Ministry honors babies lost too soon

WINTER PARK | After delivering four healthy girls, Elizabeth and Russ Wilson had no reason to expect the outcome of this pregnancy would be any different. In August 2020, Elizabeth went in for a routine 12-week ultrasound without Russ because of COVID-19 restrictions. As the tech began the procedure, she asked Elizabeth if she was sure of her due date because the baby was quite small. She informed her there was no heartbeat. “I felt in a daze, but thought to ask for a copy of an ultrasound photo before I was ushered to the room to wait for the doctor,” Elizabeth recalled.

Her doctor sent her home to see if she would miscarry the child naturally. Otherwise, she would require medical intervention. “I asked (the doctor) if we were able to (recognize the baby), then what should we do.” The doctor replied as sympathetically as she could to “flush everything.” In most states, including Florida, a child miscarried earlier than 20 weeks of age in utero is considered medical waste.

“Russ and I were heartbroken and the thought of disposing of our child that way was so painful,” Elizabeth said. Then, she remembered an email from Queen of Angels Cemetery in Winter Park. She quickly went to the website and discovered a section for unborn babies. “Our baby stopped growing at 7 weeks old or the size of a blueberry,” Elizabeth noted. “We knew it was extremely unlikely we would even be able to recover the body, but especially knowing that there could be a burial place available to her, we prayed that it might happen.” The night before her appointment, the miscarriage began naturally. “We saw our baby. She was small enough to fit on the tip of my pinkie finger. We decided on the name Philomena, whose feast day had been a few days before and who is the patron saint of infants, babies, and youth,” Elizabeth explained.

When she called Queen of Angels, Diocese of Orlando Director of Cemeteries, David Branson connected her with Cemetery Manager Tim Tully, whose brainchild was the Kingdom of Heaven Ministry. The ministry accompanies families who have miscarried children, assisting them with proper Catholic burial.

“Right away he (Tully) asked me what we named our child and the rest of the conversation and every time we spoke afterwards, he always called her by name. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that,” Elizabeth said. Tully noted, “Each child has a purpose and a name,” recalling Jeremiah 1:1 – “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…”

Within minutes of speaking with Branson, Deacon Joe Gassman called “to see if there was anything we needed and to assure us of his prayers.” Deacon Gassman was instrumental in making the ministry a reality. “I am passionate about it,” he said emotionally. “There’s a piece of me that says there’s a wound. Too often with this tragedy (of miscarriage), you can’t explain it; nobody wants to talk about it; but it’s real. The reality is that every day there is a young mother who miscarries,” he said pausing to collect himself. “And we have an answer, but nobody knows it.”

He added, “Miscarriage does not make them any less of a child. We have the compassionate ministry of consolation here to be able to walk with them.” He said giving the children a proper burial gives them a “touchstone to the divine, knowing that you’ll meet again.”

“Husbands and wives in their love for each other receive the gift of being co-creators with God,” Bishop John Noonan noted. The bishop named the ministry. He added, “All God’s gifts are precious, but most precious and sacred is the gift of life.”

The Wilsons took Philomena’s body to a local funeral home where a small casket was provided. Elizabeth explained to Tully she was very small. He quickly replied, “It doesn’t matter at all. We will give Philomena a burial as fitting for a child of God.” A procession to the gravesite included family, the Wilsons’ parish priest, Father Stephen Baumann and Russ’ brother. “It was a short ceremony, but so beautiful and so healing,” Elizabeth said.

Looking back, Russ reflected, “The loss of an unborn baby is so different in that you don’t have memories of them or physical reminders of their life. We just have the one early ultrasound picture… so to be able to have a place to go to visit her, a place where she is remembered in the Mass, means so much.”

He has participated in the monthly Mass for the deceased a few times and Elizabeth took her other daughters (ages 5, 4, 2, and 18 months) to visit their sister and say a prayer on All Souls Day. The girls laughed and played and Tully came out to greet them. Seeing Elizabeth’s concern, Tully assured her “joyful noise” was welcome there. Tully said, “Their younger girls got to see burial and death in a whole different light.”

Elizabeth agrees. “In our home we have an image of St. Philomena on the wall, and we remember her in our prayers and ask her to intercede for us,” she said. “Even though the girls will never know their sister in this life, I feel like she is teaching them so much about life, death, faith, and love.”

The Kingdom of Heaven ministry at Queen of Angels cemetery seeks to serve, at no cost, the families of deceased children from conception up to one year of age. For more information, call Queen of Angels Cemetery, 407-246-4919.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic, January 21, 2021