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Hospital chaplain Ian heads for home and bids Bury goodbye

After eight years as lead chaplain at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (WSFT), Ian Howells is retiring to his boyhood home in Wales. His planned move to Bridgend is delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he will be returning to the house where he was brought up, with wife Judith, when restrictions ease.

Ian says the role of hospital chaplain has allowed him to help people as their lives change. “You meet people from all walks of life, often struggling, or finding new meaning and value in life,” he said. “We can talk to anyone about all the things that really matter and help people in distress.”

The chaplains are there for everyone, stressed Ian, whether they have a faith or not. “We help people with their fears and anxieties, the big questions they may never have faced before. It is very rewarding.”

Ian worked to bring local churches and chaplains together, and forged close relationships and great understanding with staff of many faiths at the Trust.

Baptist minister Ian first trained as an engineer and worked for the local river authority. “It was during that time I felt God leading me somewhere I had never thought I would go,” he said. In 1976 Ian entered theological college in Cardiff for four years’ study, taking up his ministry in two churches in Ebbw Vale.

Ian, who has studied to doctorate level, next took up a post in Walthamstow, north-east London. “It was very different, a much more multi-cultural congregation and area, with a big Caribbean and Nigerian population. I was there for ten years and enjoyed it, it taught me a great deal.”

Returning to Wales, Ian took a “big step of faith” to establish a new church based in a school in one of the biggest housing estates in Europe. “Baptist ministers are paid by their congregation, not from central funds, so starting with no congregation was a big risk,” he said. “But the church took off and it’s still there today.”

While hospital chaplaincy had always been part of Ian’s ministry, it was at this stage he went into the role full time, first in Bridgend and then at the West Suffolk. “Everyone has always been so warm and welcoming, I want to say thank you,” said Ian, who sadly has not been able to say all his personal goodbyes due to the pandemic. “I wish everyone well, I will be thinking of them and praying for them,” he said. Ian also sent good wishes to Rufin Emmanuel, the new lead chaplain, who joined the Trust on 1 May.

The family has other links to Suffolk - Ian’s wife Judith was a practice nurse in Brandon, and one of his two daughters trained at the WSH and is a nurse in Haverhill. His other daughter lives in Philadelphia with her husband and year-old baby. 

Ian’s colleagues paid tribute to all he has done for everyone at the Trust and the wider community. Stephen Griffiths, deputy lead chaplain, said, “I thoroughly enjoyed working with Ian. Right from the beginning he made me feel very welcome and part of the team, and we built up a very good relationship of trust and mutual respect. I will miss working with him and wish him rich blessings as he returns to ‘the promised land’ to enjoy a well-earned retirement.”

Cheryl Unsworth, chaplaincy administrator, said, “Ian is kind and caring, always bright and cheery, and has so much time for everybody: patients, staff and visitors. He will be a hard act to follow.” Cheryl said Ian had introduced innovations such as visiting patients after they had left hospital, and introducing chaplains into GP surgeries. “Ian brought the whole community into the Trust,” she said.

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Revd Ian Howells (far right) in the West Suffolk Hospital chapel accompanied by (left to right) Revd Stephen Griffiths and Cheryl Unsworth chaplaincy administrator

Revd Ian Howells (far right) in the West Suffolk Hospital chapel accompanied by (left to right) Revd Stephen Griffiths and Cheryl Unsworth chaplaincy administrator