Knight of Columbus of Holy Rosary Parish in Medford Ron Fisk, George Niggemann, Ken Gilles and Ben Egle stand with a stock of infant caskets made with help from local business Better Built Cabinetry, owned by Chris Mahner. The caskets are being made available through the Medford Hospital’s “Gift of Love” ministry, which provides physical and emotional support resources to families who suffer the loss of an infant. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“Life is fragile. I always knew, but life is fragile. Your whole world can change in just a few seconds,” Jane Schiszik of Medford said, describing the devastation of losing a grandchild.

Thirteen years ago, Schiszik’s first grandchild was delivered stillborn at 7 months gestational age. His name is Jacob Richard.

“We were looking so forward to having this new baby, and all the anticipation and joy of it,” she said. “It all was gone.”

Knowing firsthand how overwhelming the grief of infant and pregnancy loss can be, Schiszik – the current diocesan president for the Council of Catholic Women – presented the Gifts of Love project to her parish CCW group. She learned about the ministry of healing, hope and love at a CCW gathering in La Crosse many years ago.

With the help of the local Knights of Columbus council, 16 infant caskets of varying sizes were made in the early spring. The women have disassembled wedding gowns and bridesmaids dresses to decorate the caskets’ interiors as well as sew burial clothes and fetal demise pouches.

The items are provided at no cost to a family who suffers the loss.

“It gives dignity to this little person,” Schiszik said, adding that it recognized the important part of a family that each life plays, even if only for a short time.

Local parish priest Fr. Patrick McConnell is involved with the project, and both Medford’s Hemer Funeral Home and Aspirus Hospital are on board.

It is still a work in progress, but Schiszik is pleased the efforts continue moving forward.

She recalls how years ago, miscarriages were not talked about or acknowledged as a unique individual to be grieved, just one pregnancy to be dismissed and easily replaced by another.

In helping them get the program off the ground, Schiszik credited Patti Flugart of Marshfield, who is involved with the La Crosse CCW and leads their Gifts of Love program. She shared her own gift of time and expertise, meeting with both the Medford CCW ladies and Knights of Columbus members to encourage and offer support for their projects.

Karen Olson, a member of Holy Rosary Parish’s CCW, has offered herself to make fleece coverlets for the caskets, even as she undergoes chemotherapy for cancer. An additional element the women hope to add are memory box kits, so that grieving parents could keep physical reminders of their child such as a lock of hair or their hospital wristband.

“A great ministry to help with,” K of C Council #1744 Grand Knight Ben Egle said. Men from his council, including local cabinet maker Chris Mahner, volunteered their time, with Mahner also donating the use of his shop, tools and materials.

All was “donated at no charge,” Egle added, “with the idea that every life matters and should be treated with respect.”

Life and loss

Chris Mahner, owner of Better Built Cabinetry, knows himself how important it is for a family to have the opportunity to honor the life and death of these babies. The first infant casket he handcrafted was for his brother and sister-in-law.

Karl and Ann Mahner had two young daughters when Ann had her first miscarriage at 15 weeks. Her next pregnancy also ended as a miscarriage. Although earlier in the pregnancy – only 9 weeks – it was actually the hardest miscarriage of the seven she went through.

“Nobody really talks about the ones that are lost,” Ann shared, at least not much outside of immediate family, in her experience.

She acknowledged just what a personal experience it is, one that has a variety of emotions attached.

“No matter how long you’re pregnant for,” she said, “it doesn’t have anything to do with how it affects you emotionally.”

The Mahners are parents to 12 children ranging in age from 27 years old to 18 months but have been pregnant 20 times.

For Ann, “the biggest hurdle was saying it was okay to one say I have just 12 kids and the next day to acknowledge the 20 lives I conceived.”

While all are “a part of your life,” she stated that depending on the situation and her personal disposition, it is okay to make a judgment call at the moment as to the sharing about their parenthood and loss.

Some of the losses, which took place between four and 15 weeks into the pregnancy, were babies she was really happy about. However, Mahner recounted that for at least three of those pregnancies, she experienced a lot of guilt.

“Is it a sin?” she asked herself and felt compelled to confess guilt that left her wondering “Have I prayed my babies away?” by admitting to God she wasn’t ready for another child or wasn’t sure he knew what he was doing with the timing of the pregnancy.

Priests have reassured her that admitting her feelings and anxiety to God wasn’t anything wrong or sinful; nonetheless, they were powerful moments of perspective.

Mahner admitted the first two miscarriages “deeply challenged” her marriage. After the second loss, Ann worried she might not ever hold and raise another child.

After Karl buried the first lost child at his grandfather’s grave, Ann felt he disconnected after the second loss. Not knowing how to deal with it, Ann interpreted is as her husband not caring.
It would be 10 years until real healing came.

When the family was moving, Ann was conflicted about having buried that second miscarried baby in the yard – the jar of the baby’s remains as had been given to her at the hospital. Reburying the remains as a family was particularly healing for the couple.

A “validation of the life” and loss, it was the first time Mahner realized how important it really is for healing to have the baby and bury the baby – “a closure thing,” she said.

