Labor of love

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

The loss of a stillborn baby several years ago has turned into a full-time Catholic ministry for families with a similar loss.

It all began when Maria Payne, caretaker for Monday Night Disciple member Donald Sampey’s son, Alex Boudreaux, lost her grandchild and didn’t know what to do.

Sampey said Joe Catalanotto, a fellow Monday Night Disciple, knew of a group that could help with the burial of the baby. Then Payne asked, “Mr. D (Donald), why don’t you build a casket for me?” 

While not a woodworker, Sampey and other members of the Monday Night Disciples at St. Clement of Rome figured out how to make a small casket and have made approximately 110 for babies of families in need of burial assistance or babies who are abandoned. The ministry is called “Skylar’s Project,” named after Payne’s grandchild. 

Tiny caskets

The youngest baby buried in one of the group’s caskets was 8 weeks old, the oldest 2 years old. Families from as far away as Lafayette have obtained a casket, and one father insisted on building the casket for his child himself.

“We showed him how to do it, and he did it,” Sampey said. “It was rough (for everyone involved).” He said the hardest ones to make are the little ones.

Not only do the men make the caskets but they also can provide music for free at a funeral service by request. 

The Monday Night Disciples recently consulted with the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Cemetery Office to pay for a quadruple tomb for unborn babies in St. Patrick No. 1 Cemetery’s Holy Innocents Prayer Garden. Inscribed on the tomb are the words, “All God’s Babies.”

The tomb was dedicated and blessed by Archbishop Gregory Aymond in a special ceremony Jan. 22. 

“We’ve been touched by the Lord, and he drives us,” Sampey said. “We didn’t know where it was going, but we put trust in the Lord, and he provided.”

Payne has remained involved as well. She makes baby burial gowns, caps and blankets for the babies and lines each casket out of donated wedding dresses.

Remains busy

Once word got out that the Monday Night Disciples, founded in 1985, were making the cypress caskets, requests came in regularly, requiring Sampey and his fellow disciples to close in his porch and expand his backyard pool house to give them space to make and store the caskets, equipment and materials needed. 

Most equipment has been donated over the years by members, but the disciples are in the process of buying a new carving and engraving tool with a flexible shaft to make it easier for engraving specialist Ken Martinez, a fellow disciple, to engrave names.

“We kept extending the space, and we’re about to extend it again,” Sampey. Other members store materials and caskets. “We like to keep our inventory built up (12 of each size) in case we get an order for a certain size. That way we just have to put a name on it.” 

The men use the choicest and priciest of woods – cypress – for the caskets and engrave every one with a cross painted in gold and the baby’s name, Sampey said. Only white wedding gowns are used to line the caskets, representing the purity of the babies.

“We’ve got the best of all for these babies,” Sampey said.

For the past two years, the wood has been donated.

“We’ve had people buy the wood for us,” he said. 

Parents get a choice of a casket with a natural cypress finish or one that is stained. It takes a day or two to complete a casket from start to finish.

The Monday Night Disciples are working with St. Joseph Abbey Woodworks and their cypress casket-making operation, organized by Deacon Mark Coudrain, to take the scrap pieces of wood they can’t use. In a test project, the abbey also will be a place where parents on the northshore who have lost their babies can pick up a casket for burial.

“This has become another part of our ministry,” said Sampey. “All of us are pro-life. … I can’t even think of not burying babies who may, at one point, be thrown into the trash by a hospital or whatever. No baby should be treated that way.”

A new project for the men is making portable altars for priests that fit in a suitcase and have enough storage for a chalice, hosts, holy oils or whatever else is needed when serving outside of a church. 

The Monday Night Disciples Catholic Men’s Prayer Group study, pray and live in the service of Christ. Men meet every Monday at 7 p.m. at St. Clement of Rome in Metairie and at Most Holy Trinity Church in Covington. They also hold prayer breakfasts, pray at abortion clinics and attend an annual retreat at St. Joseph Abbey. For details, email mondaynightdisciples@gmail.com or visit monday nightdisciples.org. For casket information, call 454-6094.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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