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A Sanctuary of Love – The Precious Ones Mausoleum Honors Unborn Children and Offers Comfort to Grieving Families

By Jessica Larson, MPM

Amidst the gentle breeze of a cool April afternoon, Bishop Erik Pohlmeier stood alongside families and donors, their hearts united in purpose at San Lorenzo Catholic Cemetery in St. Augustine. Their mission held deep significance: to preside over a Mass and blessing for the newly erected Precious Ones Mausoleum. Beyond its marble walls lies more than just a monument; it stands as a sacred haven, a sanctuary where the memories of the unborn, the stillborn and infants, who departed this world way too early, are cherished and honored.

During the homily, Bishop Pohlmeier paid tribute to families and children who were lost in the womb, recognizing their grief as legitimate and in need of consolation. He spoke about the love of God and how it is embodied in the creation of a new life. “When a child is conceived, an act of love has brought that child into existence.” He continued, “Love of neighbor is a commitment, as a church, to witness to the reality of God as love.” Thus, loving our neighbor means providing a place to console those who grieve. “This place [mausoleum] stands as a reminder that a child in those earliest moments is worth this kind of tribute and worth this kind of dignity,” proclaimed Bishop Pohlmeier.

Lance and Juliana Vodicka and their four children, Elijah, Anna, Lily and Joseph, were among the families present at the ceremony. Just last month, Julianna delivered the couple’s miscarried daughter, Clara Faustina, who will be one of the first children laid to rest in the mausoleum.

Lance recounted his experience of holding his daughter’s delicate remains. “The nurses turned to us and placed in the palm of my hand our gestational 14-week-old daughter. He explained that he glanced upon her delicately formed face. While reflecting upon this moment, he smiled and said, “I was so grateful to see her beautiful face on this side of heaven,” he continued, “and to see where her soul resided until she went home to the Lord.” He said the mausoleum would provide a dignified resting place for Clara Faustina and other children like her.

The mausoleum consists of 12 tombs, each marked with a saint’s name to include Augustine, Monica, Joseph, Anne, John Paul II, Teresa of Calcutta, Katherine Drexel, Gianna Molla, Padre Pio and Blesseds Carlos Acutis and Hermann who were identified for their affection for children. The mausoleum was made possible by the generous donations of donors, who contributed $250,000 to its construction.

After the Mass, the bishop and the Vodicka family stood before the chamber named for St. Augustine to take a picture where their daughter, Clara Faustina, will be laid to rest. Interment will happen once the space can be filled. Until then, Clara Faustina will remain in the care of a local funeral home.

Maureen Shilkunas, director of the Human Life and Dignity office and coordinator of the event, expressed deep compassion for each family who has suffered the loss of a child. She explained that parents often do not know what to do after the loss of a child and that she is there to help them. She emphasized that every human deserves a dignified resting place, and the Diocese of St. Augustine is committed to providing that for families who have lost a child.

Education is vital, explained Shilkunas. She shared that the state of Florida declared that children born aged 20 weeks of gestational growth and older are given a death certificate and taken to a funeral home. However, for younger babies, each hospital has different procedures. Shilkunas said, “I am here to help you. You can take your child home from the hospital. We believe every human deserves a dignified resting place like the Precious Ones Mausoleum.”

The mausoleum stands as a testament to the Diocese of St. Augustine’s unwavering commitment to upholding the dignity of all human life. Participation is open to all families, regardless of their religious affiliation. Families entombing a child in the Precious Ones Mausoleum do not incur any costs. The child’s name will be preserved in the cemetery records, and families can purchase unique items such as pavers, benches and archways as meaningful memorials.

“Our prayer is that each person that comes here in the future will begin that journey of love of God and love of neighbor and will follow the Lord to a more profound understanding that helps shape our world according to the love of God,” explained Bishop Erik Pohlmeier.

The Precious Ones program is a comprehensive program with five pillars. It was initiated by May Oliver, the former director of the Human Life and Dignity office. The program began with the Mass of the Precious Ones, which is celebrated twice a year to honor the precious children who have passed away. This Mass allows the community, families and friends to remember them through prayer. The second pillar is advocacy. Father Leonard Chuwa, a bioethicist, healthcare chaplain and pastor, played a significant role in advocating for the Catholic Church’s teachings on the proper care of the deceased. The program’s third step launched a capital campaign to construct a mausoleum. The next pillar, the Red Bird Ministries, is a grief support group established to assist people in transitioning from grief to healing. Finally, the fifth pillar of the Precious Ones program is educating individuals about the importance of providing a proper burial for every human life. The church considers burial for the deceased a corporal work of mercy, reinforcing the belief that every human deserves a dignified resting place.

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