Suffering the loss of a child is a traumatizing experience. After losing their son, Nathan and RyAnne Carr set out to help others through their loss, with the guidance of the saints, and through the most gracious and efficacious mercy of our Lord, Nathan and RyAnne Carr have answered the call through their work with Immaculate Hope Ministries.
An interview with the founders of Immaculate Hope follows below. If you or anyone dear to you has suffered in this way, please let them know about Immaculate Hope Ministries.
What was the impetus behind the founding of this important ministry?
RyAnne and I met while serving as missionaries with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). When we felt God calling us to marriage, we also discerned to leave campus as missionaries, but have always had the missionary call upon our life. Our prayer at that time became, “Lord, send us to the mission field where you need us most.” After settling in RyAnne’s hometown of Peoria and me beginning a career in Catholic Healthcare, and being pregnant with our first child, we thought that mission field would be family and parish life.
We were expecting a boy, Caleb Benedict, and the pregnancy was going well. I worked in a genetics lab that diagnosis genetic conditions from Down Syndrome to terminal cancer. Many of our sickest patients are newborn babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Seeing such a high concentration of illness and tragedy warped my sense of what normally occurred in pregnancy – a live and healthy baby at the end of a 40-week pregnancy. I had to remind myself almost daily that the norm is a a healthy baby, not severe, life-limiting illness.
I recall the day Caleb died very clearly. We were at 38 weeks and 4 days gestation. RyAnne had an appointment the day before and everything looked great. Caleb was active, and our doctors began planning for if Caleb decided to come that weekend. It began to really set in at that point that our entire life was about to change. We had no idea, however, that it wasn’t going to be the joy we were anticipating, but instead crushing loss and the long road of grief.
RyAnne didn’t feel Caleb move that morning, so we decided that she should go in the the doctor just to be safe. We decided that only she would go so I could save my time off for when Caleb was born. As I was coming back from lunch that day, I got a phone call from RyAnne. Her voice and words are forever etched in my memory. “He’s dead, Nate! He’s dead! Our baby boy is dead!”
We founded this ministry because of what we suffered. God had prepared us and trained us as missionaries and evangelists. After suffering loss and grief, we knew the mission field we were to labor in. It wasn’t a place, but an experience. Those who suffer a pregnancy or infant loss are some of the spiritually poorest of the poor right in our midst. One in four pregnancies end in some type of loss. There are approximately 750,000 miscarriages (prior to 20 weeks gestation) in the U.S. each year and 30,000 stillbirths (after 20 weeks gestation) each year, not to mention ectopic pregnancies and early-infant deaths (SIDS, congenital heart defects, genetic anomalies, etc).
We began our work in its most basic form through our own grief journey, and have been building, developing and expanding it ever since.
What is the story behind the name of your ministry?
We did not have a name in the beginning. It wasn’t until about two years into this work that we decided on “Immaculate Hope Ministries.” Immaculate is from the obvious source of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This same heart of Mary is also the Sorrowful Heart of Mary. Both attributes of Our Lady are important in grief.
Hope because hope is the remedy for grief. Hope does not disappoint, but proves God’s love for us (Romans 5:1-8). In grief, love can seem distant, far away, and impossible. Hope bridges that gap and brings near God’s love. It returns what has been lost spiritually because of death. Faith and love can seem lost, but hope restores them in time. In addition, most of the the people we minister to never had a chance or opportunity to baptize their child. This is a concern and question that weighs heavily upon many bereaved Catholics who have lost a child this way. The theology of baptism is so central to our faith, yet many are given ambiguous answers to the salvation of their child – sometimes the wrong answers (bad theology) and sometimes answers that lack compassion (bad pastoral care). The answer the Church gives, however, is one of hope and mercy. We are to commend our children to the mercy of God and hope for the salvation of each of them (Cf. CCC 1261). Indeed, we are saved in hope (Romans 8:24)! What the Church gives here is not a consolation prize, but deeply profound and comforting. The opportunity for hope in the instance of pregnancy and infant loss is the thing saints are made of, if only grieving parents would 1) know this answer and path of hope and 2) receive the grace of hope from Our Loving Father.
Ministries (instead of ministry singular) because we seek to serve in many ways. For us, it is not any one task that defines this ministry. It is the willingness and openness to use any resource at any time and in any place we find ourselves for ministry. This is the missionary aspect to what we do. A missionary goes into a place without anything (“take no money, second tunic or staff…..”) and uses what the place has to offer to preach the Gospel and bring forth the Kingdom. This is how we understand ministry. Practically, this means that in addition to developing our own resources (website, retreats, etc.), we try to use already existing support groups, ministries, and organizations to encounter people. Often times, ministry is simply having coffee with a grieving mother to listen and comfort. Other times, its sending a card, message, or book to someone when we know they would benefit from it. Other times, it can just be praying and fasting for those we know who are suffering. Our ministries are all of those things and yet not exclusively confined to any of them.
