November/December, 1998 Volume XIII Number 3|
54 discarded babies laid to rest
by Marianne Napoles
One sunny March afternoon in 1997, two little boys in Chino Hills, California, played happily in a field behind their house. As they skipped pebbles over a huge mud puddle, the boys noticed several large cardboard boxes at the edge of the field.
With curiosity, they opened a box and discovered container after container of aborted babies. Horrified, they ran home to tell their parents and the police were summoned.
Nineteen months later, on Sunday, October 11, 1998, these 54 aborted babies were given a dignified Christian burial service by concerned residents who called themselves "Cradles of Love." The babies were lovingly named by churches and pro-life organizations that came together in a solemn show of solidarity for the unborn.
Each baby was laid to rest in a tiny white casket. Fifty-four pallbearers carried them to their final repose.
That weekend, an non-denominational memorial service was held and a Catholic mass celebrated in honor of the children. A prayer vigil was held at the local abortion clinic in Montclair, which closed its doors in anticipation of the event.
Immediately after the babies were discovered on Friday, March 14, 1997, concerned members of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Chino Hills and Alive Now Christian Center in Chino stepped forward.
They met at the Chino Hills home of Bob and June Shelly and quickly organized a memorial service one week later at the field.
Hundreds of mourners carrying flowers and baby toys gathered at the freeway underpass during Friday evening rush hour. Pink and blue balloons were released one by one into the cloudy sky. A wooden cross erected atop a tiny knoll remained undisturbed one year after the event.
The babies began to be referred to as the "Discarded Babies of Chino Hills."
The Los Angeles Police Department, San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, and California State District Attorney's office conducted an investigation and traced the babies to a Los Angeles abortion clinic.
The abortionist was found to be Albert Brown, owner of the Clinica Femenina Para Mujer (women's clinic). He was investigated by the Attorney General's Medical Fraud Unit and the clinic is now closed. The truck driver who dumped the bodies, Douglas Figueroa, served 71 days in jail and was reportedly deported to El Salvador.
The driver's crime was "the illegal disposal of medical waste."
Babies eight to 24 weeks
The bodies of the babies remained with the county coroner's office for 18 months while the investigation was conducted. Autopsies determined their gestational age at eight to 24 weeks.
"Two of the babies, a boy and a girl, were six months," said Bob Shelly.
The sexes of the rest of the babies could not be determined because of deterioration.
Request for burial
The Shellys submitted a written request to the county coroner's office to make burial arrangements.
"Our intent was to give these babies a dignified Christian burial," said June Shelly.
The group was advised by a pro-life attorney to keep things quiet while the request was being reviewed.
Knowing they were walking a political tightrope, they did not want to alert groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Organization for Women (NOW) about their efforts.
The same group of people who organized the memorial held another meeting at the Shelly home. It was decided that the babies should be honored with a full weekend which would include a memorial, a graveside service, and prayer vigil at the abortion clinic in Montclair.
It was also decided that a mortuary and cemetery needed to be "on board" so that when the bodies were finally released, the group could move forward right away.
When the Shellys contacted Draper Mortuary of Ontario, they were amazed at the compassion and interest expressed by Raymer Pry who offered his services and counsel free of charge. He then connected the group with Crestlawn Memorial Park and Mortuary. Ernie Marsteller immediately stepped forward to assist, along with Gary Travis. The plan was in motion.
Coroner grants request
The big day finally came. After 18 months of regular contact by the Shellys, the county coroner's office granted permission. The weekend of October 9 through 11 was selected in order to give the group several weeks to organize the event.
Naming the babies
A name was needed to identify the group so "Cradles of Love" was chosen. More importantly, the babies needed to be named. All 54 of them. But how? Since the mission of the group was to give the babies a dignified burial as well as to raise awareness about abortion, the group decided to involve the local churches on a personal level by allowing them to name the babies and serve as pallbearers.
But the question kept surfacing: "Will we find 54 willing churches?"
Cradles of Love focused primarily on churches in the Chino Valley, which included the cities of Chino Hills and Chino. They then turned to churches in the neighboring towns. It became obvious very quickly that pastors were deeply concerned and wanted to be involved. There was no shortage of them. Many pastors spent days mulling over and praying about the names they would select for their babies.
