Burying the Abandoned : In Arranging Services, a Priest Provides a Measure of Dignity for Dead Infants


They were babies who died alone. One was a 1 1/2-day-old boy whose tiny body was left in the trunk of his mother’s car. His cause of death is unknown.

Two other newborns, both girls, washed ashore in Orange County the same week. Another girl was found stillborn in a toilet, and the body of an infant boy was left in a cardboard box in a parking lot.

All five were nameless. Even their birthdays remain a mystery. But to Father Patrick Callahan, they deserve some refuge, a proper burial and someone to care about them.

“Our belief is that these were human beings whose lives should be honored,” said Callahan, a Catholic priest and psychologist who started Children of the Ark, an ecumenical ministry that organizes funerals for Baby Does who go unclaimed at the county morgue.


“We should not dispose of them as though they are things. My hope is to show people these kids were once here.”

Callahan, who works with abused youngsters in South-Central Los Angeles, started the ministry in April after reading about the first three babies found dead in Orange County within four days.

Two newborn girls were discovered with their umbilical cords still attached in Newport Beach and Sunset Beach. The body of a third child, a boy less than a week old, was found dumped in a San Clemente parking lot.

The string of deaths baffled investigators at the Orange County coroner’s office as they struggled to track the children’s relatives. No one came forward--except Callahan.


He petitioned for guardianship of the three bodies, instead of leaving them to be cremated by the county. The priest gave the babies names--the girls found on the beach were Angelica and Ariel, the boy in the cardboard box was Michael--and then held a joint funeral service in July.

Since then, Callahan has buried two other babies--Matthew, the boy found in the trunk of his mother’s car in Fullerton, and Gabriela, the stillborn girl found in a Stanton toilet. He is planning a service for four other abandoned youngsters in November, two from Orange County and two who died in Los Angeles County.

“We’re limiting our work to abandoned infants,” said Callahan, who lives in Yorba Linda and works as an educational psychologist for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “But I hope a day will come when we can do more than that. When we can help bury all children who have been abandoned in Orange and Los Angeles counties.”

Deputy coroners who have handled Baby Doe cases say they often have little success in shedding light on unsolved deaths of babies whose lives lasted just a few hours or days.

“Infants don’t have identifiable characteristics,” said Richard Rodriguez, a supervising deputy coroner. “We have no record of their fingerprints or footprints.”

Deputy Coroner Jane M. Thompson said these are the most difficult and draining cases for her.

“I have seen how fragile and dependent babies are. How receptive they are to a little love and care,” she said. “And it breaks my heart when people just dump them like trash.”

Unlike some of the other cases, investigators know the identity of baby Matthew’s mother. He was perhaps 1 1/2 days old when his body was discovered in the trunk of her car in August.


The baby, though, had no name. The mother, identified by investigators as a drug abuser, had been convicted of felony charges for abandoning a previous baby in 1992. After the infant was found dead, the mother relinquished guardianship over his body.

But Matthew will never be forgotten by the Orange County couple who earlier had adopted his two older sisters--and gave him a name after his death.

Teri and Marty, who asked that their last names be withheld, gained custody of the two girls in 1991 and 1992 after the birth mother gave them up for adoption. The couple, who have five children of their own, learned of Matthew’s existence after returning from a summer vacation.

“I broke down and cried,” Teri said.

The couple helped Callahan with the October funeral for Matthew and Gabriela, the stillborn baby whose family never claimed the body.

Teri stitched together a satin white blanket embroidered with baby blue hearts and trimmed with lace. Her children penned cards wishing Matthew peace. The keepsakes were placed in his casket during the October burial at Fairhaven Cemetery in Santa Ana.

“We wanted to have a place that they could go to, something they could touch to remember Matthew,” Marty said. “Years from now, if the girls think back of Matthew and know that we had never done anything for him, what would they think?”

At Memory Garden Memorial Park in Brea, three granite markers lie side by side in memory of three other babies--Ariel, Angelica and Michael. They are named after angels.


“In the old Catholic belief, a child who dies before the age of reason, which is 7, goes to heaven and becomes pure, becomes an angel,” Callahan said during a visit to the cemetery last week.

He was pleasantly surprised that more than 150 strangers turned out for the July funeral services for Ariel, Angelica and Michael, and that 70 others came to remember Matthew and Gabriela this month.

On weekends and whenever possible, Callahan works with churches and mortuaries, trying to persuade them to donate services and facilities for funerals. One of his neighbors has offered to build caskets for future burials.

“I work out of my home, out of the car, whenever there’s time,” said the graying 53-year-old, whose thin ponytail hangs over the collar of his sweater.

His goal is to persuade individual churches to adopt a Baby Doe and assume burial responsibilities.

Callahan said the funerals are a logical extension of the work he does during the week, assisting abused children in some of Los Angeles County’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I deal with a lot of kids whose lives are at-risk,” he said. “I see a lot of poor parenting skills, people inundated with violence and poverty. Some kids were unwanted. It was a mistake. The parents become desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.”

He says of the abandoned babies he helps bury: “Ironically these kids are getting more attention now than they ever did in life. Perhaps their purpose was to draw attention to the misuse and abuse of children.”