Mary Earline Brasher gave birth to five children.

Most people think she's a mother of four because one of her babies never came home from the hospital, never enjoyed a holiday meal with the family, never learned to drive, never married, never had children.

In 1979, Brasher was four months pregnant with her third child when she started bleeding. She rushed to the emergency department, but nothing could be done.

As if losing her child wasn't enough, what followed horrified her.

Hospitals allow parents to view miscarried or stillborn babies. A staff member brought Brasher's baby to her -- in a jar.

The only image she holds of her third child is a pair of tiny feet pressed against glass.

Brasher is 70 now.

That image -- and the trauma it caused -- is seared in her memory.

"No matter how far along you are, it's a baby. It's part of you," she said.

Two years ago, Brasher joined a volunteer group in Owensboro that has helped turn her pain into passion.

She is a member of God's Littlest Angels, a ministry that takes donated wedding gowns and remakes them into bereavement clothes, wraps and mementos for babies who never go home.

"I wanted other people to see something beautiful -- not what I saw," Brasher said.

God's Littlest Angels

At one time, Mary Fogle of Daviess County made drapes for a living.

She heard about nonprofits that made angel gowns, or bereavement garments for babies, from secondhand bridalwear. Fogle researched to see if any groups in Kentucky existed.

Seeing none, she made three angel gowns from fabric left over from her daughters' wedding dresses.

That was how God's Littlest Angels started five years ago.

The ministry now has 28 volunteers who handcraft angel gowns and other mementos for more than 25 hospitals from Indiana to Florida.

Laura Lackey, bereavement coordinator at The Women's Hospital in Newburgh, Indiana, remembers the day when two of the group's volunteers showed up unannounced and asked to visit with her.

"They were like angels," Lackey said. "They appeared at the hospital with a box full of angel gowns."

It brimmed with satin and lace. No two garments were alike.

They looked like miniature christening gowns or wedding dresses. Some came with matching bonnets.

Lackey remembers the craftsmanship was perfect. No raveling. No visible seams underneath because each piece is lined.

"I know there's nothing perfect in this world," Fogle said. "But I want these gowns to be as near to perfect as possible."

God's Littlest Angels' mission is so important because the ladies make the one and only outfits angel babies ever wear.

Notes of thanks

Alejandra Gomez was homeless, pregnant and living in a shelter in Florida.

When she into labor, she was dropped off at a hospital emergency room alone, said Sue Napper, volunteer at God's Littlest Angels.

Gomez' baby girl was born that night with a hole in her heart. The teen mom cradled her newborn until the infant died three hours later.

The hospital dressed the little girl in a God's Littlest Angels garment.

Gomez did not speak English, so she asked the hospital chaplain, the Rev. Nannette Medero, to translate and mail a letter of thanks to the Owensboro nonprofit.

An excerpt:

"When they bring me my Maria Alejandra she was beautiful. I never seen a dress so beautiful.

"It made me cry. My tears were happy tears for I felt I was not alone and my Maria would be going to heaven dressed as an angel.

" ... I am a single Mother and I have no moneys and could never be able to buy my Maria such a beautiful dress. I want to thank the ladys who make these gowns. Now I will always remember how beautiful Maria was when I said good by to her and I will smile."

"This is my calling"

When little Owen Mercer Kamuf died on Oct. 4, 2012, God's Littlest Angels didn't exist yet.

"We had nothing to put him in," said Rosemary Rumage, his grandma.

The family viewed Owen wrapped in a blanket.

Rumage is now one of the nonprofit's volunteers. She makes mostly boys' outfits in her grandson's honor.

"This is my calling," Rumage said.

God's Littlest Angels meet Wednesdays at Owensboro Christian Church, which provides a home for the ministry.

White billowing skirts of satin and lace -- from one of life's happiest days -- hang to the floor along one wall. On the other side of the room, large plastic tubs hold the nonprofit's inventory of angel gowns -- for one of life's saddest days.

