Chaplaincy endorsement opens ministry opportunities outside the church.

Wearing Additional Hats

Catherine Peternel adds police and jail chaplain duties to senior adult pastor role.
Renée Griffith Grantham

Catherine Durr Peternel is a threefold blessing to Noblesville, Indiana: she serves as the senior adults pastor and director of pastoral care for four campuses of Life Church; she is the first female chaplain for the city’s police department; and she works as the only female jail chaplain in the county. And she’s 73 years old.

An ordained Assemblies of God minister the past 48 years, Peternel moved with her husband, Daniel, from Pennsylvania to Indiana in 2018 at the behest of her son Nathan, lead pastor of Life Church. She had spent 28 years as an Assemblies of God chaplain for Allegheny Health Network.

“He hired me because he thought hospital chaplaincy would be beneficial for a pastor of senior adults’ ministry and pastoral care,” Peternel says. She currently leads over 370 adults among Life Church’s four campuses, providing pastoral care and organizing events.

Missing the camaraderie of her longtime local clergy group in Pennsylvania, she searched for a similar organization upon moving to Noblesville. A police officer answered the phone when she called the community relations office.

“I told him I was a former hospital chaplain looking for a ministerium, and he told me he was a police officer looking for a police chaplain,” Peternel says. “I felt the Lord was opening an opportunity.” After prayer and several conversations, she became the first female chaplain for the Noblesville Police Department.

She has held this position in the growing north Indianapolis suburb of 69,604 for four years. She delivers about 40% of death notifications for the department, and goes on ride-alongs with officers, wearing a bulletproof vest.

Peternel does not feel limited by her gender — or her age.

“Because I’m female and I’m older, the police officers talk more easily to me,” she says. “The people we meet on calls can be very receptive because they see a grandma standing there.”

Peternel went on a call for a young man who committed suicide. The family insisted on seeing the body afterward. The father fell into Peternel’s arms, weeping.

“I was so grateful to provide him an opportunity to express his grief,” Peternel says.

David L. Nicholson, lead chaplain for the Noblesville Police Department for 32 years, attests to the calming presence that Peternel brings to such a scene.

“She has such a gentle spirit,” says Nicholson, 64. “Her love for people is evident,even if she’s meeting them for the first time. Catherine inspires people not only because she’s female, but because she is outstanding at her work.”

Nicholson cites Galatians 3:28.

“She’s just living out her calling as a compassionate minister, loving God and people.”

Nicholson acknowledges that there have been occasional difficulties presented by people who aren’t used to the idea of a female chaplain, but Peternel isn’t deterred.

“She’s not the here-to-fight type,” Nicholson says. “But I know Catherine wears many hats in chaplaincy and pastoral ministries, and I consider it an honor to minister beside her, wherever she is.”

Peternel also has seen police officers change their perception of what it means to know God. One officer and his ex-wife began attending services at Life Church, subsequently remarried, and are now active congregants. Another officer’s wife was healed of a physical illness through God’s supernatural touch, so they began attending Life Church.

As Life Church seeks a new pastor at one of its campuses, Peternel fills in on the occasional Sunday, relishing each opportunity for expository preaching.

Her latest venture is serving as the sole female jail chaplain at the Hamilton County Jail in a county with 347,467 residents. She often works one-on-one with women inmates. She credits much prayer and a visit from AG national correctional chaplain representative Daniel J. Odean as the reason the opportunity came to fruition.

“Initially this was a closed door, but the day after chaplain Odean and I prayed together, I received an email from the jail asking me to come talk about being a chaplain,” Peternel says

With seemingly unbounded energy, Peternel accepts each opportunity that comes her way as a gift from God to steward.

“I don’t think my energy is mine; I think it’s the Lord’s,” says Peternel, quoting Deuteronomy 33:25. “I always told Him that whatever He puts in my hands to do, I’m going to do it with all my might.” Peternel’s schedule can be such that would tax any age. She regularly wakes up at 5 a.m., but may not get to sleep until midnight.

Her secret to remaining at-the-ready is her daily time with God.

“Time we spend with the Lord gives us strength,” she says. “If I couldn’t find that place of refreshment with Him, I couldn’t do this.”

Peternel has no plans to retire from Life Church, nor to stop serving in either volunteer chaplain position.

“I don’t know that I believe in retirement in the kingdom of God,” she says. “I have never been happier in ministry than I am now. As long as God gives me breath, I’m going to keep doing this.”