ST. BERNARD'S COMMENCEMENT ceremony: graduates Theresa St. Germain, Ann McCauley, Dr. Joseph Lalka, Rosemary Gavin and Deacon Gary Miles, and Tracy Watson holding the book of prayers for Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard.
ST. BERNARD'S COMMENCEMENT ceremony: graduates Theresa St. Germain, Ann McCauley, Dr. Joseph Lalka, Rosemary Gavin and Deacon Gary Miles, and Tracy Watson holding the book of prayers for Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard.

After 25 years in medicine, Dr. Joseph Lalka, a retired family physician from Columbia County, is one of this year’s graduates from St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Albany, the Diocese’s graduate school for theology.

“My sister said I was absolutely crazy for doing this,” joked Dr. Lalka, but he found the program an “enlightening and stimulating” experience.

St. Bernard’s commencement ceremony was held May 11 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester for 15 students from the dioceses of Rochester, Syracuse and Albany. Of the six graduates from the Albany Diocese, three received masters of arts degrees in pastoral studies (MAPS) and three received masters of arts in divinity (MDiv).

Dr. Lalka received his MAPS and said that the commencement ceremony was a surprisingly proud moment: “I wasn’t expecting it to be, but it was. People said, ‘Congratulations,’ and posted [the ceremony] on Facebook.”

The degree from St. Bernard’s was initially planned to be a stepping-stone to Dr. Lalka’s goal of becoming a board-certified chaplain in the Albany Diocese. While his desire to become board-certified has changed, his hope of providing a ministry of service has not.

“I see the need, and I want to serve,” he told The Evangelist.

Ever since he was young, Dr. Lalka knew he wanted to go into medicine.

“God called me,” he said. During his senior year of high school, he contracted meningitis, but completely recovered. His mother believes this made him pursue a career as a doctor.

Dr. Lalka studied at Rutgers University, where he met his wife, and at New York University. He completed his residency at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse and later moved to Columbia County, where he worked as a family physician.

In 2007, Dr. Lalka retired from his practice and began working as a primary care physician for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2013, he retired completely and began looking for his next path.

Dr. Lalka first considered becoming a deacon, and spoke with David Amico of the diocesan Office of Lay Ministry and Parish Faith Formation. Mr. Amico suggested he look into becoming a board-certified chaplain instead. Certification would qualify him to obtain a salaried position as chaplain in a hospital as a means to earn some money in retirement.

To become certified, Dr. Lalka had to complete four “units” of clinical pastoral education (CPE) and earn a master’s degree. Each unit consists of 300 hours of clinical time working with patients and 100 hours of classroom education.

In 2014, Dr. Lalka began his studies at St. Bernard’s to obtain the required master’s degree. The same year, he started working toward his CPE; by 2017, he had completed all four units of clinical time, working at Albany Medical Center.

Today, Dr. Lalka continues to volunteer as a chaplain for Albany Med. He said it’s similar to his prior career.

“As a family doctor, you listen; you be present. That’s what I do as a chaplain,” he explained.

After obtaining his CPE, Dr. Lalka expanded his volunteer work, also serving as a chaplain for Columbia Memorial Hospital. He saw that the hospital lacked a chaplains’ program and hoped to create one, but realized over time that the project would be too much for him to pursue.

He has also decided against getting his board certification, despite having obtained all the requirements. He’s happy to be “serving God without being employed to do it.”

Dr. Lalka believes that having a medical background helps him as a chaplain: “I have more of an understanding than other people. [Patients] just spiritually need addressing.”

The other day, Dr. Lalka prayed with a mother and her newborn baby. It made him recall the days when he delivered babies.

“That was a joy,” he said — and “it’s an utter privilege” to be a chaplain.

(Learn more about St. Bernard's at www.stbernards.edu.)