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Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey, founder of Garden of Innocents, spoke about babies Isidore and Anthony, who were buried Feb. 12 in a shared casket at Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis. The casket was one of several made and donated by students at Northwest High School in Jefferson County. Other volunteer efforts include the Piecemakers sewing group at First Assembly of God Church in St. Peters, who make layettes for the babies.
Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey, founder of Garden of Innocents, spoke about babies Isidore and Anthony, who were buried Feb. 12 in a shared casket at Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis. The casket was one of several made and donated by students at Northwest High School in Jefferson County. Other volunteer efforts include the Piecemakers sewing group at First Assembly of God Church in St. Peters, who make layettes for the babies.
Photo Credit: Jerry Naunheim Jr.

Garden of Innocents provides dignified burials for unclaimed infants and children

Garden of Innocents provides dignified burials for some of God’s littlest ones

In front of an altar in the chapel at Calvary Cemetery, a small wooden casket containing the remains of two infant boys was placed on a table.

Baby Anthony was born at 22 weeks gestation, approximately two pounds, two ounces. His mother, addicted to opioids, had given birth in a shed. The mother and child were transported to the hospital. Anthony did not survive, and the mother left the hospital against medical advice, never to return.

Baby Isidore was a full-term baby but weighed only three pounds two ounces. The child was discovered years after his death, under gruesome circumstances. The woman believed to be his mother also was deceased; no other family could be located to claim the child.

The infants’ lives were commended to God at a prayer service Feb. 12 at Calvary Cemetery in north St. Louis. The service was hosted by Garden of Innocents, a nonprofit organization that provides dignified burials for unclaimed children and infants in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Since its inception, the organization has buried more than 40 infants and children without any next of kin and who otherwise would not have had a proper burial.

“Whether someone is here for 90 years or 90 minutes, their life is intrinsically valuable to God,” said founder Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey. “And they’re made in the image and likeness of God. Today we’re mourning the loss of potential. Every time we gather here and think about these babies passing away, we’re mourning the loss of what could have been for our community, what could have been for this individual.

“In doing this celebration of life and committal of their earthy body, we’re restoring them to the dignity that they deserve,” she said. “The body is the warehouse for the soul, and it deserves reverence and respect. “

The garden’s beginnings

In 2003, Navarro-McKelvey saw a news report about Destiny Daniels, a two-and-a-half-month-old who had been beaten to death by her mother, who struggled with mental illness.

“I was under the impression that she had no family,” said Navarro-McKelvey, who at the time was an attorney with a private law firm. She called the St. Louis medical examiner’s office and said, “If I can get a place to bury this child, will you give her to me?”

Navarro-McKelvey rallied friends and sought donations to help cover the expenses of Destiny’s burial. In her conversation with the medical examiner, she discovered that infants and children who are unclaimed by next of kin traditionally are buried at the city’s expense. Because of a lack of resources, these little ones are typically buried with no clothing, without a memorial service and in unmarked graves. No one was allowed to attend the child’s burial, either, Navarro-McKelvey said.

After that first burial, Garden of Innocents was formed. In the past 17 years, the organization has buried more than 40 infants and children, who are considered unclaimed and are in the care of area medical examiners. After raising money to provide a burial for Destiny, Navarro-McKelvey began working with medical examiners across the area to offer burials for other infants and children. The member of St. Peter Parish in St. Charles later worked for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office, and now serves as a circuit judge in St. Charles County.

She contacted Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and obtained a 20-square-foot section for 60 graves at Calvary Cemetery in North St. Louis, which was donated by the late Msgr. Robert L. McCarthy, who was director of Catholic Cemeteries at the time. Burial services are held either in the chapel at Calvary Cemetery or at the gravesite.

Volunteer effort

A team of individual volunteers and businesses, including people from a variety of faith backgrounds, have donated their time and resources for these burials.

Each child is provided with a casket, a teddy bear and a handmade blanket, booties, hat and burial gown. Volunteers also arrange for at least one natural or silk floral arrangement. A funeral service offers transportation services, including from the medical examiner’s office and to the gravesite.

A member of the clergy presides at the memorial service, which includes music by volunteer Mark Rice, a graveside prayer and a reading of “Little Angel of Innocence,” a poem by volunteer Barbara Huber. The organization makes sure at least one volunteer is present for the service. The children’s names also are inscribed on a permanent memorial stone.

