Published January 25, 2007
Just about every time Jessica Chelena goes by her parish of St. Michael the Archangel, she glances over to the memorial garden dedicated to the unborn last year where a striking Carrara marble statue of Our Lady of Grace stands.
“I’m amazed. … There’s always someone sitting in front of the statue or kneeling in prayer.”
Chelena is very familiar with the statue that her husband, Paul, and his extended family presented to the parish for the pro-life cause that was important to the grandparents who first brought the statue to the United States from Italy about 50 years ago.
This gift to the parish was like a prayer answered for St. Michael’s pastor, Father Larry Niese.
“Cardinal (John) O’Connor encouraged the Knights of Columbus to sponsor pro-life memorials, and my desire stems back to that,” he explained. “We wanted there to be a visible reminder to pray to end abortion.”
In 1992 New York’s Cardinal O’Connor challenged the Knights of Columbus “to continue the order’s aggressive fight against abortion” by erecting memorials to the unborn in Catholic cemeteries across the nation. The cardinal had found his inspiration from the “Tomb of the Unborn” when visiting the campus of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. He hoped similar memorials would raise the consciousness of all people to understand that the unborn are fully human from conception.
Building upon their pro-life legacy, the Knights took the challenge back to their dioceses and proceeded to raise the funds that have resulted in well over 1,800 monuments—not just in cemeteries but in front of churches, schools and homes across the United States and in other regions such as Guam.
While the primary motivation for the memorial at St. Michael is to honor the unborn, Father Niese is quick to add, “It’s also for anyone dealing with any kind of loss … but particularly for those who lost someone to abortion.”
He explained this hope during weekend Masses leading up to the dedication of the parish’s memorial on Sept. 30, 2006.
The memorial site includes a tombstone upon which is carved baby feet and a baby inside a heart-shaped womb alongside the words from Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” Two benches also flank the area, upon one of which are words from Blessed Mother Teresa: “Never let anything so distress you that you forget the joy of the Resurrection.” Inscribed on the other bench is the Scripture passage from Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the glory of God for those that love the Lord.”
“We emphasized ‘all things,’” Father Niese said, “because God says all things: He can bring about good (even from evil).”
Over the years Father Niese has counseled those troubled by their abortion. “One of the things I say (to myself) when I’m dealing with them is ‘There but for the grace of the Lord go I.’ Anyone is capable of the worst of things.”
To begin the healing process he encourages those who come to him to name their child, ask for their forgiveness and then ask the child “to intercede for them on their spiritual journey.”
He recalled a woman he counseled who had had an abortion many years ago.
“It was a festering wound all the time,” he recalled. “But God’s forgiveness healed over the wound. It left a scar, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
He believes that many others genuinely feel compassion for those touched by abortion, not wishing to speak words of condemnation.
“It’s challenging. I always stress God’s mercy. They may have gotten into the situation operating out of fear or lack of knowledge. People have got to know that when they fall down, the Lord is merciful. He can heal any wound.”
Sister Patricia Thompson, RSM, has ministered to women and men struggling to come to terms with their abortion experience through PATH, Post Abortion Treatment and Healing. Last year she traveled with a small group to a memorial for the unborn in Chattanooga, Tenn., and likened the experience to that of visiting “the wall” of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I think it’s the same idea that people want to achieve,” she said, adding that it’s an effort to show that a child did exist, that he or she has dignity, and “made a difference in the world.”
“It gives the child a place in the life of a family who can then say, ‘Yes, I do have a family member—a sister, a brother, a son, daughter, a niece, nephew, a grandchild. This is in honor of this child that got denied life by abortion. It’s a point that allows them to openly celebrate that life and is given a place of honor that the child didn’t have when the decision was made to end the life.”
Having a particular place to go to is important, and she described the many plaques with children’s names placed on them as well as little booties and stuffed animals also left.
“It’s a very moving experience.”
Mary Boyert, director of the pro-life office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, also sees the value of creating a sacred space to remember the unborn.
“Every person who passes a memorial, or sits in a ‘life garden,’ may have a different reaction—for some, it may be comforting; for others, it may be a time to learn.”
The memorials also help to “unify Catholics” and serve as a visual reminder “to stop and think about what we are doing to advance the culture of life,” she added.
“One of the most important things about the memorials is that they are visible, tangible, and very public expressions of the church’s commitment to life, and the dignity and value of every human life.”
Pat Korten, vice president for communications of the Knights of Columbus, shared how the Tombs for the Unborn project became part of pro-life activities for the organization that comprises 1.7 million lay Catholics residing in the United States, Mexico, the Philippines and now Poland.
“The memorials take on a number of different forms,” he said. Korten described his own parish’s memorial that includes a prayer garden, a life-size statue of Our Lady of La Salette, and the Stations of the Cross. He also travels extensively as a representative of the Knights of Columbus, and found his way to a particular church in New Orleans last June to witness the rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Katrina.
“And what did I find? A statue of Our Lady with a plaque put up by the Knights of Columbus,” he said.
Withstanding hurricanes and our own mortality, the memorials will endure.
“(They) stand as a permanent remembrance of our need for prayers for the unborn. The wonderful thing is the extent to which they reach out to lots and lots of victims … who succumbed to the pressure (to have an abortion) and regret it. This is one way to help them deal with it.”
He shared some of the history of the order’s pro-life legacy. “Obviously the United States has suffered from the terrible scourge of abortion made more difficult with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.”
Not long after the court decision in 1973 the Knights of Columbus became a galvanizing supporter of the annual March for Life and has since centered a lot of its pro-life activities around that event.
“Our dedication to the pro-life effort is wide and deep and is evidenced in the things we do, not just nationally. Every council has a pro-life chairperson who organizes activities offering support to great causes such as women who need help with a crisis pregnancy or prayer.”
The organization also has become involved politically, most recently in South Dakota where the legislature approved the Women’s Health and Human Life Protection Act and in Missouri by working to block an amendment to the state constitution allowing research using embryonic stem cells, but which eventually was approved.
“One of our most important missions is to support, in every way we can, the Catholic Church, the Vatican, parishes, local dioceses and bishops.”
This mission was instilled in the order since its humble beginnings in 1882 by founder Father Michael J. McGivney.
“He wanted to do two things: one, to create a system of mutual aid if the breadwinner of a family passed away so the family was taken care of. … And also, to provide a place for men to be active participants in their parishes. … We’re really there to do whatever needs to be done.”
Chelena acknowledged the strong support of the Knights of Columbus when St. Michael took on the memorial project. The Knights raised the necessary funds and helped with the construction. Chelena also had her hands full. The mother of four worked diligently alongside sculptor, parishioner and friend Shanna Coulter. The two women faced the challenge of fixing the statue’s broken thumb and cleaning it of pinesap and mold that had accumulated over the years.
“We were all in the backyard with my four children, and Shanna has five, running around.”
Not wanting to harm the delicate marble, Chelena purchased “armfuls” of cleaners to test on the surface. Finally, the two discovered that very fine sandpaper and Mr. Clean Magic Eraser brought the Our Lady of Grace statue to its new home gleaming white.
“It couldn’t have happened without a community effort. It wasn’t one individual or one family. It brought us all together for (the pro-life) cause.”