With another loss, a 10-week gestational age baby girl, Mahner delivered at home. The couple decided to include all of the children old enough to understand. Afterward, they asked their pastor to offer a memorial service for the daughter they named Marie Therese.

Hers was the first casket Chris Mahner made – just big enough, yet so small the parents could hold it in their hands.

A miscarriage healing service was offered in conjunction with the memorial. Candles were made available and parents could add their child’s name.

“Some of the women hadn’t even named their babies,” she said and commented what a “beautiful ceremony it was.”

Miriam Grace

Ann’s 18th pregnancy was one of the more overwhelming ones. The morning of her first ultrasound, she’d been bawling about where they would find space for the crib. Never had she imagined that by the end of the day that would no longer be her concern.

She could tell something wasn’t right when the ultrasound technician left to get the doctor. Mahner saw it herself and the doctor confirmed the child she was carrying had anencephaly.

Anencephaly is a serious and fatal birth defect where parts of the brain and skull do not fully develop. While the cause is unknown, it is estimated that 1 in every 4,600 babies are conceived with this condition; 1 in 10,000 will be carried full term. Almost all of these babies will be stillborn or die within hours, or at most, days after delivery. Only a few of these children have lived more than a couple of years.

The couple sat their children down to share the news. While most had been through the experience of a miscarried sibling, this would be different.

Miriam Grace, as they named her, would likely live until she was born but not much beyond that.

For the Mahners, the hard realization was that there was a chance, although very small, that this child would live and have a myriad of special needs.

A large number of women with a pregnancy diagnosis of anencephaly choose abortion. It’s widely accepted, as the child’s likelihood of survival is so small and if they do live, disabilities will dominate the life.

Ann’s doctor knew she would not choose to abort the child, but delivering early was suggested.
With a late August due date and a “jam-packed” summer, Ann was told she could deliver early. Since the baby “wouldn’t survive anyway,” inducing labor at 30 weeks would be medically acceptable as her development would be basically complete at that point.

“You get this fine line all of a sudden,” she confessed. “All these thoughts go through your head – would our family be better off getting it over with earlier?”

Subsequent ultrasounds also showed that complete placenta previa would require a delivery by C-section and the longer the pregnancy progressed, the greater the risk of hemorrhaging for Ann.
Battling with these thoughts and questions for three dark days, she went to Mass and prayed for insight. What she heard God answer was two questions.

“How pro-life are you really going to be? How far are you gonna go for me?”
That was Ann’s moment of surrender.

“I was finally at peace,” she said. “The peace overwhelmed me and it was complete surrender. God, we’re taking this however you want to do it. No more me – all you.”

That “complete peace” didn’t take away the fact that Ann can relate intensely with women in similar situations who wrangle with the decision to choose life or to end the pregnancy.

Once she was asked if it wouldn’t be more humane to abort the baby than to make her and all the family suffer through the pregnancy and unknowns. Ann admitted that even after much training in pro-life ministry, she didn’t know to respond.

Veronica, the Mahners’ daughter who was 16 at the time, put together a video about her baby sister while still in utero. In it, she describes the diagnosis and outcome but also includes ultrasound footage and the assertion that “Miriam may not be able to live a full life … but you can see … she is alive. You can see her moving and her heart beating.”

Four-year-old Clare asked why they couldn’t just ask Jesus to heal baby Miriam. Mahner told her that of course they could pray for that.

“Well, can’t you say please?” the little girl pleaded.

Mahner said how heart-wrenching it was to watch her children struggle with the situation.

Having learned the importance of communication and acknowledgement of emotions, Mahner complimented her husband for his support during those months.

She said, “He calls Miriam’s birthday ‘the best of the worst days’ of his life. It’s not a day you ever want anybody to go through, and yet having that in your life is such a blessing.”

Ann underwent a natural procedure to encourage labor to start and she delivered her daughter the next day.

“We had so many people at her birth,” the mother stated. “The whole nursing staff was standing at the door just in awe, in awe of the love in the room.”

Another sign of support and community was in the room with the family. It was a Cuddle Cot ( which Mahner had fundraised for with help from another mother who had lost an infant. The pair raised enough to provide the product to the hospitals in both Medford and Marshfield. A cooling gel pad, the Cuddle Cot allows a deceased infant to stay in the room with the parents for an extended period of time.

Ann said their local Knights of Columbus gave enormous help towards that purchase.

The “healing that comes from community” was also made apparent at Miriam’s funeral. As Karl got up to read the first reading, his heart stopped, seeing how many people had come.

There was no advertising the funeral, but the church was packed, and mostly with people the family barely knew. They were moved by the difference their daughter’s short life had made and just how starved for healing and closure are families who have lost an infant or pregnancy.

She said she couldn’t imagine the suffering of parents who aren’t prepared for the loss of their child.

In addition to helping with Holy Rosary Parish’s CCW initiative for Gifts of Love, Ann is also trying to come up with a booklet of things and resources that can help a couple and family get through such a loss.

After the funeral, Miriam’s parents carried her casket from the church to the grave site.

“The casket,” Mahner said, “helps every mom get through that. Especially the ones who aren’t prepared. We were prepared, but that’s not usually the case.”

For more information on the Gifts of Love project, contact Jane Schiszik at or 715-748-5240.