybody was tested.

“We [chaplains] did the same thing [we always did] but we just did it differently. We had FaceTime with patients. That to me was so far removed from how I would do ministry – I take people by the hand, but we couldn’t do that. The staff were very good, though; they kept us all safe; they advised us what PPE to use. Families really appreciated it. We would make a telephone call. I found it very difficult because it wasn’t the way I operated, put it that way. But you’d say to the family, put your phone on speaker and I’ll pray for you all. And it didn’t matter where they were sitting – they could be at home – and I’d say put your phone on speaker and I’ll pray for you all. It was different. It was very different.

”Hospital chaplains are confronted with death and serious illness on a daily basis, but Canon Ferry says the relentlessness never got him down. “As Christians, we’re called to a great hope,” he says. “The world tells us that death is the end of all things. As a Christian, as a Christian chaplain, my hope is – for them, and for me – that death is not the end. Death is an experience we will all have in life. It’s the only thing in life that makes us all equal. But it’s not the end. Whenever you are there with a family and can reassure them through scripture – ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions and I’m going to prepare one for you’ – whenever you bring people to that sort of understanding, then death becomes….different.

”The prospect of retirement holds little appeal for Canon Ferry. “I’ve no clue about what retirement’s going to be like,” he says. “I’ve always tried to live each day in God’s plan as best I can, but it’s not something I’m really looking forward to. I’d love to have a gripe about the Bishop, or the Church or the hospital – it’d make it easier to go – but I don’t. I never ever had a gripe. I don’t know what a gripe is. I’m sure it’ll be great some morning when it’s teeming out of the heavens and I don’t have to get up.

”Will he miss chaplaincy work? “Oh aye. I’ll miss the miracles,” he says. “You see, as a hospital chaplain, every day you see the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear and the dead raised. You see those miracles every day. Somebody comes in here not able to walk, they go down to surgery, in two days they’re skipping. They come in here, they can’t see, [surgeons] take off their cataract and they see the very best. Put a hearing aid in…we have become so used to that, and we don’t see the miracle.

“I’m not going to start preaching but I think we need to look, we need to see the miracles. I often say – it’s a Presbyterian thing – but I always say you need to see the burning bush. There’s loads of them [miracles], loads of them, so I’ll miss the miracles. I’ll miss what the patients teach me: they teach me to be thankful, to appreciate the people I need to appreciate.

After twenty years in the hospitals, what in his opinion are the qualities that make for a good chaplain? “I think a good chaplain needs to stay out of God’s way and to know that we’re neither in control nor responsible,” Canon Ferry suggests. “I’m not in control of your life, I can’t keep you alive no matter what prayers I say. If it’s God’s decision that you’ll pass away today then you’ll pass away today. It’s my job to tell you that: God’s in control, not me. And I’m not responsible for you if you pass away; I’m not responsible for where you end up eternally. My responsibility – as the good book tells us – my job is to stand in the gap between God and his people, and as a chaplain that’s what I do, I stand in the gap between God and the patient.”

Canon Ferry has certainly earned his retirement. From tomorrow on, the task of ‘standing in the gap’ between God and the patients in Derry’s hospitals will fall to the Rector of St Augustine’s Church, Rev Nigel Cairns.

During his training for the ministry, the new chaplain watched his predecessor at close quarters, so he has a good understanding of what he’s letting himself in for. “I did a placement with Canon Ferry,” Nigel says. “It’s a frighteningly big commitment, but I enjoyed hospital chaplaincy very much. I appreciated the opportunity to journey with people through the worst of times and through the best of times.

“Miracles do still happen,” Nigel says, “and sometimes hospitals are the places where we see them occurring.

“I regard it as a great privilege to step into Canon Ferry’s shoes. I would like to acknowledge the loyal and dedicated way in which David has nurtured and developed the role of chaplain, widening it to include not only patients and families but the hospital staff too. The importance of that was very evident during the pandemic.”

Bishop Andrew has paid tribute to the outgoing chaplain and offered words of encouragement to his successor. “Canon David Ferry’s ministry to the sick and dying, to anguished relatives, and to hardworking staff in our hospitals has been of enormous comfort, often at the most difficult moments in people’s lives. In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the immense work he and his colleagues did during the pandemic, when hospital visiting was severely restricted. I thank God for the many qualities David has which equipped him perfectly for the role of chaplain. Our Diocese is immensely grateful for all that he has done to further God’s kingdom.“

Obviously, David is a hard person to replace, but I am confident that in Rev Nigel Cairns we have found a worthy successor. Nigel has many of the same pastoral gifts as David, and I have no doubt that patients, families and healthcare staff will benefit greatly from his care and support as chaplain.”

Photo 1: “I’ll miss the miracles,” says Rev Canon David Ferry, who retires today after 20 years as a hospital chaplain.

Photo 2: Rev Nigel Cairns looks forward to journeying with. people “through the worst of times and through the best of times”.