OUR LADY of the UNKNOWN
David, my husband, remarked, “How curious that driving down the road past the cemetery you should be attracted by the spirit of a child who never found a way into this world.”
As I’ve told you before, the first time I felt summoned by her, she stood alone in Park Cemetery, that familiar neighborhood hillside that becomes a spectacular beacon of maple leaf glory every autumn. Entering the burial grounds, David and I drove down a faint, less traveled tract leading in the direction of the little lady.
Reverently we stepped among graves as we approached the enchanting wee woman. We found Our Lady less than three feet tall, hewn from
The stone figure’s simply crafted artistry, though exquisitely diminutive by contrast, calls to mind the large full-volumed, famed sculptured figures of Fernando Botero Angulo of Columbia or of Great Britain’s Henry Moore whose work can be seen close to home in the sculpture park of Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Art Museum.
Who crafted Our Lady? Whose grave does Our Lady mark? Who can she be? What is the significance of her nautical implement?
In my search for Our Lady’s identity I learn from the Park Cemetery website that the boundaries encompass eighty acres within the city limits of Carthage, Missouri. Founded in 1879 by Timothy Regan, the grounds contain a dedicated Grand Army of the Republic block for Union Civil War veterans, a dedicated Catholic area and a dedicated Veterans block that contains a monument wall with names inscribed.
Familiar Carthage family surnames are prominently displayed on numerous large, impressive monuments. There are some exceptionally unique markers such as the tall obelisk made of dozens of gleaming conch shells. The engraving on many stones is so weather-worn as to be unreadable. Many unmarked graves are scattered throughout the vast terraced incline. This is particularly true of areas set aside as babylands where, during times of high infant mortality, numerous babies were placed in a single plot with no individual recognition.
With hope of discovering the provenance of Our Lady I reach out to Frank Stine, Park Cemetery Administrator and Sexton; Carthage historian Nancy Brewer; and Ben Young in the reference department of our Carthage Public Library. After much research and many conversations Our Lady’s true identity still remains mostly a mystery.
Mr. Stine told me, “Though no official death certificates were recorded before 1910, the cemetery records do show that Our Lady’s figure keeps watch over Infant Hannen, a still born baby, laid to rest March 18, 1904, by the child’s father John. Searches for the mother and father lead to possibilities but no certainties. I find no sure answers for why the nautical lady keeps watch over this one child’s grave when so many other infant graves go unmarked. Surely someone felt the need to remember “the spirit of a child who never found a way into this world.”
For me, my attraction to Our Lady and the stillborn child she remembers is a gift of grace.
As though passing through the scrim that separates us from the world of the spirits, gifts of grace come as those curious and sometimes strange sensations that stir deep within, whisper to the heart and ask for attention. Ours is not to wonder “Why?” Rather ours is to pay heed, to listen and to respond.
This call and response is at the heart of every creative act: the mysterious something calling out to be seen and heard; the artist hearing and seeing and giving voice to the calling. This is the gift of grace made real. This is the gift of grace made manifest.
With our small homemade evergreen crown—our creation infused with the gift of grace—David and I honor Our Lady of the Unknown and the child of her solitary vigil.
During this season heralding the long ago birth of an infant born to a young mother and father lodged in a stable among livestock, there are those among us who, like the parents of baby Hannen, are today mourning the loss of someone dear and now departed from us. In the midst of all our holiday celebrating there is still remembering and grieving to be done for a daughter or a son, a sister or a brother, a wife or a husband, a parent or a grand, a friend or a loved one we once knew among us.
May you receive a gift of grace that guides you in creating your own token of remembrance for your loved one. May your creating ease your heart and give you peace.