THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

To children abandoned, lives unlived, a farewell tribute with dignity

One white cloth covered two tiny caskets, each topped with a spray of fresh flowers and a small stuffed bear. One white cloth covered two tiny caskets, each topped with a spray of fresh flowers and a small stuffed bear. (Globe Photo)
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / December 15, 2010

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Christmas carols were playing over the sound system at the nearby skating rink on Boston Common yesterday morning and Macy’s was decked out in fresh wreaths, as Father David Convertino walked into a tiny upstairs chapel at St. Anthony Shrine in the midst of Downtown Crossing to preside over an event that would challenge even a friar’s faith.

Dim light filtered through a wall of stained glass and flattened along the dark hardwood floors of the room where 16 people, some of them in brown robes and sandals, waited for the proceedings to begin. A clear vase held an elegant bouquet of white flowers; the altar was made of simple wood; a woman sang hymns in an angelic voice.

And at the center sat two tiny caskets covered with one white cloth, each topped with a spray of fresh flowers and a small stuffed bear that had never been touched by a child’s hand.

Their names were Andrew and Nicholas. There were no headlines when they died, no press releases, no investigations — really no public awareness at all. They were each stillborn in Boston hospitals, one in October, the other in November, then abandoned by families who either wouldn’t or couldn’t send them from this world in a dignified way.

Which is why they were here, because the Franciscan friars of St. Anthony Shrine see it as a key part of their mission to provide dignity in death — dignity to abandoned infants, dignity to loners whose bodies go unclaimed, dignity to homeless people with no one to celebrate their lives and see them to their graves.

But two infant deaths seemed to be taking an unusual toll yesterday on Convertino and the brothers who gathered to pray in a season that is supposed to be dedicated to hope and joy.

“It’s painful, it’s not understandable, and it leaves a huge question in our hearts,’’ Convertino said from the podium. “Why?’’

He had no answer, except to say that he didn’t believe these deaths were God’s will or way. “We are faced here, brothers and sisters, with a mystery of life and death, but there are no easy answers in life and death,’’ he said.

It was, as he noted, a gaping contradiction — two deaths of infants marked during Advent, a time of life. They were eulogized in a chapel set amid the commercial cacophony of downtown.

Inside, as the brief service came to a close, people quietly wept. Incense filled the small room, and after the last song was sung (“On Eagle’s Wings’’), the congregants slowly, silently, drifted from the chapel, one woman lingering with her hand on each casket. Stuffed animals had never looked so heartbreaking.

Afterward, Convertino sipped coffee around a long table in the nearby dining hall and openly acknowledged that these kinds of funerals can, in his words, “rock your faith.’’

He is a large man, a gentle man, a relentlessly straightforward man. “This is trying to grapple with the emptiness of a baby’s death and the responsibility of presiding over a celebration of faith,’’ he said.

Added Brother Gary Maciag, lifting up a volume in front of him, “Do I buy all the stuff in these prayer books? Some days, it’s very difficult.’’

As they talked, though, a striking humanity began to emerge, by no means an explanation for these deaths, but an indication of the goodness that followed them. The friars bury, by their account, about six abandoned infants a year, and another dozen or more homeless men and women, part of a mission they may have to pare back unless their Franciscan Campaign picks up in the last couple of weeks of 2010.

As the brothers spoke, their memories crystallized into stories. There was the funeral for the homeless man and the abandoned infant not long ago. They were buried in a donated grave, side by side, with homeless friends weeping over a baby they had never met.

There was the mother who decided she wanted to attend the funeral of the infant that she abandoned, but arrived too late. Convertino hunted around for a program until he found one on the floor. He gave the mother the flowers that rested beside the altar, and even those small gestures seemed to be enough.

None of the priests sits in judgment of the parents who fail to see their children to the grave. “I can’t,’’ said Convertino. “There’s always the story behind the story.’’

As part of the mission, volunteers sew tiny white burial garments. Others donate the simple flowers for each service, and the graves. An extraordinary young funeral director, Jed Dolan, provides services from his two family funeral homes in Dorchester and Milton, collecting just a small stipend from the state. He personally attends every service and stands by each grave.

“It brings everything home,’’ he said.

It also brings back Convertino’s overriding point. There may not be answers, but there is a response. “There is no reason not to be buried with all the dignity a community can give them,’’ he said.

In the face of anguish, there is goodness, a reason for the friars and so many others to hold tight to their faith.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.