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By Mary Pearson

On December 28th, the Catholic Church commemorates the Feast of the Holy Innocents. They were Christianity’s first martyrs, infants killed at the decree of the wicked King Herod in his jealous search for the Christ child.

It is a tragic part of the Christmas story that might seem out of place amidst the merriment of the holiday season. And yet, this tension of Christmas joy with the agony of grief is familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one, particularly those families who have experienced the death of a child.

On October 19th, Bishop Rojas dedicated Holy Innocents Columbarium in Grand Terrace. Named for those first infant martyrs, the columbarium is intended to house exclusively prenatal and infant cremains, offering those who have lost a child through miscarriage, stillbirth, or during infancy, a place to lay their child to rest.

Located behind St. Junipero Serra House of Formation, the columbarium was originally built in 1987 as part of Holy Spirit Monastery, which belonged to the religious Sisters of St. Benedict. When the monastery closed in 2011, the remains of the three sisters who had been inurned there were transferred to the sisters’ main community in Indiana. The Diocese acquired the land from the monastery, but the columbarium remained unused.

Alfred Martini, Director of the Office of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese, said Holy Innocents Columbarium came about in response to a need that he and many priests were seeing. Namely, that families who experience miscarriage and infant loss too often have limited options for burial.

“A lot of places won’t take a fetus under 20 weeks [because] you can’t get a death certificate.” Martini said, “So what we found was families were calling priests and saying, ‘I’ve had a miscarriage, but it’s my child. Do you have a place that we can bury them?’”

Martini said the idea for Holy Innocents Columbarium came about at a meeting of the Presbyteral Council. There, in 2021, Martini was giving a presentation about the newly dedicated St. Theresa Columbarium in Palm Springs, and he mentioned to those gathered that St. Theresa’s contained two rows intended specifically for prenatal and infant remains. One of the priests who was present at the meeting expressed his conviction that something similar was needed for families in the San Bernardino area. Martini credits Monsignor Gerard Lopez, STL, Vicar General for the Diocese, with coming up with the idea to use what he called the ‘Serra House columbarium’ for this purpose.

“I thought that was a perfect idea, a perfect location,” Martini said of the idea to use the existing columbarium, “So we spent the time and the money to renovate it.”

In addition to renovating the columbarium, a program was developed for the families who will utilize Holy Innocents. “We developed a Memorial Mass. We developed the interment service. And then we host the reception afterward for the families,” said Martini. The plan is to provide these services to families at reduced or no cost, paid for by donations to the Columbarium.

On October 28th, the remains of the first three infants were inurned in at Holy Innocents, following a Mass celebrated at nearby Christ the Redeemer Parish by Father Anthony Waturuocha, Administrator.

One of the infants was named Andrea Guillen. Her mother, Viviana, graciously shared her story with the Byte.

“God put it in my heart to put my testimony out there for all the moms and for all the parishes to understand that our cooperation makes a difference,” Viviana said, referencing her gratitude for the donors who make the program at Holy Innocents possible.

Viviana experienced a miscarriage in May when she was 13 weeks pregnant with Andrea, her sixth child. In the days following, she reached out to cemeteries and became discouraged by the cost. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what do I do?’ Because you’re not prepared for this,” she said. Then, someone told her to contact the Diocese directly, and she was connected with Alfred Martini.
“God answered my prayer,” Viviana said, “I have such comfort just to know that my baby was well taken care of.”

Viviana said she and her family saw little signs, or “winks,” from God during the October 28 Mass, from the choice of the songs sung by the choir to the color of the flowers brought by mourners, God seemed to be in every detail. “The Mass was beautiful. It was just beautiful,” said Viviana.

When asked if she had something she would like to share with families who may find themselves in similar situations, Viviana quoted her favorite Bible verse, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your understanding: In all of your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” Adding, “And when you can’t pray–because there are moments that you can’t…There are moments that you just want to give up–to just get on your knees and praise the Lord because He is good no matter what happens to us.”

Holy Innocents plans to offer two such memorial Masses each year for families who experience infant loss. For more information, or to donate to the program, readers can contact the Catholic Cemeteries office.

Mary Pearson is a freelance writer and parishioner of St. Martha, Murrieta.