Finding mercy, healing after miscarriage
By Peggy Moraczewski
“The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2300.
Following a miscarriage in June 2014, Chris and Michelle Williston, parishioners of St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, found themselves in the devastating situation of burying a child. Compassionate family and friends helped them celebrate the life of their baby daughter, Mary Claire.
But in the months following their loss, the persistent call of the Holy Spirit guided them to help others who have suffered similar losses. Their grief evolved into the Mary Claire Project (MCP) and, recently, Chris Williston explained the family’s journey.
One year after burying Mary Claire, they established the nonprofit organization to assist other families that have lost a child through miscarriage.
The MCP was created to educate families on burial options and self-advocacy with medical facilities, as well as to increase access to low or no-cost burial options. To this end, they partnered with two facilities in the Diocese of Austin: The Gabriels Funeral Chapel and Crematory (The Gabriels) and Our Lady of the Rosary Cemetery and Prayer Gardens (OLOTR) in Georgetown. For years, these organizations have assisted families facing this situation.
They displayed a kindness that said, “Our daughter’s life mattered,” Williston said.
In the early stages of the MCP, Williston reached out to the St. John Paul II Life Center and the Vitae Clinic in Austin. Recently, a couple facing inevitable miscarriage, contacted the MCP after receiving information about the organization from the Vitae Clinic. Others hear about the MCP through word-of-mouth or online.
After losing a child to miscarriage, “There is a lot of emotional grief ... It’s a spiritual battle ... a psychological battle ... a physical battle,” Williston said. He hopes to make additional doctors aware of the MCP in order to assist more grieving families.
Partners in mercy
Williston said initial contact with the MCP is frequently made by the husband, as he attempts to figure out what to do, where to go, etc. Williston strives to be compassionate as he helps sort through issues, such as self-advocating with the medical facility to ensure families are given access to the remains of their child. He also shares what support might be available through hospital-provided social workers. The MCP is making strides by establishing connections with other non-profits, such as Catholic Charities of Central Texas (www.ccctx.org), where counseling services are available on a sliding fee scale.
Connecting people to the right funeral home and cemetery is very important. The Gabriels and OLOTR provide services at no, or very minimal cost, and OLOTR has dedicated an area called “Saint Joseph’s Garden,” for these babies.
“In front of Saint Joseph’s Garden, there is a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a beautiful and peaceful area with shade trees, many flowers and rock roses,” said Jimmy Shields of OLOTR. Each grave has a marker.
Williston said, “They’re (The Gabriels and OLOTR) doing it because they want to, and that’s the type of partner I’m looking for.” There is a great need for more of these valued partnerships, especially in south Austin. The MCP has established a funeral home partner in the Fort Worth area, and a new partnership with the Archdiocese of San Antonio, where they plan to have a burial garden developed by early fall. Statewide expansion is their long-term goal. Williston said he simply asks the Lord to lead him to new partnerships.
Helping families heal
In the past, The Gabriels had one of their employees build the small caskets, but the MCP has assumed this responsibility. When searching for a vendor to supply caskets, Williston was astonished when a group of men from St. Austin Parish in Austin embraced this task and worked together for five weekends, building about 75 caskets and donating them to the MCP. Their generosity provided a substantial base stock, as Williston continues his search for a commercial woodshop to become a long-term supplier.
The men said they shared personal stories while building the caskets and prayed for the families who would one day have a need for them. One man said he had built a casket for a grandchild in the past, while another spoke of the healing this project brings to families because it maintains a humanizing experience versus a purely clinical explanation for their loss. Families sometimes choose to take the casket home prior to burial in order to stain it or let siblings paint it. This personalization helps them heal, while honoring the life of their child.
Future plans for the MCP include buying and developing land for communal burial gardens and turning over the management of the memorial gardens to the cemetery. They have a desire to connect with priests and deacons who would be committed to the spiritual needs of these families. Williston said they would appreciate prayers for the project and help spreading the word, so families know their options and are not walking through their grief alone.
Pope Francis’ influence
The Willistons dedicated the MCP to the suffering Mother of Christ (Mater Dolorosa). Mater Dolorosa, Inc. (The Mary Claire Project) was established in June 2015. The formal corporation name registered with the state was inspired by a Pope Francis tweet: “Mary, Mother of Sorrows, help us to understand God’s will in moments of great suffering.”
The Willistons are expecting their fifth child. Williston said this has been a very healing pregnancy for them, while Mary Claire continues to be a significant part of their lives. The older children include her in their litany of saints at night, saying, “Mary Claire, pray for us.”
For more information, visit www.maryclaireproject.com or e-mail Chris at