Florida diocese opens ‘Precious Ones’ mausoleum to support couples who lose children — By: Catholic News Agency

Families, donors, and others gather with Bishop Erik Pohlmeier for the dedication of the “Precious Ones Baby Mausoleum” at the San Lorenzo Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida, on April 23, 2024. / Credit: Fran Ruchalski/courtesy of the Archdiocese of St. Augustine

CNA Staff, Apr 26, 2024 / 09:51 am (CNA).

Families gathered with St. Augustine Bishop Erik Pohlmeier on a sunny Tuesday this week for the dedication of the “Precious Ones Baby Mausoleum” at the city’s San Lorenzo Cemetery.

Six years in the making, the 44,000-pound granite mausoleum is designed for babies lost at a young age through miscarriage, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), or stillborn births. A brick walkway marked by a charcoal cross leads up to the brilliant white mausoleum, which is full of burial spaces that are ready to honor little ones. 

Miscarriages are common events, and women often suffer through them quietly, one 2018 study found. About 10% to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, usually because of development issues, according to the Mayo Clinic. 

More than 20,000 babies are stillborn every year in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are more than 3,000 reported cases of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) in the U.S. each year.

“It’s beautiful to see all those families that were there today, that were together,” Maureen Shilkunas, director of the Office of Human Life and Dignity at the Diocese of St. Augustine, told CNA in a video call. “I think about all the children that they have lost together and they’ll all be entombed together.” 

Shilkunas works closely with couples who experience miscarriage or child loss and helps them prepare for the memorial. The remains of miscarried babies are buried together, in a communal entombment, because they are so small. 

“It’s a very unusual and a very unique situation to think that we all, when we go to funerals, unless it’s our own family, you really don’t know who we’re buried next to or entombed next to,” she continued. 

“But what an opportunity that today was given to these families to see all of these siblings playing together on the lawn and attending Mass together, knowing that their siblings who are home with God will also be together.” 

“And that’s really a special thought to see that, how they’re all together and having that fellowship.”

The crypt was a $250,000 project, largely a gift of the laity to the local Church. Michael Hoffman, the director of stewardship and development at the diocese, found that people were eager to give. 

Once Hoffman got the word out, it took only six months to raise the funds and another three months to build the mausoleum.  

May Oliver, the previous director of the human life office, took inspiration for the Precious Ones Mausoleum from a former law in Texas that required burial for all remains of children who died from abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth.

A woman who had lost two daughters during pregnancy called the diocese asking for help. Though the diocese would sometimes bury miscarried babies in the Catholic cemetery, Oliver wanted to offer more resources to her and other families in these situations.

She decided to start a “Campaign for the Precious Ones” in her diocese, offering Masses for couples who had miscarried or lost a child. 

But the long-term goal was the Precious Ones Mausoleum. 

Bishop Erik Pohlmeier blesses the “Precious Ones Baby Mausoleum” at the San Lorenzo Cemetery in St. Augustine, Florida, on April 23, 2024. Credit: Fran Ruchalski/courtesy of the Archdiocese of St. Augustine

“It is really an educational process,” Oliver told CNA in a phone call. “Before, we used to be much more aware that these babies should be buried, but we have to reeducate our Catholic community and the community at large.”

Miscarriages are often “not acknowledged in many ways,” Shilkunas said. 

Parents often have to request the remains from the hospital, and in some hospitals, the remains are even treated as clinical waste and incinerated. Women often report a lack of social support, understanding, or even acknowledgement of their loss. 

“It’s really time to be talking about these things,” Shilkunas said. “And it’s time for us to let people know that this should be the common conversation, that we really should be able to walk through [it with] mothers and fathers.”

Pohlmeier noted that the pain of the loss is “made worse” when hospitals “don’t treasure that gift [of life].”

“There are lots of people who take that [gift of life] very seriously and then suffer the loss of a child … that immediately touches their hearts and moves them in a way that only the awareness of this gift of life can do,” Pohlmeier told CNA.

“For the pain that people feel because we treasure the gift of life from its earliest moments, we ought to treat the situation with every dignity and respect,” the bishop said.

The diocese built relationships with local funeral homes and hospitals so that couples can hear about Precious Ones in their time of need. Each of the 12 empty crypts will be named for a saint so that they will be easy to identify for visiting family members. Hoffman told CNA that he hopes to add a reflection garden surrounding the mausoleum.

Any couple, regardless of their faith background, can have their child buried in the mausoleum at no cost to them. Pohlmeier said that even those who aborted their child could bring remains to be buried. 

He anticipated that as chemical abortions at home increase, there may be more “immediate regret,” with mothers having to deal more directly “with the remains.”  

“That experience of [the] healing the power of God and the suffering of loss might come as a shock to some people after it’s too late,” Pohlmeier added. “But of course, that doesn’t change for us at all the care and respect that we would show to both mother and child in those situations.”

When asked what it was like to finally see the mausoleum at its dedication, Oliver said it was “beautiful.”

The dedication involved a Mass concelebrated by five priests and Pohlmeier, with the Knights of Columbus color guard attending in full regalia, wearing berets and carrying swords. 

It was a “cloudless blue sky,” Oliver recalled, and Pohlmeier’s homily, which touched on how loving one’s neighbor extends “to those that have lost the life of a child,” stood out to her. 

“It was beautiful, heartfelt,” Hoffman said of the homily. “And he touched everybody, not necessarily [just] the parents that have lost kids, but the people that supported the endeavor, the initiative, people that prayed on it.”

The mausoleum not only helps honor unborn children and the grief of their parents but could also have an effect on hospitals and “to our culture as a whole,” Pohlmeier told CNA. 

“The simple existence of it has a certain evangelization quality in raising the awareness of how precious a life in the womb is,” Pohlmeier noted. 

“It seems crucial to our pro-life witness and to our responding to the grief of families in our parishes,” he continued.

“This is really a testament to our faith, our Church, and especially the Diocese of St. Augustine that we value life so much that we will erect something to make sure that [lost children] have a proper burial,” Oliver said. 

“My hope is that other dioceses and other states take this on because I can only tell you the comfort that it is bringing to families, and the beauty and the dignity that it is showing to them the way we honor [the children],” Shilkunas added. 

Shilkunas recalled seeing “the pride” that parents had at the dedication ceremony “in talking about these children in front of their children who are running around.” 

“It’s a beautiful opportunity,” she said. 

“It’s a testament to the diocese,” Hoffman added. “It’s going to be there forever, and it’s a testament to the diocese that we value life.”

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