Also donated to the site is a granite bench, inscribed with the words “Garden of Innocents,” which was made possible through a donation from members of the Esther K. Harris Order of the Eastern Star, chapter 11, and the Epsilon Sigma Alpha-Rho Chi chapter.

Deacon Peter Gounis, a retired permanent deacon at St. Ferdinand Parish in Florissant, has been involved with the organization since its early days. He learned about Garden of Innocents through his former florist business, which he sold in the late 1980s. One day during a visit with the new owner, he saw she was making a funeral arrangement that was to be donated for a burial service. He visited the organization’s website and signed up as a volunteer.

“Everybody is important in the eyes of God,” Deacon Gounis said. “We don’t judge the families — we don’t know all of their circumstances; and we just have to entrust them to the Lord.”

Konrad Sauer and Gregg Jost of St. Charles Borromeo Parish attended the Feb. 12 burial service. Jost learned about the organization after hearing Navarro-McKelvey speak to teens virtually as part of the archdiocesan Generation Life program in January. “God brought me to the pro-life event with my son and seeing Rebecca’s talk on this ministry just pulled a string. It hit home, giving these babies a proper sendoff to heaven,” Jost said.

Navarro-McKelvey said the group is seeking volunteers, especially priests and deacons to preside at burial services, music ministers, and people to help make small wooden caskets. Other volunteer services needed include making funeral programs, photography and assistance with social media.

The public also is welcome to attend the burial services.

>> For more information

Visit Garden of Innocents on Facebook (GardenofInnocents) or email [email protected].

>> Praying for the dead: A spiritual work of mercy

Prayer is one of the most important ways we show support for others. Joining together in prayer for the living and the dead entrusts us all into God’s care. We believe that God hears and responds to our prayers. We believe that we can assist those in need by praying for them. Praying for the living and the dead is considered a spiritual work of mercy.

Throughout the Gospel accounts, Jesus sets the example for us by praying continually, including praying for his disciples. St. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17 that the task of the Christian is to “rejoice always” and to “pray without ceasing.” The following are some ways in which we can pray for the deceased:

• Request a Mass intention for a friend or family member who is going through a tough time.

• Request a Mass intention for a friend or family member who has passed away.

• Keep your own book of prayer intentions, writing down the names of those who you are keeping in your prayers.

• Ask a friend or family member if there is anything you can pray for them about.

• Through prayer, entrust your cares and concerns for those around you to God.

>> Burying the dead: A corporal work of mercy

Funerals give us the opportunity to grieve and show others support during difficult times. Through our prayers and actions during these times we show our respect for life, which is always a gift from God, and comfort to those who mourn. These are several ways in which we can give respect to the deceased:

• Send a card to someone who has recently lost a loved one. Make your own card and use some of these prayers.

• Visit the cemetery and pray for those you have lost.

• Spend time planning your own funeral Mass, read through the Order of Christian Funerals and find our hope in the Resurrection.

• Volunteer with a parish ministry that assists with funerals. Garden of Innocents also welcomes people to attend burial services and to volunteer in other capacities.

Source: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

>> Laudato Si’ gardening club

The archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate has formed “Laudato Si’” a gardening club to provide upkeep of the Rachel’s Healing Garden located on the grounds of Resurrection Cemetery in Affton. The garden, located in section 45 of the cemetery, is a quiet place for people, especially those who have lost a baby to abortion, to pray and reflect on God’s healing presence.

Plans are being made to improve the garden with additional plants, benches and other features. “We want to envision with this committee how we can develop this into a healing garden,” said Respect Life Apostolate executive director Cynthia Haehnel. “We’ll be looking at plants that are aromatic and cheery, something a person would want on the road to healing to feel God’s mercy.”

Project Rachel and Project Joseph are two ministries that provide healing and hope for women and men, respectively, who have been wounded by abortion. The ministries offer free, confidential professional counseling, spiritual support groups, retreats and spiritual direction and reconciliation. For more information on either group, call (314) 792-7565; or email [email protected] for Project Rachel or [email protected] for Project Joseph.

For more information on the Laudato Si’ gardening club, contact Madeleine Appelbaum at [email protected] or at (314) 792-7598.

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