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Editorial: A priest gives back

People in Easthampton shouldn’t jump to any conclusions if a police cruiser rolls up carrying a priest. It may be the Rev. William Hamilton getting to know members of the force as he settles in to his newest appointment as a police chaplain for the city.

Hamilton has had a remarkable career in this second vocation, as reporter Rebecca Everett explained in a profile last week.

More than 30 years ago, Father Bill, as most know him, was nearly killed in a traffic accident. A caring police officer helped save his life by crawling into his mangled car and hold his head to help him breathe during the hour it took to remove the newly ordained priest from the vehicle. That accident in 1980 sent him to Baystate Medical Center with a compound fracture, concussion and damage to a kidney.

He thought of the experience police officer at the accident scene who, despite being told the priest was too far gone, came to his aid and helped save his life. It all led him to devote himself to helping people through trauma. As he told Everett, “We can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other through it.”

In the late 1980s, Hamilton went even further. He received training as an EMT and worked as a volunteer with a crew in Chicopee for more than a decade. Through that experience he came to see more clearly what emergency crews face and the kinds of support they need from chaplains.

Today, Hamilton serves as chaplain to 11 police and fire departments in the Valley as well as farther afield. He helped counsel public safety employees in Newtown, Conn., after the school shooting there last December and spend more than three weeks in Boston after the Marathon bombing, helping emergency workers through the trauma of responding to people in crisis.

Hamilton takes his responsibility to help people seriously. Members of his parishes know that. But it is in his wider, public role that he continues to have an impact beyond the normal working of his faith and church service.

The priest’s “day job,” so to speak, is as director of worship for the Springfield Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church; he is based in Notre Dame Church in Easthampton, where he served the city’s Immaculate Conception Church from 2000 to 2005 before becoming pastor at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Northampton until it closed as part of a parish consolidation.

The Springfield Diocese is to be credited with enabling Hamilton to bring his expertise as a counselor — for that is the chaplain’s main duty — to places where it is most needed. He was deployed to Newtown and Boston through the National Response Team operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, for which he serves as chaplain to the New England division.

While police and fire crews may seem to have it all together as they respond to emergencies, what people usually see is their professional veneer. Inside, they struggle, as people must, to recover from the violence they are often forced to confront.

Even from his work, Hamilton himself needs counseling at times, he acknowledged to Everett. He said he has many people he “defuses” with, people who, he said, “call me and make sure I’m doing OK.”

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