NEW YORK—Pregnant with their third child and nearing the end of their first trimester earlier this year, the last thing Dennis and Susan Clark of Omaha, Neb., expected was the miscarriage they suffered in June.

“I wondered if this was normal,” Susan recalled thinking at the first signs of miscarriage. Soon, she said, “I knew something was wrong.”

Her doctor urged her to get some sleep and come in when the office opened in the morning at 8 a.m. But “I couldn't sleep,” said Susan. Later, she passed out due to blood loss. Dennis had to carry her to the car in order to bring her to the doctor. When she arrived, the nurse had difficulty getting her blood pressure. She had lost nearly 8 pints of blood.

“We knew others who had mis-carried, but we didn't know what they had gone through until it happened to us,” said Susan. “In the hospital, and after we came home and reflected on our loss, we felt very alone. It wasn't until later that we learned about Holy Innocents Shrine for the Unborn.”

Holy Innocents Shrine

Nearly one million parents lose a child through miscarriage or stillbirth each year. Forgotten by society, these children remain in the memories of their families. New York's Church of the Holy Innocents Shrine in Memory of Children Who Have Died Unborn is providing parents a place to remember those children.

Dedicated by John Cardinal O'Connor on the feast of the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28, 1993, the shrine is a memorial to all children who have died before birth. Located in Manhattan's business section, Holy Innocents Church is active during the week as New Yorkers and others stream through its doors. The shrine itself is simple. It is located in the rear of the church, near the church entrance. It consists of the Book of Life, statues of Mary and Joseph, and a kneeler. Its visitors often leave flowers at the shrine.

When a child dies as a result of a miscarriage or stillbirth, the family experiences tremendous feelings of loss and grief. In many cases there is no burial or special place where their child is remembered. In the case of abortion, parents experience this loss years later.

The shrine offers a place for healing in several ways, say its organizers. For those parents who haven't already done so, the shrine offers parents the opportunity to name their child and to enter his or her name into “The Book of Life.” The book sits in the shrine encased in glass, between images of the Holy Family. The names of those who died before birth are inscribed in calligraphy in the book and parents are given a certificate in memory of their child.

“I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name.” Isaiah 49:15-16

To date, there are more than 2,500 names in the Book of Life. In addition, families also have the opportunity to have a Mass celebrated in memory of their child. All families are remembered in prayer during Mass on the last Friday of each month.

An Idea in Prayer

It was not long after Msgr. Donald Sakano, a former hospital chaplain, came to the Church of the Holy Innocents that he was struck with the idea for a shrine for the unborn. “I was kneeling in prayer when the idea came to me. I was familiar with the issue of parents losing a child and I knew there was an unmet need. Our culture doesn't address this need. What better place to address it than the Church of the Holy Innocents?” thought Msgr. Sakano.

“There is a pronounced need for people to bury their dead,” he said. The Shrine for the Unborn offers grieving parents a place to “bury their dead.”

Unrequited Grief

“We live in a culture where there is no language or ritual for those who die unborn,” Msgr. Sakano said. “Parents’ feelings are met with indifference or denial. And so, when they come, they bring an incredible amount of unrequited grief.”

For Dennis and Susan Clark that grief manifested itself in the things they felt they “ought to have done.” During the miscarriage, they said, they weren't sure what they should have done.

Bothered because they had done nothing for the child she had carried, Susan went seeking answers on the Internet. An e-mail response directed her to New York's Shrine for the Unborn. “Reading that e-mail was like a drop of joy,” said Susan.

Outpouring of Interest

Shrine director Mary Kelly and office manager Siobhan St. Leger receive calls, letters, and e-mail messages daily from parents who have lost an unborn child.

“We get letters from grandmothers who are concerned about the child that a grandson or granddaughter has aborted. We get letters from women in their 70s who say they lost a child 40 years ago and that everyone told them to forget about the child, but they couldn't. They ask us if we could please name that child. Just last week we received a letter from a man in prison who can't stop thinking about the child that his girlfriend had miscarried,” said Kelly.

The correspondence always follows a similar formula, Msgr. Sakano said.

“Parents tend to describe their loss, vocalize their grief, name their child, and thank us for having a shrine. Their pain and grief are just as real whether their loss occurred 50 years ago or three weeks ago. Families clearly receive the grace of healing from the shrine,” he said.

“Parents come before the shrine in a solemn moment to reflect sadly, but also to rejoice in God's mercy. People believe. Because they believe, they come away healed and grateful.”

“One year,” Pastor Msgr. Sakano remembered, “I received a call on Holy Thursday from a woman who had just miscarried a child. She said she was too poor to bury her child. I was able to link her up with a funeral director and on Easter Monday we held a funeral for her at Holy Innocents. The choir and the others in attendance were struck by that tiny, tiny casket. We had never seen anything like it.”

In August, Dennis and Susan Clark had the opportunity to visit the shrine while attending a friend's wedding in New York. Prior to their visit, they had discussed names with their two children, Jacob, 10, and Jessica, 8.

“On the day of our visit, we attended Mass at the Church of the Holy Innocents. Afterwards, we prayed before the shrine and named our child Jordan Francis,” recalled Susan.

“What is remarkable,” says Kelly, “is that the Clarks not only brought their own child's name to the shrine; they also brought the names and dates of five other children from family and friends, children who had died just a few years earlier to one that had died nearly 40 years ago. They had acted as ambassadors for the shrine in their own community.”

The Clarks spent the entire afternoon visiting with Kelly and Father Mark Rossetti, spiritual director for the shrine. “The visit brought us closure. It commemorated that there was a life there … that we had lost something. The visit soothed our hearts. It was the highlight of our entire trip to New York,” said Dennis.

“Our visit was like a spiritual burial for Jordan, and for our family. It was a day of celebration…in knowing that we were not alone and that our child would not be forgotten,” added Susan

Approximately a week after their return home the Clarks received six certificates from the shrine in the mail. Five of the certificates bore the names of the other children which they had carried to the shrine; one bore the name Jordan Francis, and the date June 29, 1999.

Future Plans

“Our goals include developing resources and acting as a clearing-house for other parish communities that may want to start similar shrines in their area,” explained Kelly.

“We want to make this ministry available to anyone who has experienced this kind of loss and to receive the healing that comes with naming the child, the liturgies, masses, and prayers being offered on behalf of the child, and simply knowing that their child will be remembered forever.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

The Church of the Holy Innocents is located at 128 West 37th St., New York. Parents who have lost a child to miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion may contact the shrine at 212-279-5861 or by e-mail through their Web page at http://www.innocents.com