The Wounded Healer
2011 Distinguished Alumnus: Rev. Dr. Thomas N. Pelton, M.Ed., S.T.L., Psy.D. (Psy.D. ’91)
To his parish in the Hispanic Chicago neighborhood of West Humboldt Park, he is known as Father Tom. But to patients at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, where he works with cancer and AIDS patients as coordinator of the Supportive Care Program, he goes by Doctor Tom.
The different monikers underscore the dual roles that the Rev. Dr. Thomas N. Pelton balances as a priest and psychologist.
Named the 2011 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year at The Chicago School’s Commencement Ceremony on June 10 for embodying the values of engagement, diversity, and social justice, he reflected that his two divergent professional paths have helped his practice as a “wounded healer.”
“In both professions we practice the healing arts and disciplines, albeit wounded ourselves,” he said. “Mysteriously and powerfully, many of us discover that the healing of others takes place in parallel with our own healing, that our wounds can become a blessing as they inspire our wisdom and compassion for the wounds in others.”
Dr. Pelton’s own path to religion began while growing up in a strong faith-filled family on the Southwest Side of Chicago. He was ordained by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1966 and has served in 10 parishes around the city, from East Englewood on the South Side to East Rogers Park on the far North Side to his current position at Maternity BVM Parish on the West Side, where he has been for 15 years.
But a desire to increase his options and become more independent—along with conversations with fellow priests and Chicago School alumni Rev. Drs. John Keenan (Psy.D. ’83) and John Lynch (Psy.D. ’82), and the first dean Allan Rosenwald—led him to pursue a Psy.D. in clinical psychology and join the school’s founding class in 1979. “I had a drive for more self-understanding and more understanding of what was going on in the world around me,” he said.
After graduating in 1991, he worked at Loretto Hospital’s Addiction Center and completed his post-doctoral internship at St. Elizabeth Hospital. For the past 17 years he has worked at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, where he focuses on palliative care.
“It’s not just end-of-life care though,” he said. “We’re dealing with patients from the onset of diagnosis. That fits well with ministry. Some patients are desirous of a religious component and others are not. In the parish, I’m able to do referrals for psychological services, so my work has broadened both professions.”
With his parish confronting issues like immigration, gang violence, and affordable housing, Dr. Pelton draws on his deep social justice roots to work with nonprofit organizations to help meet the needs of the community—he cofounded the precursor to the Interfaith Leadership Group of Cicero, Berwyn, and Stickney; walked in the Equal Rights March; protested the segregation of the Lewis Towers swimming pool in the 1960s; and has participated in several other demonstrations and rallies through the years.
But Dr. Pelton doesn’t always find it easy to navigate between his two worlds, with patients, colleagues, and parishioners. “If I go into a room (at the hospital) with a drug patient who has HIV, he’ll turn away from me. But if I tell him I’m a priest, it can open him up. It works the other way too. Both have powerful projections.
“Historically, there was a great antipathy between the two professions,” he adds.
“Psychologists thought religion and spirituality were delusional and pathological. And it can be, but in more contemporary times, there are groups in both professions that see an affinity between the two. However, there are still people in the field who don’t have trust in the other.”
He also encounters many people who believe the two professions fit well together and ultimately values the axiom that “grace builds on nature.”
“To live a fuller psychological life, one needs to deal with the eternal questions and universal energies and relationships,” he said. “To live a fuller spiritual life, one needs to deal with one’s psychological demons and potentialities.”