When did you actually start Immaculate Hope?
We held our first retreat in the Fall of 2011 about 6 months after our son Caleb died. That retreat was for mothers only, and the content was based on what we were experiencing and needed at that point in our grief. (As a side note, this has been how most of our ministry has developed, with the question, “What do I need at this point in my grief?” The answer that God gives us we then share with others. We then go back and revise those resources as we develop more or learn more.) We didn’t do any formal ministry for another full year after that retreat. We were still so new in our grief and very broken. The following year we repeated the same retreat for mothers, revising and adding to the content and theme for that year. It wasn’t until after that second retreat when we began seeking ways to encounter and serve fathers who have lost a child. We did this through forming our Couple’s Retreat, which we hosted at our parish the following summer (about two years from our loss). One couple at the first Couple’s Retreat lived in the Chicago area, and wanted us to come up to Chicago to hold a retreat. They were well connected with the Catholic community in the Archdiocese of Chicago and were able to place us in contact with individuals in some of the Archdiocesan offices, who were gracious enough to bring us in. We held that retreat the following summer (3 years out from our loss). In preparation for that retreat and to promote it, our host couple also placed us in contact with Wendy Wiese at Relevant Radio. Wendy had us come on her radio show “On Call” to tell about pregnancy and infant loss and promote the retreat.
I want to pause in the timeline of our ministry to say that this was a breakthrough moment that we are so thankful for, not just because of the added exposure, but because it gave us confidence and courage to persevere in this work. For the first time, we realized that God was allowing us to be a voice crying out in the wilderness of grief. It was a shear grace moment, and we are so very grateful for the good will that Our Lord, Wendy and Relevant Radio, and all the host couples that have partnered with us.
Following the Chicago retreat, we were also invited to Des Moines, IA, to lead the same couples retreat. The following year we returned to Chicago in the fall to lead another retreat (year four), which brings us to the present. We have done a Couple’s Retreat in Grand Rapids, MI, most recently and plan to lead retreats in Stillwater, MN, and Fargo, ND later this summer.
This is something of a long-winded introduction to answer the question. We began doing the work of the ministry almost immediately following our loss in 2011. We added the name Immaculate Hope on December 8, 2013 on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, when we rededicated this ministry to her intercession and that of St. John the Baptist and now Sts. Zelie and Louis Martin. These are our co-patrons of the ministry. Our Lady for reasons that need no explanation. John the Baptist because this is a prophetic ministry of hope, and his prophetic ministry is our inspiration. John was a voice that served to point to Christ, and he had the humble disposition that Jesus must increase and he must decrease. This is how we see our role in people’s grief. They encounter us, but we lead them to an encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ and then recede into the background. Zelie and Louis Martin because they had a number of infant losses. Through it all, they remained faithful and hopeful. Before the St. Therese that we all know of, they lost a daughter in infancy also named Therese. They could have given up hope and closed themselves to life after burying their first Therese, but they didn’t. Because of their courage and hope in the midst of loss, the Church now has the incredible gift of their final daughter St. Therese of Lisieux.
Before you founded Immaculate Hope, was there a great need for ministries like yours in the Church? In what ways?
This is a hard question to answer for the Church as a whole. There may be areas in the country/world that have this ministry well-developed. Locally, yes, we felt a lack of ministries and resources in our local diocese. This is not to say we were not met with outstanding pastoral care, compassion, and charity through our loss. We certainly were, especially from our pastor, parish and friends. There were more people at Caleb’s funeral than at our wedding! The lack was in proper resources and support after things “settled down.” We desperately wanted something – a book, a ministry, a website, another couple – To accompany us as guides on this dark and broken road, but there just wasn’t anything that we found that sufficiently met our deep needs in grief. There were shelves of books and retreats on post-abortive healing (a good thing!), but nothing on pregnancy or infant loss. Both of us were well-formed and resourceful Catholics before our loss, so if we couldn’t find it, we concluded it must not exist in any comprehensive way. We brought this to the Lord in prayer, and he responded to us with the same answer he gave the disciples faced with 5000 hungry men plus women and children – you do it.
What makes Immaculate Hope different from other ministries?
We understand ministry in its most fundamental sense – that of service. When we began our work, we did not seek to start an organization or an institution or anything like that. We simply sought to serve those, who like us, were in need of comfort and consolation. To this day, this remains how we see ourselves. Of course, as we have developed resources and God has expanded our geographical reach, we realize there are practical and logistical things to develop. Right now, we are discerning whether or not become a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. To this point in time, we have been small enough where this was not required or prudent. We are at a crossroads though, and are praying how best to move forward. Such a decision will come with certain responsibilities, commitments, and obligations.