We chose the name Chandra Marie for our baby," said Cedric Reynolds, pastor of CentrePointe Christian Fellowship of Chino. "That's the name my wife and I would have chosen if we had a little girl of our own."
The Chino Valley Community Church chose Mary Esther. Mike Romberger, pastor, said he chose Mary after the mother of Jesus, and Esther after the Old Testament heroine who saved the Jews from slaughter.
Tony Ferraro, Catholic priest for Our Lady of Guadalupe in Chino chose Guadalupe, and the Respect Life Ministry of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Chino Hills chose Paul Michael. Marie Widmann of St. Paul the Apostle and also a member of Cradles of Love said the name reflects the apostle Paul and the church's pastor, Michael Maher, who was one of the first clergy who spoke out for the aborted babies and supported the effort from beginning to end.
Fred Reed, pastor of the Chino Hills Foursquare Church, named his baby Lurana Terrel. She was a traveling evangelist who began pitching her Gospel tents in 1909, something unheard of for women in that time. Pastor Reed's mother was named after her. He brought the evangelist's picture to the memorial.
Larry and Martha Thorson, pastors of the Chino Hills Presbyterian Fellowship, named their child Kirk Scott. They explained that Kirk is a term for church in Scotland from where the Presbyterian church originated. Fortress Community Church in Chino named their baby Anastasis, which means Resurrection. The name Stephen Daniel was chosen by the First United Reformed Church after the church's first martyr and Daniel of the Old Testament who had the courage to enter the lion's den.
The Hispanic Ministry of the Cornerstone Community Church of the Nazarene named their baby Manuel, meaning "God is with us" and Alive Now Christian Center named their baby Kieran, Gaelic for little one.
The names of Catholic saints such as Elizabeth Ann, Francis, Edward, and Margaret Mary were chosen by a variety of parishes.
Labors of love
All 54 caskets were hand crafted by a carpenter who never wanted his name mentioned because he didn't want to take credit of any kind.
An outpouring of donations come from the community: nameplates for the coffins, memorial flower wreaths, red roses and pink and blue carnations. Artist Mary Unrein handcrafted 54 crosses to give to the pastors at the graveside.
3' x 6' monument
The most significant contributions came from Crestlawn Memorial Park and Mortuary in Riverside which donated the plots, vaults, and a 3' x 6' granite monument designed by V.J. Memorials in Chino. One side of the monument is etched with the 54 baby names under the title "The Discarded Babies of Chino Hills." Jeremiah 1:5 is beneath the names: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you."
Draper Mortuary of Ontario handled the bodies and provided the hearses and most especially, wise counsel to Cradles of Love.
ACLU on the warpath
Just a few hours before the first event of the weekend, the ACLU issued a press release to the major networks and newspapers threatening to sue the county coroner's office if it released the babies.
"We are writing to express our grave concerns about your facilitation, as a public officer, of religious burial services," wrote the ACLU to the county coroner. "Such action is in clear violation of the United States and California constitutions, as well as California health law."
ACLU spokesperson Elizabeth Schroeder told the major television networks that the fetuses are material that needs to be disposed of by incineration, and should not be turned over to anyone other than a state-approved disposal facility.
"People with different beliefs have different views on whether or not this fetal material is a person," said Schroeder to a local daily newspaper. "By making this determination, the coroner's office sides with the view of some religious groups that these are in fact babies."
Despite the threats, the coroner released the bodies to Draper Mortuary in Ontario on Friday, the day of the memorial service. The ACLU press release, however, alerted the networks to the issue, prompting national media attention, including CNN coverage, of the graveside service.
There was not a dry eye during the Friday night memorial service at the First United Reformed Church in Chino. Participants were invited to place pink and blue carnations on the tiny caskets that were arranged on the altar as the names of each baby were read out loud.
The most poignant speaker was Lori Bryant of Alternate Avenues Pregnancy Counseling Center of Ontario. Bryant spoke of her own personal experience with an abortion.
