October 27, 2006

Garden of Innocents offers dignified burials for littlest ones

by Jennifer Brinker, Review Staff Writer

Rebeca Navarro-McKelvey was watching the news with her infant son several years ago when she saw a report about Destiny Daniels, a two-and-a-half-month-old who had been beaten to death by her mentally ill mother.

"I was under the impression that she had no family," said Navarro-McKelvey, 31, an assistant circuit attorney for the St. Louis circuit attorney’s office. She called Rose Psara with the St. Louis Medical Examiner’s Office and said, "I want to bury that child."

Since then, the parishioner of Sts. Joachim and Ann Parish in St. Charles formed Garden of Innocents, a nonprofit organization that provides dignified burials for unclaimed children and infants in the St. Louis metropolitan area. Since its inception, the organization has buried six other infants abandoned by their families, who otherwise would not have had a proper burial.

Navarro-McKelvey noted that infants and children who are unclaimed by next of kin are normally buried at the city’s expense. Because of a lack of resources, the city will bury them with no clothing, without a memorial service and in unmarked graves. No one could attend the child’s burial, either, she said.

After raising money to provide a burial for Destiny, Navarro-McKelvey began working with the medical examiner’s office to offer burials for other infants and children. She secured a 20-square-foot section for 60 graves at Calvary Cemetery in North St. Louis, which was donated by Msgr. Robert L. McCarthy, director of Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

"Rebecca’s love is so touching," said Msgr. McCarthy. "She is not concerned just with the unborn but infants born and abandoned. The Catholic Cemeteries are privileged to be able to provide this sacred little garden for the burial of these tiny children."

Navarro-McKelvey said the services are made possible by a team of individual volunteers and businesses, including people from a variety of faith backgrounds, who have donated their time and resources.

Each child is provided with a casket, a small teddy bear and a handmade blanket, booties, hat and burial gown. Volunteers also arrange for at least one natural or silk floral arrangement. Donald Weaver of Professional Funeral Director Services has arranged to provide transportation services, including from the medical examiner’s office and to the gravesite.

A member of the clergy presides over the memorial service at Calvary Cemetery’s chapel. The service includes music, a graveside prayer and a reading of "Little Angel of Innocence," a poem by volunteer Barbara Huber. The organization also makes sure at least one volunteer is present for the service.

"When we started out it was just me, my husband and two other people," said Navarro-McKelvey. "We all work full time. Now we have a lot of volunteers — usually we have several people there." She also noted that the group would like to start placing obituaries in the newspaper so the public may attend the services.

The children’s names also are inscribed on a permanent memorial stone, which was installed and dedicated at a ceremony this summer. Almost 50 people attended the service, including St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

"Rebecca is the one who brought this to our attention," said Joyce, noting that her office has organized fund-raisers to benefit the organization. "I thought it was a terrific service to provide to this community and these children."

Also donated to the site is a granite bench, inscribed with the words "Garden of Innocents," which was made possible through a donation from members of the Esther K. Harris Order of the Eastern Star, chapter 11, and the Epsilon Sigma Alpha-Rho Chi chapter.

At the ceremony, Navarro-McKelvey thanked the volunteers for their help in making the organization possible.

"There is not going to be a child in the St. Louis metropolitan area that is not going to be buried with the love and respect and dignity that they deserve," she said.

Linda Alessandri, one of three pastors at the Lutheran Church of the Atonement in Florissant, heard about the Garden of Innocents by word of mouth. "I think the ministry of the Garden of Innocents is a blessing to our entire city," she said.

Navarro-McKelvey said the group is seeking volunteers, especially people to help make wooden caskets. She’s also hoping to expand services to other communities in need, such as East St. Louis, Ill.

"There’s a tremendous amount of violence there," she said. "We want to raise funds so that we can network with funeral home directors in that area to pay for transportation and possibly develop a garden there."

Navarro-McKelvey said she also recently received a 400-square-foot donation of burial ground at St. Matthew Cemetery in North St. Louis from Hermann and Judith Metz, who read a news article about the effort.