Additionally, we are still in our childbearing years and have a daughter Abigail (4 1/2 years old) and son Judah (17 months old). We still hope to have more children, but pregnancy after a loss comes with its own burdens. It also places limitations on being able to actively work in this ministry. It is quite difficult to lead a retreat on pregnancy and infant loss, meet a grieving mother to listen and console her after her own tragedy, and maintain the pace of ministry all while carrying the worry and emotional burden of our own pregnancy. These are rough waters to navigate! This is why we see this ministry at this point in our lives as seasonal. Right now we are not pregnant and are well rested on the grief and family front. This means we are able to run fast and labor intensely in the vineyard. We know that as soon as we see a positive pregnancy test, the ministry will transition into a quiet season. In the broader picture, this is temporary. This is our life’s work, and so we remain patient with this cycle, never knowing how long a season of ministry will be, but always entrusting it to the providence of God.
Finally, we want to help educate the Church in this area. Much could be said as to why the Church has been largely unprepared to serve people in their grief needs after a pregnancy or infant loss. A lot of it is education as to the nature of pregnancy loss. We are just beginning, because of ultrasound and new scientific knowledge, to become aware of life in the womb. The Church has always championed for the sanctity of life from conception, but I do not think we really understood the magnificence and complexity of it from its beginning until the last few decades. Related to this is the ill-effects of the Culture of Death on our society. We have become isolated, atomized, and calloused to life in the womb and death in general. We seek to hide death and grief when we encounter it. This is something we do subconsciously, I think. This is why education is important. It is amazing how many times we hear from parents that they were told, “Just try again,” or “This is common, don’t worry. You will move on.” This is not compassionate pastoral care! It is also a contradiction to building a Culture of Life. If life is holy from conception, then we need to treat early loss as seriously as we would treat a tragic death later in life and the devastation that brings to a family. In short, I think this is an area where the laity must lead. As a general statement, most clergy do not have a sense of the deep need in this area. This is not their fault, but education is important to correct it if such errors are present.
Where have you seen the fruits of your ministry as it has grown?
Yes. Once in a while, God gives us encouragement and consolation in this work through someone we have ministered to through their gratefulness in how a retreat or something one of us said helped them. In other instances, the fruit born is cooperation in this ministry. This, in fact, is how we spread from outside of our home parish in Peoria to cities across the Midwest.
What would you tell those who have also suffered the loss of a child but don’t know where to turn?
Draw near to the Crucified and Risen Christ. Place your hope in him and his victory over death. It is good to be close to Jesus through Word and Sacrament during grief. He speaks very tenderly and intimately to those who are on the cross with him, and he is ever-ready to give to each of us the victory he has obtained. There are many questions during grief – some common and general, others very specific to an individual’s circumstances and loss. Be patient and allow Jesus through the Holy Spirit in the ministry of the Sacraments and revelation of Sacred Scripture to explain your grief to you as you can understand it. This can take time, but our loving Father wants to release all his children from the chains and prison of grief, accompany them on their journey of grief, and invite each of them into His loving embrace where there are no more tears, mourning, or pain, and where all things are made new.
We have developed prayer resources on our blog to assist in this. Additionally, seek out a good spiritual director or faithful friend who knows you, knows grief, and will accompany you and help carry this burden with you. Finally, rest in the arms of Our Lady. Truly, there is no sorrow like her sorrow, and next to Jesus Christ crucified, there is no martyrdom like her martyrdom. Her martyrdom is the martyrdom of a mother’s sorrow for her child, and this is something parents who have lost a child share in. She will be your companion, comfort and guide even if there is no other person in your life who can or is willing.
Who have you partnered with in your ministry?
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep – Gives free, professional-quality remembrance photography after or shortly before a child dies. This is a priceless and precious gift. Parents may only have a few hours with the body of their child, and will never have the opportunity to form the lasting memories most parents get with their children over a lifetime. These pictures capture the raw moments, sorrow, pain, and most of all love that is present as parents meet their son or daughter for the first time and then say good bye. In the greatest sense possible, this is tragically beautiful art that reveals the Heart of the Father. (I have attached one of our own pictures from NILMDS. Credit for the picture goes to Jenni Bliss-Williams who graciously served us in our loss).
Elizabeth Ministries (ministries offered varies by location)
Local parishes, diocesan offices, and pregnancy loss ministries and support groups
Relevant Radio (www.relevantradio.com)
Cool detail that only the Lord can arrange: We chose the name Caleb Benedict when we were engaged and long before we found out we were pregnant with Caleb. His birthday is April 16 – the same day as Pope Benedict XVI. His funeral was on April 19 – the day Joseph Ratzinger was chosen pope. Careful readers of our blog articles will see that we lean heavily on Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s theology.
How can others get in contact with Immaculate Hope Ministries?
Visit our website at www.immaculatehope.org, our Facebook page – “Immaculate Hope Ministries”, or e-mail us at email@example.com.
l to r: Caleb, RyAnne, & Nathan Carr
Thank you to Nathan and RyAnne for their generosity and their work in this very important ministry and for taking the time for this interview. May God richly bless them and their ministry!