Statues are not silent; they tell a story. Sondra L. Jonson’s “Rachel Weeping for Her Children” exudes the heart-wrenching pain of grieving mothers. But Rachel’s tears didn’t begin with the legalization of abortion in 1973. They began decades earlier at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine at Arapahoe, Nebraska, in remembrance of another holocaust: World War II. How the statues came to be is nothing short of miraculous.
The story begins in Poland in 1939, when Fr. Henry Denis, a young Polish military chaplain, was taken captive by the Nazis and incarcerated at various concentration camps, including Dachau. On October 7, 1944, in retaliation for a prisoner’s attempted escape, the Dachau inmates were lined up and randomly selected for execution.1
“There were many corpses on that day, and all the dead had to be brought and placed in line with those who were alive,” recounted Fr. Denis in historical information provided at Our Lady’s shrine. “One prisoner was missing. Finally, they found him; he was dead. . . . To forget that hell on earth, deep in my mind and my heart I prayed the Rosary [using fingers as beads]. The Rosary took me up there, into a different world. There were moments that I did not hear anything.”
Later, when the prisoners were sent out on work detail, a priest-inmate asked Fr. Denis, “Why did they call your name and number?” The blood froze in Fr. Denis’ veins. To be called and not report was a Nazi crime punishable by death. The priest began preparing himself for execution, but nobody came for him. Praying the Rosary had saved his life.
A gift of life
On that day—October 7, the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary—Fr. Denis vowed to build the Blessed Mother a shrine if he survived the camp. After the war, the priest immigrated to the United States and in 1949 was named pastor of St. Germanus Church in Arapahoe, a small farming town in south-central Nebraska.
In 1956, in gratitude for his gift of life, Fr. Denis and his American friends dedicated Our Lady of Fatima Shrine. Nestled in a park-like setting adjacent to St. Germanus Church, Our Lady’s statue stands atop a tall pedestal with statues of the three shepherd children and farm animals on shorter pedestals below. The shrine became a refuge for Gold Star Mothers mourning the loss of a son or a daughter killed in war.
Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, little Sondra Jonson was learning to walk and talk and visiting art museums with her family. “We were going to museums before I could sit up,” Jonson said of her doctor-parents. Before she was five years old, the little Jewish girl was already prophesying her mission in life: “I’m going to be an artist when I grow up!” Little did Sondra know that one day she would sculpt one of the most prolific pro-life statues in America.
Sondra grew up, attended prestigious art schools, married, and had a family. As a young adult, she began reading the Old and New Testaments. When she discovered that the Old Testament prophecies were indeed fulfilled in Jesus, she became a Christian. She converted to Catholicism in 1981.
A “flying prayer”
In the mid-1990s, Jonson began exploring the Midwest for a better place to raise her family than the concrete “oasis” of Las Vegas, Nevada, when she happened upon Our Lady’s shrine in Arapahoe. Taken by Fr. Denis’ story and the tranquility that enveloped the shrine, Jonson said a flying prayer that they might live nearby. The prayer took root. The family moved to Cambridge, Nebraska, a small town 15 miles from the shrine.
In 1998, the Knights of Columbus in Cambridge and Arapahoe wanted to add a monument at the Arapahoe shrine to memorialize the victims of a latter-day holocaust: abortion. They commissioned Jonson to create the larger-than-life “Rachel Weeping for Her Children” (©VAu312-114). “Rachel” became an emotional journey not only for post-abortive women but for all women who have lost a child.
“I prayed constantly for guidance that Rachel would bring healing without inflicting more pain,” said the award-winning artist, who was born on the Feast of the Holy Innocents. “My mother lost a toddler before I was born, and I was very aware of the pain that loss had on her entire life.”
Based on Jeremiah 31:15, the statue depicts Rachel kneeling in prayer, an empty blanket draped over her arms. Her hands are open in abandonment to God—the only one who can fill the cavernous hollow of her shattered heart. A red rose at Rachel’s side signifies hope in God and the restoration of her life.