In between the two, women sit at a series of tables, threading together pearls, beads and jewels that were painstakingly taken from bridalwear. They are made into matching bracelets for angel babies and their grieving moms.

In a back room, women deconstruct wedding dresses and cut out angel gowns, which volunteers sew at home.

Many of the nonprofit's volunteers have suffered some type of loss -- babies, grandbabies or spouses. This ministry gives life a new purpose.

When Lisa Brooks sews angel gowns, her mind is not on multiple sclerosis, which forced her into early retirement from a job she loved. At God's Littlest Angels, her focus shifts to others.

As Brooks sews, she prays for parents who will someday receive the gown she is working on. Prayer and tears are common among this tightly knit band of sisters.

Sharing this ministry brings them great joy, but they say they've never cried as much as they have since joining the group.

Those tears, however, have healing power.

Important keepsakes

Sheila Hopewell has the happiest and saddest of jobs.

She owns Hopewell Photography and takes pictures of newborns, including those who never go home.

"It's the most heart-shattering thing a parent can imagine," Hopewell said.

She knows. She lost a son named Trey 19 years ago.

"These parents have a tremendous amount of pride in their children," Hopewell said. "The fact that I get to be a part of that baby's life means the world to me. The fact that I'm taking a picture at the beginning and the end of this baby's life is very special -- and heartbreaking."

These families, in particular, cherish any keepsakes of the day because they leave the hospital empty-handed. Some chose to keep the angel gowns as mementos.

"God's Littlest Angels is the most amazing group of people who work together to provide something so important to families without ever knowing firsthand the impact," Hopewell said.

Giving gowns

A display case takes up an entire wall at God's Littlest Angels. Right now, it contains a strapless satin wedding gown that was donated to the nonprofit.

Along with the dress, the donors sent a photograph of the bride -- a stunning young blond-haired woman named Stephanie. She died in 2018 of melanoma skin cancer.

Her mom and husband wanted God's Littlest Angels to turn Stephanie's satin masterpiece into angel gowns as a way to pass her along.

Each wedding gown comes with a story.

Some women donate them after divorce. Other dresses come through tragedy, such as a bride who died in a car accident weeks before her wedding, or from mothers who lost babies and want to honor them.

God's Littlest Angels receive up to five wedding gowns a week from across the nation. They keep records on each dress and its donor.

One woman donated her gown along with this message:

"Thank you so much for what you do.

"My husband died 12 years ago. He died in my arms on Valentine's Day, which also was our eighth wedding anniversary.

"We had a beautiful life together. Bob was such a wonderful man. Always positive even during the worst days of his illness.

"I know he would be so very happy that I am donating the dress I wore on our wedding day to such a wonderful organization. Thank you and God bless each of you."

Jessica Tichenor works as a nurse at Owensboro Health Regional Hospital's labor and delivery unit.

Tichenor has seen God's Littlest Angels gowns and knows the impact they have on heartsick parents.

"After working here a couple of years and being with these moms through their losses, I knew that's what I wanted to do with my gown," she said. " ... It was going to hang in a closet. It was a good use of that dress."

Tichenor suffered an early miscarriage a few years ago. She knows the pain firsthand.

"I'm so thankful we have these gowns to give our patients," Tichenor said. "It's something bright in a dark day."

Angels unaware

The loss of a child -- at any stage of pregnancy -- is unexpected and tragic.

There is no time to purchase clothes. Besides, many angel babies are too small for outfits sold at stores.

"These wonderful ladies have a true calling and mission," said Lackey, of The Women's Hospital in Newburgh. "They've helped our families at a difficult time. These are usually young families who haven't experienced a lot of loss."

God's Littlest Angels make some boys' clothes out of camouflage fabric, which might appeal to outdoorsy parents. They even make bereavement gowns for Amish babies that look exactly like miniature versions of the adult clothes.

"They have taken their time and put their hearts and souls into each angel gown," Lackey said.

As a final touch, the volunteers stitch tiny angel charms to the garments to signify they are made for angels.

Some people would argue -- and rightfully so -- the gowns were made by angels.

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com

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