Our Lady of the Holyland Parish, with five sites northeast of Fond du Lac, provides free burial for pre-born babies. (Submitted photo)

When members of Our Lady of the Holyland Catholic Parish attended an archdiocesan-wide conference five years ago, they heard a simple but intriguing proposition.

What if every Catholic parish cemetery had a special section for the remains of miscarried babies?

The challenge came from Krys Crawley, director of Life’s Connection, a nonprofit, pro-life health care center in Waukesha County offering a variety of support services to families. One of those services is outreach to mothers experiencing a miscarriage.

What Crawley wants everyone to understand — and what she asked attendees of that conference five years ago to communicate to their parishioners — is that “if you are suffering a miscarriage, you’re not alone; the Church and the archdiocese are here for you,” she said. “There is help available.”

Sr. Jenada Fanetti, S.D.S., Pastoral Care Minister at Our Lady of the Holyland Catholic Parish (located northeast of Fond du Lac), was struck by the novelty of this concept. “This is a whole group of people we have not previously ministered to,” Sr. Jenada said.

As a pastoral care minister, she knows the pain of miscarriage is something a mother and father can carry — often silently — with them for the remainder of their lives. “I do ministry to the elderly, and I can’t tell you how many of those people have told me they had one miscarriage or two or three miscarriages, or their mother had a miscarriage,” said Sr. Jenada. “Years ago, there was no place for them.”

The group took the idea to their then-pastor, Fr. Gary Wagner, O.F.M. Cap., who gave his support, and a collection was taken up to create space in the parish cemetery for the remains of miscarried babies. The response of the parish was overwhelmingly positive, Sr. Jenada said.

“Many of these women have had miscarriages. I think what touched them was this was a reality in their lives, or the lives of someone (whom) they loved, and there was no response or anyone ministering to the individual at the time,” she said. “They were so happy to know that we are going to be responding to this need.”

Burial sites have now been created at the St. Cloud, St. Mary’s and St. John the Baptist parish cemeteries (Our Lady of the Holyland comprises Holy Cross Church in Mount Calvary, St. Cloud and St. Joseph in St. Cloud, St. Mary in New Holstein and St. John in Malone).

Burial is completely free of charge and open to anyone living in the parish’s geographical boundaries, Catholic or non-Catholic. It is also open to the family members of Holy Land parishioners.

Each burial is distinguished by a cross with a corresponding number, so parents can return to visit their child’s resting place. Sr. Jenada crafted a simple prayer service that families can use at the gravesite, either on their own or with the assistance of herself or a priest.

Mary Feldner, a Holyland parishioner who assists with the ministry, has an intimate understanding of the grieving process that takes place after the death of a child in the womb. Two of her daughters have lost children, one to miscarriage and one at 26 weeks’ gestation (miscarriage is defined as the loss of life before 20 weeks’ gestation).

“When we lost Gabe (her grandson who passed at 26 weeks), the number of women at my workplace who came up to me with tears in their eyes and talked about the miscarriages they experienced — elderly women who told me how people just kind of shun that and say, ‘Oh, you’ll have another one, it’s OK,’” Feldner said. “This was a human being and they are with God, that’s true — but they still were a part of you. It’s important to acknowledge, for the whole healing process.”

In creating this ministry, Sr. Jenada relied on guidance and training provided by Crawley, as well as expertise offered by other parishes in the archdiocese with similar programs, including St. Jerome in Oconomowoc.

St. Jerome has offered free burials for babies in their cemetery for several years, said Tim Boelter, Cemetery Sexton for the parish. The families are not all from the parish, and they are not all Catholic, either. The parish pastors have always been supportive and made themselves available for a graveside service, he said.

“I just saw the big need,” Boelter said of the ministry. “I’ve heard some of the horrendous stories of what used to happen in some of the hospitals (with the baby’s remains) if you had a miscarriage, and I just thought that wasn’t right.

“It really means something to these families to have a Christian burial,” said Brian Willbrandt, Cemetery Coordinator at St. Francis Borgia Parish in Cedarburg. “It doesn’t fill that hole, but it makes (them) feel a little better. This is a local option for families to have their babies near them. I think it means a lot that they can come and visit.”

St. Francis Borgia has offered free burials for any babies, miscarried or full-term, parishioner or non-parishioner, in their cemetery for the past five years. There is a special section of the cemetery designated for the burials, or parents can purchase a plot for themselves in the cemetery and the baby’s plot will be placed next to it free of charge.

It’s possible for any parish to replicate the ministries that have been put in place by the Holy Land, St. Jerome and St. Francis Borgia, said Crawley.

“It’s always been our goal to get this in all the churches,” she said.

For a mother and family experiencing this loss, it’s essential to “be able to grieve with your parish community, to have the support of your parish priest and the people surrounding you.”

“In the past, and still, having a miscarriage or a loss is kept hush-hush,” she said. But by talking about the reality of miscarriage and infant loss, young families can be better prepared to know what to do when a loss occurs.

Parishes can contact Life’s Connection for information about starting their own burial program, and Crawley and her colleagues will visit the parish to provide training and resources.

“It’s time to change the culture we live in. It’s time to change the way we handle the loss of these babies and address how we care for the families facing a loss,” she said. “It not only strengthens your church, it strengthens your family, in the end. I believe that we are going to develop a culture that really respects life through honoring our miscarried babies and remembering them at the same time.”

For more information, visit lifesconnection.info/miscarriage-program-info.