Recovery after skiing accident provides life lessons for Bellingham pastor

  • Written by Mary Louise Van Dyke
  • Published in Local
Father Scott Connolly uses a hospital tray table as an altar during the Easter Vigil Mass at his parish, Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Church of the Assumption Father Scott Connolly uses a hospital tray table as an altar during the Easter Vigil Mass at his parish, Church of the Assumption in Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Church of the Assumption

BELLINGHAM – Crutches tapping, Father Scott Connolly climbed the four steps to the altar at the Church of the Assumption in Bellingham on Pentecost Sunday. Parishioners seemed to share a sigh of relief as their normally active pastor stood at the altar May 15, the first time since his December skiing accident.

Although still wearing a leg cast, Father Connolly had reached a new high in a recovery that has included two surgeries, a MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) infection and unfamiliar emotional territory.

“I’m a very positive person in general,” Father Connolly said during an April interview. “I never really had bouts with depression and frustration like I have experienced these last couple of months.”

Before Christmas, Father Connolly said, he prayed to be a shepherd who experienced weakness, drawing inspiration from the prayer of Pope Francis for the Jubilee Year of Mercy: “You willed that your ministers would also be clothed in weakness in order that they may feel compassion …”

Little did he realize how quickly that prayer would be answered.

Father Scott Connolly
Father Scott Connolly, pastor of Church of the Assumption in Bellingham, has “graduated” to a single crutch after a suffering a serious skiing injury in December. Photo: Mary Louise Van Dyke

It all began two days after Christmas, on a ski trip with his brothers and nephews. Father Connolly watched a nephew soar off a jump and figured he could do a better job. “Well, I didn’t,” he said ruefully.

Landing on his left leg, Father Connolly suffered major damage to his tibia and femur. On New Year’s Eve and in mid-January, surgeons patched his bones together with two plates and nine screws.

There was bad news: The doctors said Father Connolly couldn’t bear weight on the leg for three months. It meant stepping away from his ministry and being homebound.

That confinement was especially difficult for someone who made a 500-mile pilgrimage in 2012, walking the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) in Spain. In his book about the experience, “The Dance of Christian Life,” Father Connolly talked about taking three steps forward in faith, hope and love for every two steps backward.

Now he was taking turtle-speed steps between his bed and couch in his apartment, waiting for rides to medical appointments. About 100 parishioners helped him in various ways: getting him up and putting on his leg brace in the mornings, doing household chores, and supplying dinners through a meal train from January to April.

Cards, well-wishes and prayers for Father Connolly’s healing arrived from parishioners, students at the parish school and people from his previous parishes.

“It was just amazing all those people who helped me in a variety of ways,” Father Connolly said. “I truly felt the support of their prayers. That just meant so much.”

For a brief time in February, Father Connolly felt well enough that he was able to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass at church. Then he was diagnosed with MRSA and had to undergo treatment while waiting for the infection and broken bones to heal. Once again, Father Connolly had to step away from his ministry.

“In the story of life there are going to be setbacks,” he said.

He didn’t return to church until Holy Week, using a wheelchair and a wheeled table as an altar.

Father Scott Connolly
Father Scott Connolly is ready for parishioner Elizabeth Suel to wheel him into church for a Sunday Mass in April. Photo: Rob Thyen

Parishioner Elizabeth Suel, who worked as a registered nurse for 30 years, volunteered to push Father Connolly in his wheelchair at Mass. She also monitored his blood pressure, ensured he rested between services and even served meals at his apartment.

“Father Scott is very cooperative,” Suel said. “The hardest thing is telling my pastor what he should do from a medical view,” she said, adding that they developed a good working partnership.

Although he was back leading his congregation, Father Connolly couldn’t wash his parishioners’ feet during Holy Thursday Mass. Unexpectedly, a couple from the parish stepped forward to wash his feet.

Father Connolly related that experience to some fellow priests at a gathering of clergy. He was “just so moved,” said Father John Madigan, a senior priest and former Assumption pastor.

While filling in at Assumption one weekend in April, Father Madigan shared the story with parishioners. “We all go through what the Scriptures remind us are testing times in our lives,” he said. “We never know when they are going to take place.”

Father Connolly said he hopes the worst will soon be behind him. He plans to ski again, but this time he’ll skip the jumps.

The journey toward healing has been difficult, Father Connolly said, but it has had a purpose: “I think it helps me to be more compassionate to people who have these moments.”