With temperatures near zero on the evening of Jan. 4, a baby boy spent one of his first hours in a laundry basket left in a cathedral vestibule, where an astonished custodian discovered him as he locked up the church. Uncertain about the baby’s health, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota, baptized the infant while waiting for 911 responders.
Since then, the new little Catholic, christened Nathan John after his rescuers, has captured public attention worldwide and inspired the cathedral’s parishioners and others to consider adopting him.
Sacredness of Life
The rescue of the baby, now safe in the care of Ramsey County Child Protective Services, draws attention to “safe haven” laws in all 50 states that allow for the drop-off of newborn and recently born children in designated hospitals and other facilities.
And during the month of January, especially dedicated to the sanctity of life, the baby’s story underscores the Catholic and pro-life conviction that there are no unwanted children, as well as the call to not only profess pro-life beliefs, but act on them.
Nathan John’s story “speaks to the sacredness of human life and the innate quality in human beings to recognize that,” said Charlie Anderson, the St. Paul police sergeant who supervised the baby’s 911 rescue. “It serves to show how important it is that one little newborn life can bring together people from all spheres, as in how beautiful that little life is and how worthy it is of protection and care.”
The story is also “a reminder that many years ago Catholic convents often were safe havens for babies, and the sisters would find a good home for that child,” said Minneapolis-St. Paul Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who as an associate pastor in 2000 helped start the “Safe Place for Newborns” program, which later became Minnesota’s Safe Haven Law. “Our Church wants to proclaim to the world that no child is unwanted, and it is wonderful to know that a woman thought her baby would find a safe home by bringing him to the cathedral.”
All 50 states have enacted safe-haven legislation. The age of infants that can be dropped off, designated locations and other legal stipulations vary according to state.
According to the U.S. Government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway, four states allow churches to act as safe havens, but the relinquishing parent must first determine that church personnel are present at the time the infant is left. Although the baby’s mother or family may have chosen to leave him at the cathedral because it is a visible landmark, the Minnesota safe-haven law does not include any churches in the state among its designated safe havens for newborns.
Though she maybe didn’t know about the safe-haven law, according to Bishop Cozzens, “I’m sure that this woman knew that the Catholic Church would be a safe place for her child, since our teaching on the dignity of every human life is so well known. Additionally, we have worked hard locally and nationally to restore the reputation of our Church as safe places for vulnerable children. I hope this is what we are called to be and what the Catholic Church has traditionally been.”
Child of God
At about 6pm on the night of the rescue, Nathan Leonhardt, 26, who has worked in maintenance at the cathedral for two and a half years, was closing up the Cathedral of St. Paul after evening Mass. As he checked the entry, which is used less frequently during the week, the door hit the basket containing the baby.
He considered coming back for the basket later, until he heard a noise and checked the contents. He was shocked to find the baby wrapped in a fleece blanket, still covered with wet blood and mucus from the birth and his cut umbilical cord clipped with a paper binder. Leonhardt said he has sometimes found homeless people trying to stay warm in the massive granite edifice, but never an abandoned baby. He concluded that the baby must have been dropped off before or during Mass.
Leonhardt called on his radio for cathedral rector Father John Ubel, who noticed that the baby was especially quiet. In recounting the events, Sgt. Anderson estimated that the five-pound baby was about six weeks premature and was suffering from heat loss.
“There are so many things that could have happened but didn’t, and the baby is fine,” Father Ubel said.
The rector decided to perform an emergency baptism in the sacristy using holy water from a Mass cruet. He named him Nathan, which means “gift of God,” after Leonhardt, who served as the godfather. Since it was the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Father Ubel said he would have named the child Elizabeth if a girl. But since it was the eve of St. John Neumann’s feast day and his own name is John, he chose John for the baby’s middle name.
Leonhardt, who has a 4-year-old daughter but no other godchildren, said, “Being godfather feels pretty similar to how it is with your own children. I feel like he’s my own child. … I think about finding the baby and the baptism and naming him after me. It was so much that happened at once — I was speechless.”
Father Ubel, who is in his fifth year as rector, said he has baptized premature babies before, but only in hospitals. His emergency baptism omitted parts of the rite that could be performed later during a formal ceremony.
A week after the rescue, Father Ubel dropped off the baby’s baptismal certificate with the county’s Child Protective Services. Though the Church is not involved in determining who will raise the child, Father Ubel said he hopes he will be placed in a Catholic home.
The parish has received many emails from parishioners interested in adopting Nathan John or in donating baby items for him.
“It has awakened in me a realization of the number of parents who are patiently and prayerfully waiting for the possibility of adopting a child,” the priest said. “I think just by the responses we have received, so many people have really fallen in love with this child, whom they’ve never met. It says so much about the precious nature of life — and that life is good and that the choice made to choose life in this case was absolutely the right choice.”
From this experience, Father Ubel said he also recognizes the importance of actively supporting life. “If we are truly pro-life as we say we are and we are, then our response [at the cathedral] was the only possible response,” he said. “Our actions and our response have to flow from our belief in faith.”
After making sure the baby received medical care, Sgt. Anderson and the other officers who responded to the cathedral call stopped to buy clothes, toys and baby items for him on their way to see him at the hospital. “We’re all dads, and one was a new dad,” said Sgt. Anderson, who is Catholic and has three children. Amid other calls involving violence and tragedy that night, this one had a blessed ending.
With Nathan John now in good hands, Leonhardt said he hopes the baby’s mother is also doing well. He also prays he will see his godson again.
Father Ubel said he prays for the baby, too. “I want him to have a beautiful and full life,” he said. “I’m really entrusting him to the intercession of the Blessed Mother as well as the protection of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and all the saints. I’m very convinced this was his first day of life.”
Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.