Rhonda Kraft of Liberty, Missouri, found great solace at Rachel’s feet after her teenage daughter, Candace, was killed in a car accident in December 2001. Like Rachel, Kraft could not be comforted: Her child was no more.
“My heart and mind were so fragile and tired,” Kraft said. “I’m sure I looked much like Rachel as I knelt in sorrow and pain, mourning the loss of Candace.” In Rachel’s presence—a mother who understood the hole in her heart—Kraft felt an indescribable peace.
As abortions increased in the US, so did the number of women suffering from post-abortive trauma. The statue of “Rachel Weeping” became a powerful healing balm; 12 bronze and 20 resin castings were placed around the country and Canada. Her empty blanket also began speaking to women considering abortion: A life taken cannot be replaced. Abortuaries in Tallahassee, Florida, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, closed after a Rachel statue was placed within their view.
A soul connection
Wherever “Rachel Weeping” is placed, healing follows. There’s healing in the garden at the Kentucky Memorial for the Unborn, located in historic Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort. Designed in the shape of a womb, the memorial garden extends mercy and peace to parents mourning the loss of an unborn (preborn) child, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion. A bronze Rachel grieves with parents and then lifts their eyes to heaven. Their babies are safe in the arms of Jesus.
Engraved on a black granite wall are hundreds of inscriptions from bereaved parents. “We will see you in heaven,” one message reads. “His mercy endures forever,” proclaims another. One young man mourning his baby’s abortion wrote, “Daddy loves you!” Many parents also give names to these children.
Based upon a modern interpretation of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the hilltop memorial overlooking the Kentucky River was spearheaded by a woman searching for closure in her own life. After having an abortion to “resolve” a teenage pregnancy, Kathy Rutledge considered suicide to stop the emotional pain. The pain continued even after she gave birth for the first time. When the hospital nurse placed the newborn in her arms, Rutledge wailed, “I want the other baby! Give me the other baby!”
Rutledge explained, “I was still grieving for the soul and spirit of my aborted child.”
Dedicated in 2013, the Kentucky Memorial for the Unborn provides that soul connection, a sacred place where parents can honor their child—a child who will be part of them for all eternity.
A birthday in heaven
At Trinity Heights Queen of Peace Shrine in Sioux City, Iowa, “Rachel Weeping” often has flowers in her arms or letters at her feet. During the National Day of Remembrance, held on the second Saturday in September to memorialize the victims of abortion (see article on p. 29), Rachel takes center stage. One year, the Trinity Heights staff placed “a small cupcake, with one candle, in each of her hands” to remember the children who never celebrated their first birthday, stated Terry Hegarty, executive director. “You could almost feel the emotion emanating from Rachel.”
Another year, the staff poured buckets of sand into Rachel’s hands, each grain of sand representing a baby lost through abortion. Tears ran down people’s faces as the sand slipped—grain by grain—through Rachel’s fingers. The enormity of 63 million abortions in the US alone became real to everyone present.
“A Father’s Tears”
Many men who have lost a baby carry their pain silently, the heavy burden known to them alone. One day, a grieving dad asked Jonson to sculpt a companion piece for “Rachel Weeping” that would reflect a father’s agony of losing a child. Unlike Rachel, who holds an empty blanket and is bowed in prayer, “A Father’s Tears” (©VAu1-352-275) portrays the inconsolable father, on bended knee, with a pair of baby shoes in one hand. His upturned face demands answers.
“The father’s chasm of grief is so deep and so turbulent that it moves him to challenge God Himself,” explained Jonson. “‘How could You let this happen? Why wasn’t I able to protect my child?’ Like the patriarch Jacob, he wrestles with the Almighty, seeking the answers and healing that only God can give.”
The first bronze casting of “A Father’s Tears” will be installed next to Rachel in Arapahoe in 2023.
To view more of Sondra Jonson’s artwork, visit sljonsonstudios.com.
1. The account of Fr. Denis is adapted from the book Mary’s Miracles: A Traveler’s Guide to Catholic America by Marion Amberg.