Clothed in compassion

By Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Laurie Walter, Joyce Gornall and Pattie Cowan, browse through a variety of layettes they made through the local ministry group Holy Sews, on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Carrollton. The group makes handmade infant bereavement clothing for families who lose babies from 16-25 weeks, also known as micro-preemies. (NTC photo / Ben Torres)

Losing a baby is something you never plan. Parents expect to deliver a healthy child and spend the pregnancy months choosing just the right “going home” outfit and preparing the nursery.

“There are so many details involved that you never plan for the worst case scenario,” Jessica Hopkins explained. “I never thought I’d deliver a stillborn child 18 weeks into my pregnancy.”

A gift, handmade by strangers, eased the heartache of that sudden, devastating loss. When a nurse presented Luca — weighing 7 ounces and measuring 8 inches long — to his parents, the tiny body was covered in a soft, tunic-style gown and wrapped in a 12-by-12 inch fleece blanket.

“Seeing him dressed and wearing his little hat humanized him to us and the nurses,” the grieving mother recalled. “The nurses called him by name and treated him as a baby. He was valued and became more than just a miscarriage.”

The simple, meaningful layette was given to the Hopkins family by a Little Rock, Arkansas-based organization known as Holy Sews. Jennifer Kuncl started a local chapter of the nationwide ministry three years ago at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Carrollton. A skilled seamstress, the parishioner went to high school with Holy Sews founder Regina Binz who recognized the need for micro preemie burial clothing after her own second trimester miscarriage in 2007. The bodies of babies lost during gestational weeks 16-25 are too fragile and small for even preemie garments. Binz, a Catholic convert, worked through her grief by developing a way to clothe the tiniest babies with help from hospital professionals.

Today, at least one Holy Sews chapter exists in 35 states as well as Canada. Most are based in Catholic parishes.

“We have two goals,” said Kuncl, who delivered the very first DFW-crafted Holy Sews layette to Hopkins and her husband at Medical Center Plano in 2014. “We want to be in every hospital in the country but the bigger goal is to make sure parents, who are grieving, have something to clothe their angels in. A lot of care and thought is put into the outfits.”

Erica Salazar, Laurie Walter, Jennifer Kuncl, Joyce Gornall and Pattie Cowan, of the local ministry group Holy Sews, on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Carrollton. The group makes handmade infant bereavement clothing for families who lose babies from 16-25 weeks, also known as micro-preemies. (NTC photo / Ben Torres)

Volunteers, sewing at home, use material from donated wedding and prom dresses as well as other fabric to make 10-inch hooded wraps, sleeveless tunics, golf ball-sized hats, and keepsake blankets. A teddy bear, the size of a Christmas tree ornament, is included in the layette to symbolize a toy.

Holy Sews participants gather on the third Saturday of each month at St. Catherine’s to put the finishing touches on the ensembles and package them for delivery to area hospitals. Kuncl monitors supply via email with nurses who help spread the ministry’s mission.

Scaled to fit babies weighing less than 1.5 pounds, the layettes come in subtle colors and varying themes to give parents a choice. They are sometimes used for neonatal intensive care infants who don’t survive.

An English or Spanish prayer card, tucked into each layette, offers a blessing and space for foot and handprints. Hospitals don’t issue official documentation for miscarriage so the paper memento serves as cherished recognition of the child.

“I’ve never been through this (loss) but I know a lot of families who have and I’ve seen the difference it makes in their lives,” Kuncl pointed out. “The layette gives some comfort to parents in shock and, after receiving it, they sometimes reconsider taking pictures or having a service for the child.”

Receiving the unexpected gift assures grieving parents that others recognize the loss of human life.

“We’re respecting life by honoring these babies in death. That’s always been a passion of mine,” the organizer said adamantly. “I want to make sure people understand it’s a baby. Even if states don’t recognize that, showing families we do is important to me.”

Kuncl currently delivers Holy Sews layettes to 34 hospitals in the DFW area but any hospital can request them free of charge. The entire ministry, including shipping costs, is funded by donations. Beaded gowns, unusable for layette material, are shaped into ring bearer pillows or other crafts and sold at holiday fundraisers. The local Holy Sews chapter also sponsors a “spring cleaning” event that invites people to donate craft items and leftover fabric.

“What we don’t use, we give to other ministries,” Kuncl said. “Our garments are very small, so we can make 30 outfits from one wedding dress.”

In some ways, Holy Sews also serves as a support group. A few volunteers — like Hopkins — are recipients of the ministry’s compassion. Others suffered miscarriage years ago and understand the pain of unexpected loss.

“I started volunteering shortly after losing Luca and it’s been very healing to do something for other mothers and families,” said Hopkins, the mother of two daughters. “Once a month we can focus on remembering our babies. We’re able to talk about our loss without making other people feel uncomfortable.”

Sharing photos of the baby, dressed in his layette, made Luca part of the Hopkins family in a tangible way.

“Because of what Holy Sews did for us, he’s a baby now — a grandchild — and not just a miscarriage,” she continued emotionally. “The loss of a child is the loss of a child. The difference is how they’re treated by society.”

 

Losing a baby is something you never plan. Parents expect to deliver a healthy child and spend the pregnancy months choosing just the right “going home” outfit and preparing the nursery.

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