Forest Park resident Amy “AJ” Altheimer doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a hospital chaplain, which is just one reason why she’s good at what she does.

First, the orthodox part. AJ identifies as a Catholic and goes to Mass at Old St. Pat’s Church in the Loop. She has a master’s degree in Pastoral Studies and has completed a year of Clinical Pastoral Education.

And now, the road-less-traveled part. AJ grew up in a secular Jewish family, yet she claims that even as a child she had a sense of God’s “presence.”

Even though her parents were not religious, they sent AJ to Catholic schools, and there she met Sr. Alecio who was “tough but fair, a decent human being.”

After graduating from Roosevelt University, AJ got a job with a security company which she hated. To get away from that toxic environment at lunchtime, she started going to the noon Mass at Old St. Pat’s, which was right across the street.

One day after, a priest asked why she attended frequently but never came up for communion. She responded, “Well, because I’m Jewish.”

“He started laughing, and I started laughing,” she recalled, “and in the fall of 2015 I started taking classes in a program called RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults]. A year later she was baptized at the Easter Vigil.

“I don’t look like a regular church lady,” she said. What she means is that she has tattoos, rides her motorcycle to work sometimes, wears plus-size clothing, has been diagnosed as clinically depressed, is a hard-core rock-and-roller, self-identifies as queer and has been poor to the point of shoplifting. She got through grad school with the help of professors who were able to modify her program to fit her special learning needs because of her ADHD.

If pulling all of that together sounds miraculous, AJ wouldn’t disagree. “The night before my 50th birthday,” she recalled, “I was lying in bed when out of the blue I heard this voice in my head telling me that I need to become a hospital chaplain.”

She learned online that Loyola had the program she needed, was accepted even though her grades in college had not been very good, and she graduated on time but with enormous student loan debt.

“God,” she stated firmly, “wanted me to be a hospital chaplain.”

And that divine calling was confirmed on the very first day of her clinical residency at Masonic Hospital, a Level One Trauma Center.

“My first case,” she recalled, “was someone who got shot in the leg and died on the table in ER. The bullet had hit an artery. The second call was someone who got stabbed, and the handle of the knife came off, so the blade was stuck inside his body.” 

Acknowledging that many people would freak out if thrown into such situations, AJ said, “At that point I knew that was the kind of chaplaincy I wanted to do. A lot of people didn’t understand this path I was on, but it was my sister who told me, ‘You’re very good in a crisis and you are exactly who I would want with me in a crisis.’”

She also found that her tattoos and emotional wounds made her feel safe to many who live on the cultural margins.

AJ is now the night chaplain at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn. 

“Chaplaincy,” she explained, “is not about religion; it’s about connection. I meet patients where they are.”

She also meets the docs and nurses where they are. Staff, she said, go through a lot.

She, too, has really hard days at work but added, “The second I enter the hospital, I walk a little taller with my shoulders back because I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.” 

“A lot of people,” she noted, “live their entire life and never get that gift.”