New prayer garden memorializes ‘Holy Innocents’

By Beth Donze

A statue of Rachel – the Old Testament mother who has become a modern-day touchstone for those reeling from the death of a baby – graces a new cemetery prayer garden dedicated to children lost through miscarriage, abortion or other circumstances preventing the burial of their remains.

The Holy Innocents Prayer Garden, located in the rear of St. Patrick Cemetery No. 1, 5000 Canal St., will be unveiled to the public at the archdiocesan Memorial Service for the Unborn, set for Jan. 22 at noon.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond will preside at the service, which will include a blessing of the newly completed prayer garden.

“Our cemeteries need to be places of prayer and sacredness, so I’m hoping this garden will be a place of comfort where any father or mother can come out and pray for their lost babies, and also have the option to memorialize them,” said Sherri Peppo, executive director of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries.

Inlaid cross, ‘kneeling’ statue

The prayer garden, a collaboration between the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Cemeteries and Respect Life offices, was funded anonymously through The Catholic Foundation Right to Life Special Projects Fund. Fittingly, it is located next to St. Patrick No. 1’s Calvary Mausoleum, which has two vaults designated for the burial of babies lost to abortion, miscarriage and indigency.

The 11-by-20-foot, rectangular garden, which can be entered via a handicapped-accessible ramp and curved walkway, is bordered by hedges of Japanese yew and plantings of azaleas, liriope, crape myrtles and rotating annuals.

Bricking set in the garden’s concrete pavement is arranged in the shape of a cross. A bench situated at the foot of this inlaid cross will allow visitors to gaze upon the statue of Rachel directly opposite from them. Made of composite marble and backed by lattice planted with Confederate jasmine, the sculpture depicts a somber-faced Rachel kneeling on the ground in grief, holding roses on her lap. The 35-inch-tall figure rises an additional 42 inches atop its granite-covered, concrete base.

Located near babies’ tombs

Plans for the garden began a year ago, when Archbishop Aymond asked if St. Patrick No. 1 – where unborn and abandoned babies had been interred for several years by the non-profit Compassionate Burials for Indigent Babies – might make a more fitting site for the Memorial Service for the Unborn, an annual gathering co-sponsored by the Respect Life Office and Louisiana Right to Life. Since the early 1980s, that service had been held in St. Patrick Cemetery No. 3 on City Park Avenue, in recent years around that cemetery’s small monument to babies lost to abortion.

Respect Life director Debbie Shinskie and Benjamin Clapper, executive director of Louisiana Right to Life, took the archbishop’s idea to change the service’s venue to Peppo in the Cemeteries Office. The trio ultimately decided to create a prayer space at St. Patrick No. 1 not only for those impacted by abortion, but for families that had experienced miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death.

Shinskie notes that until 2016, there was no clear, legislatively protected path for parents to receive their unborn child’s remains after a miscarriage, which stymied the grieving process for those who desired this option.

“It’s ‘normal’ in our culture, when there’s a death, that there are certain steps that are taken for a loved one – there’s a wake; there’s prayer and time together with your loved ones; then there is the funeral, the Mass, the burial and a place to go after (the burial),” Shinskie said. “Parents who have lost an unborn child have nowhere to go, so we have this garden space that we have created for them, even though their children are not (physically) there.”

A place where grief can flow

Although Shinskie said she had been moved by the various parish-based memorials to the unborn she had visited while scouting design ideas for the garden, she believes a cemetery makes an ideal site for such a prayer space.

“A cemetery is a place where parents can be comfortable with their grief, where we can normalize our grief and come to terms with it and accept it,” Shinskie said. “The setting is conducive to being in prayer, conducive to sitting with your child and pouring out your heart to God.

“It’s a very visual thing, too,” she added. “You see this statue of Rachel, who is clearly in a posture of grief and distress, and it might help parents to not feel alone in their own grief.”

To attend the Jan. 22 Memorial Service for the Unborn, enter St. Patrick Cemetery No. 1, 5000 Canal St., through the front gates on Canal or the side gates at South Bernadotte and Palmyra streets. The Cemeteries Office soon will offer small bronze plaques on which families can memorialize their lost babies and have them installed on the base of the Rachel statue. For information, call 596-3050.

The new Holy Innocents Prayer Garden is located next to Calvary Mausoleum, in the rear of St. Patrick Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery’s front gates are at 5000 Canal Street.
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