Cathedral newborn finder: ‘I’d adopt him if I could.’

| January 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

Nathan Leonhardt, a custodian at the Cathedral of St. Paul who found a newborn infant there Jan. 4, crouches in the spot where he discovered the baby in a laundry basket. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Cathedral of St.  Paul custodian Nathan Leonhardt was doing his typical evening rounds following 5:15 Mass Jan. 4 when he pushed open a tall double door leading to the Dayton Avenue exit.

The door bumped a round, green plastic laundry basket sitting on the foyer’s landing. Leonhardt thought it might be someone’s laundry; homeless men and women often visit the church. Maybe somebody felt embarrassed and left it there while they prayed, he thought.

The 26-year-old walked down a short flight of steps to lock the exterior exit, and climbed the stairs again. He looked in the basket — a fleece-tied Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles blanket. He gingerly felt around the blanket to “make sure nothing was in there,” and still thought it was just clothes. He decided to finish locking up and check later to make sure the basket was gone. Then he heard a noise.

A small cry.

He paused, processing the sound. A puppy? he thought. The father of a 4-year-old, he was familiar with a newborn’s cry. But it couldn’t be … .

He pulled the blanket back.

A baby.

Leonhardt first saw his little face. He was naked with a little fuzz on his head, his umbilical cord cut short and clamped with a black binder clip. He was still covered with wet blood and mucus from birth.

The baby was in an awkward position in the small basket, so Leonhardt picked him up. The baby was warm, but his hands and feet had a purple tinge. The temperature outside hovered just above zero, and the entryway wasn’t as warm as the Cathedral interior. Holy water has been known to freeze in its marble fonts.

He called Father John Ubel, the Cathedral’s rector.

“Get over here right away. There’s a baby here,” Father Ubel recalled him saying.

Father Ubel, who had just sat down for dinner, bolted from the table, abandoning a bowl of chili. He dialed 911 before putting on his coat. It was 6:02 p.m.

He met Leonhardt at the Sacred Heart Chapel near the Dayton entrance, and the pair quickly moved the baby to the sacristy, locking the door behind them. They didn’t know exactly what to make of the situation, Father Ubel said.

The priest’s first concern was the baby’s health. He told the 911 dispatcher that the baby looked fine, but he made it clear he was out of his wheelhouse. He wondered for a moment if he should baptize the baby, and then realized he must.

Using water from a cruet used at Mass, he baptized the infant, making Leonhardt the godfather. He named him Nathan John.

Leonhardt wasn’t expecting that.

“I was shocked. That melted my heart,” he said.

Father Ubel held the baby while Leonhardt checked to see if police had come to the Dayton entrance.

Three times Father Ubel opened the heavy sacristy door to look for the police arriving on Selby Avenue, and each time the baby cried at the cold.

“I’m like, ‘C’mon, this is Minnesota, you’ve got to get used to this,’” he said with a laugh.

When the police came, they noted his head was wet. “Well, I can explain that,” Father Ubel said he told them. “It’s baptismal water.”

By 6:30 p.m., the baby was in an ambulance bound for Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, where Father Ubel later visited.

He didn’t expect to be able to see the newborn, and he didn’t, but wanted to show support and concern for the baby. He was able to connect with a social worker, who pointed him to Ramsey County Child Protective Services for information about the process of placing the baby with a family. Police later told him that the baby may have been born slightly premature and weighed around 5 pounds. He was doing well at the hospital.

Nothing was left with the baby to indicate his origins, save the blanket, a thin gray women’s hooded sweatshirt and a couple of adult-size socks. Neither the Cathedral nor Dayton Avenue has cameras that would indicate the time the baby was left or the identity of the person who left him.

St. Paul Police are not pursuing the case as a criminal matter, said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a public information officer. Under Minnesota’s Safe Place for Newborns law, a baby up to a week old may be left at a hospital or urgent care facility by the mother or someone she authorizes, no questions asked. A mother could also call 911 to request an ambulance to receive her baby.

While the Minnesota law doesn’t list a church as a safe haven, Ernster said this case seems to fall within “the spirit of the law.” He said he was not aware of any other situation in Minnesota where a newborn was left at a church.

St. Paul Police are concerned for the mother’s well-being, as it appears she likely gave birth without medical help. Ernster said police are encouraging the mother to seek medical attention without any fear of prosecution for abandonment.

Father Ubel has been thinking a lot about little Nathan’s mother.

“My thought was God bless this person, [who], for whatever reason or motivation, thought it was safe and that the baby would be cared for here,” he said. “If we are truly pro-life — which we are — that’s our duty.”

He said he could never fully appreciate the struggles the mother must have been facing to feel she had to leave her child, and he commends her for finding a safe place.

“I would want people to believe that the Church is a safe place and that we will care for people,” he said. “And to have this happen during the Christmas season in particular is incredible.”

He wants the mother to know that her son will be cared for, and that he will do anything in his power to see that he is adopted soon by a welcoming and loving family.

Father Ubel also hopes that family will be Catholic.

“The fact that this child was left off at a Catholic church is not an insignificant detail to me,” Father Ubel said. “Absent any other information forthcoming, I think it’s important that this child be given up for adoption, and there would be many willing Catholic couples who would welcome this child into their home.

“I hope that there’s a way that we could play some part in facilitating that,” he added. “I understand that there’s a process and that needs to play out, including an investigation and all that, but at the end of the process, I would hope that there would be an openness on the part of the county to take this into account.”

While he can’t know the mother’s intentions, Father Ubel said, “What we do know is that the baby is Catholic now.”

The baptism was a short rite, modified for emergency situations. Should Nathan John’s adoptive parents wish, Father Ubel would be honored to “supply the ceremony,” in which he would pray the other parts of the typical baptism rite that he omitted, including the anointing with oil.

“I do entrust the child to the Lord,” he said. “We have no claim, nor should we; we are simply here at this time, at this moment.”

Emily Johnson Piper, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services, said at a Jan. 5 press conference at the Cathedral that the baby is in the care of Ramsey County Social Services, and will go through the same process as all children in abandonment situations. She noted that in 2015, 10 babies were given up under the state’s Safe Place for Newborns law.

Asked whether people could inquire about adopting Nathan John specifically, she said “privacy concerns would play a part in any sort of pre-designation of this baby or any child that is available for adoption.”

She added: “I would hope that people would keep an open mind. If they’re interested in adopting this baby, we have almost 500 other children out there waiting for a loving family to ask for them.”

Leonhardt and Father Ubel spent less than 30 minutes with the baby, but they both said they feel a special connection to him. Father Ubel said he dreamed about the baby the night Nathan found him.

When Leonhardt  first held him, he was reminded of holding his daughter as a newborn, he said. As his godfather, he hopes he might be able to develop a relationship with the child as he grows, if possible.

“I’d adopt him if I could,” he said. “I was the first person to hold him, and it was quite emotional watching him leave, actually. … It was almost like it was my own child.”

Leonhardt, a parishioner of St. Patrick in Inver Grove Heights who has worked at the Cathedral for three years, said he encounters “the weirdest scenarios” in his day-to-day work.

“I run into a lot of different situations, but this is by far the best,” he said.

Father Ubel said he hopes Nathan John never feels unwanted because of the circumstances of his birth.

“We all want to feel loved and wanted, and my greatest fear would be that the child would somehow feel, ‘I’m unwanted.’ Because nothing could be further from the truth. This child is a gift from God, and this child will be cared for appropriately,” he said. “With the Lord we are never abandoned. We are never orphaned.”

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