"As I came out of the anesthesia, the nurse told me to shut up because I was scaring everybody. I didn't know that I had been screaming 'is my baby dead?' " Bryant said, offering a message of hope and healing to women who have had an abortion.
Seven priests concelebrated mass with Maher, Catholic pastor of St. Paul the Apostle on Saturday morning. Pat and Ed O'Connell, also members of Cradles of Love, asked parishioners in the audience to participate by carrying the coffins in a procession down the aisle. They asked others to carry a cross to the lectern and read the name of the church with their baby's names. The Knights of Columbus participated in full regalia.
In anticipation of the prayer vigil scheduled for Saturday morning, the abortion clinic in Montclair shut down for the day. Bill Soucie, a veteran at organizing vigils in front of clinics, said there are more babies saved at prayer vigils than there were at "rescues." He said prayers that are said in front of an abortion clinic are powerful and effective. Prayers of exorcism were said by the Catholics who processed to the clinic, holding the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom they consider the patroness of the unborn.
About 700 mourners waited at the gravesite while a long funeral procession headed by two black hearses wound its way from the chapel to the burial ground.
Pallbearers solemnly carried their tiny white caskets while the wail of bagpipes was heard. Each baby's name was read. The pallbearers, many of them weeping, carried their caskets and placed them into the hands of waiting workers who gently placed them in the vaults.
Fifty-four doves were released into the sky, symbolizing the ascent of the children to heaven.
A grandfather laid four white flowers on the coffins for four aborted grandchildren he will never see. A woman who sobbed throughout the service later approached Maher, telling him of her guilt over two abortions.
Judy DeVries, a member of Cradles of Love, and a sidewalk counselor who spends every Friday in front of the abortion clinic, immediately consoled the woman and offered her hope.
"It was amazing how she got here," said DeVries.
The woman told DeVries she heard about it on television and drove to Chino. A policewoman directed her to St. Paul the Apostle. A parishioner happened to have a flyer and directed her to Riverside.
"We sat together while the dirt was being placed over the graves," said DeVries. "She was all cried out by then. It was time for her to let it go."
Deaths not in vain
The Shellys' hope that the death of the babies were not in vain evidenced itself repeatedly throughout the weekend. One pastor, who attended the memorial, has already been speaking out against the scourge of abortion.
A CNN reporter asked a woman how she felt about the ACLU's threat. She responded simply, "All children are a blessing from God."
He cut off the interview, shook his head smiling, and said, "I couldn't think of a follow-up question."
One man was so moved about carrying a casket at the burial mass, he faxed his experiences in a letter to radio host Laura Schlessinger, who read it on the air during her nationally syndicated show the following Tuesday.
54 babies save a life
Colette Wilson, a sidewalk counselor in Inglewood near Los Angeles, said the dumping of the babies most definitely saved a life. She recounted an incident that occurred in April 1997, one month after the babies were discarded in Chino Hills.
She spoke with a young lady named Myrna who was entering the clinic for a checkup on an abortion she had the month before. Wilson gave Myrna literature and a picture of a late-term aborted baby. Mryna walked into the clinic holding the literature. A few minutes later, Wilson noticed a woman exiting the clinic.
Myrna came out later and said she showed the picture to the woman who was waiting inside the clinic for an abortion. Myrna then asked the woman if she had heard about the discarded babies. Myrna wondered outloud if one of the babies was hers, since her abortion happened that month. She said the woman got up and walked out of the clinic.
Myrna was so impressed that her words changed somebody's mind, she spoke in Spanish to another woman who just drove up for an abortion. That woman also changed her mind and left the clinic.
Earl DeVries, husband of Judy, said seven people pulled into the parking lot during the Saturday prayer vigil. They were given literature about the realities of abortion and alternatives to it.
"We pray this whole thing will help open people's eyes," he said.
Judy DeVries added, "God has used this far beyond our wildest dreams. Those babies were instrumental in closing the clinic, giving healing and hope for post-abortive women at the funeral, and who knows how many pastors will speak out against abortion, in love."
Cradles of Love intends to seize the momentum of the weekend by following up and encouraging the churches to become active in pro-life ministries.
Cradles of Love can be reached at (909) 629-5554.