Student Highlight: Cathy Nilon, MDiv-Chaplaincy

Written by Hannah Crivello
February 19, 2015

The student body within Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry is incredibly eclectic?students represent the gamut of generations, languages, ethnicities, faith traditions, and perspectives. Each student brings unique life experiences and stories that ultimately drew them to this learning community. We appreciate hearing each story and experience that students share, as it deepens our appreciation of their contribution to the school as well as reveals truths about life, love, and God. Current Master of Divinity (MDiv) student, Cathy Nilon, was deeply drawn to the school and its MDiv specialization in Chaplaincy. After a career as a shoe designer traveling the world, living and working with people from other cultures and religions, Cathy felt that she was not the traditional theology student, yet the spark in her heart put her on a path of service to others. This was the result of deep life experiences, and intersections with none other than her oncologist and priest in her journey toward recovery from cancer. We sat down with Cathy to hear more about her story.

What Cathy shared as her initial draw to meaningful work, the school, and the field of chaplaincy arose in her doctor?s office. Though Cathy is now a cancer survivor, at that time, she was experiencing the numerous effects of surgeries and chemotherapy in treatment for cancer over several intense months. Each trip to the doctor and surgeon challenged Cathy excruciatingly both emotionally and spiritually. A compassionate chaplain during treatment offered continuous accompaniment during her ordeal, Cathy had never met a chaplain before in her life. She remembers that though she was aware of her own deep burden, she felt drawn to accompany others during their own difficult experiences. Cathy wasn?t alone in that eye-opening shift of discovery. She shared with us that both her parish priest and oncologist pointed her toward Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry. They had already enlisted her help with newly diagnosed cancer patients, asking her to come alongside them with friendship and support.

What Cathy defines as ?her call? to chaplaincy has deepened through her experiences now at Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry. She shared with us that the curriculum is holistic?addressing the mind, body and spirit of those cared for as well as the caregiver. Reflecting on her experiences here, Cathy shares that ?My professors have illuminated a path of personal growth in ministry by utilizing my own gift of hearing, patience and creativity. I have been encouraged to utilize my artistic and visual imagery for many uses in my reflections and with people who are suffering.? Cathy identifies as an artist, and has the gift of expressing life, love and beauty through a variety of mediums. Her natural gifts are able to find their home in the field and in her coursework. She currently facilitates an art/spirituality and coping class on a Mental Health unit as a part of her chaplaincy clinical training. The confidence to design this class was inspired by an elective called Art and Theology of Reconciliation, coupled with the skills acquired from Dr. Christie Eppler?s Group Counseling course where mock groups were practiced and critiqued.

Among the many meaningful courses that Cathy has taken, Cathy credits the core classes Fostering Communities of Faith and Ministry in a Multicultural Context as specifically providing her with the skills to recognize themes of justice. As a result, Cathy feels empowered to take action in ensuring that voices are heard?that people feel both seen and heard with undivided attention.

In coordination with her theological studies, Cathy has also been involved in the rigorous Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training that is a required component for the chaplaincy specialization. The school?s Pastoral Care Skills course?required for all students in all degree programs at the School of Theology and Ministry?has had a continued impact on many aspects of Cathy?s life. She shares that the course content has directly and indirectly helped her find comfort in silence alone and with others, as well as to cultivate the growth of natural and compassionate conversations with patients.

In the Contextual Education phase (MTI) of the Master of Divinity program, space is created for students to explore their passions in a variety of settings and to process their feeling and encounters in an intimate small group. With support from mentors, on-site supervisors, and her advisor, Cathy did a nine-month internship at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where she continues to volunteer. Additionally during the last 2 years of her extended Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) she has been able to gain an understanding of chaplaincy in action within four hospitals over time. Cathy currently provides care at St. Joseph?s Tacoma, St. Francis Hospital, The Carole Milgard Breast Center and Highline Hospitals. Cathy says that she has worked through some highly challenging patient visits that have deepened her awareness of her own self as a pastoral caregiver. This is reflected in feedback from her supervisor and peer group and ultimately the eyes of the patients and staff with whom she works.

Following her battle with cancer, Cathy wrote and illustrated a children?s book titled Chemo Cat. She wanted to provide her son?and the many other children who are either witnessing the effects of cancer among family members or experiencing it themselves?a way to dialogue and express their concerns about such a difficult topic. She also answers a national hotline for breast cancer patients through Living Beyond Breast Cancer, (the recipient of the proceeds of her book proceeds).

Cathy is a part of the Christifideles group of Catholic lay ecclesial ministers who follow Jesus?s model of inclusion and love for all people. Additionally, she participates in the Ecumenical & Interreligious Student Advisory Council at the School of Theology and Ministry.

Learn more about the Master of Divinity-Chaplaincy specialization, here.

Find out about the internships available through Contextual Education, here.