INVESTIGATORS: Bring Maria home - KMSP-TV

INVESTIGATORS: Bring Maria home

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A decades old tragedy, a family struggling to solve a mystery, and a local Catholic church that refuses to help unless a court orders it to. The family has filed a lawsuit, but they're not asking for money. They're asking the church to help bring their lost baby home.

In the center of the cemetery, Christ on the cross towers protectively over a memorial to the unborn children, but who in this place -- that is supposed to be sacred -- is taking care of the lost babies?

"When we buried the baby, they forgot to mark it down," Patricia Rogers, mother of Maria, said.

In fact, after months of research, the Fox 9 Investigators discovered it happened time and time again at St. Hubert's Catholic Cemetery in Chanhassen -- and when families tried to get answers, they were simply turned away.

"I think they goofed and they don't want to admit it," Rogers said.

This story begins in 1963 in what was the township of Eden Prairie. Patricia and John Rogers were expecting their 5th child and things weren't going well.

"I was afraid something would happen, so I took a little bonnet, a little kimono -- a flannel kimono -- and I put it in the drawer and I told Cori," Patricia Rogers recalled.

At the time, Cori Rogers Austin was 12.

"Toward the end of the pregnancy, she pulled me aside," Rogers Austin remembered. "In case something happened to the baby, this is what the baby should be buried in."

Baby Maria was born by C-section at Methodist Hospital on April 26, baptized by a Catholic nurse at the hospital. Maria lived for one day.

Fifty years later, her father -- John Rogers -- still struggles to talk about all the things that happened next. In 1963, the Rogers family belonged to a nearly 100-year-old church -- St. Hubert's -- in nearby Chanhassen. A church publication from 1965 shows John Rogers was active on the trustee and finance committee.

"I'm back there some place," he said.

He served many a chicken dinner and worked hard for the church, but when it came time to bury his infant daughter, he was told tiny Maria's body could come no further than the church vestibule. She was not allowed in the sanctuary.

"I couldn't figure out why," John Rogers reflected.

John Rogers carried his own daughter's casket to the cemetery from the church. He placed it in the grave himself, and his children were with him. They could not afford a marker, and Rogers confirmed the priest did not come to say a prayer.

The priest was Father Firmin Weber.

"We were kind of in shock at the time," John Rogers said. "I didn't see why they didn't show a little more compassion."

Yet, the family says that was not the worst of it. When the Rogers inherited a family plot in the Eden Prairie Cemetery where John Rogers' parents are buried, they decided it was time to bring Maria home to the place they themselves would lay one day.

"She's alone out there," John Rogers said. "Why shouldn't we have the right to do that?"

But when the Rogers family approached St. Hubert's about moving Maria's body, they discovered she was lost. According to an e-mail from the church, the cemetery also couldn't account for two other babies.

"They should find her," John Rogers said. "That's their job."

John Rogers remembers the priest told him Maria was buried in what was called the baby area. It appears the church was able to locate only the babies whose families could pay for their plots and markers.

"We call the ministry of burying of the dead a corporal work of mercy," said John Cherek, of The Catholic Cemeteries.

Cherek spoke with the Fox 9 Investigators because no one at St. Hubert's would.

"Money should not be a factor of whether records are kept or how they're served with the burial," Cherek said.

"I think the question we're trying to uncover is, 'Why won't they help my parents find this little baby?'" Ann Rogers said.

In court documents, the church gives three reasons. The first is that the family simply waited too long.

"I think the expectation is that when people are buried, they're going to stay in the ground forever," Cherek said.

But just two years ago, a baby buried longer than Maria was moved from St. Hubert's baby area to be near his father's grave.

The second reason: That they have no idea where Maria is. The family asked the church to use ground-penetrating technology. The church refused, so the Fox 9 Investigators did it.

"We're sending electromagnetic signals into the soil," explained Scott Vikeras of National GPR, or ground-penetrating radar. "It's bouncing off objects below."

Vikeras volunteered to scan the cemetery's baby area and found two interesting things.

"We do have a possible burial at this location," he said.

A burial vault that appears much too large for just one baby -- something that appears on both sides of a headstone. The Rogers would like to know if it is two vaults buried together -- and there is something else.

"It's about 2 feet down," Vikeras said. "It's worth investigating."

It's the size of an infant fault.

"We can't discount it as a burial, but we can't confirm it without excavation," Vikeras said.

Although the radar detected nothing else around the spot that would be disturbed, the church refuses to dig -- even alongside this object to see whether it's a vault or a rock.

The third reason the church gave as part of its refusal is that digging could interfere with the graves of the two other lost babies. St. Hubert's told the Rogers they would not contact the families of those babies to inform them their babies were lost or to get permission to search for Maria.

The Fox 9 Investigators spent weeks searching tens of thousands records from the 1960s looking for babies buried in the same cemetery and found the death certificates of the two missing babies -- and two others the church didn't know about.

The Rogers family reached out to the families of both babies.

"She was in the baby section," Rogers said to one family via phone. "Ours was too."

One had no idea the church had lost track of their baby's grave, and the other had tried to find their son's grave in the past 5 or 10 years. They said St. Hubert's wouldn't help them either.

"Crazy, mixed-up deal," John Rogers said. "Geez."

Neither family could afford to buy a burial plot.

"Don't feel bad," Rogers assured over the phone. "We were in the same boat."

Father Firmin told one family he would bury their 3-day-old in another person's grave. Not a relative, just some other parishioner. They don't know who.

Cherek told the Fox 9 Investigators that's not something he would do. When asked if a baby is entitled to their own grave even when a family can't afford a plot, Cherek said, "That would be the assumption I would make."

Both families gave the Rogers permission to search for Maria even if it meant disturbing their babies' graves.

"We're making progress," John Rogers said.

But, when they took all that new information to St. Hubert's…

"They didn't budge one bit as far as giving us any help," Rogers said.

In fact, St. Hubert's now says it has no idea how many lost babies are buried in its cemetery.

"It doesn't feel like the babies were treated very respectfully at all," Ann Rogers said. "It feels like they're thrown in willy-nilly, and the whole idea of the sanctity of life is lost."

For John Rogers, the issue was urgent.

"We're getting older," he said. "Our life is getting shorter."

They wanted Maria waiting for them in the family plot.

"He thought we were bringing her home. He thought we were getting close," Ann Rogers said. "His wish was to have her there, and for him to join her -- and it didn't happen that way."

John Rogers died on May 3.

"He had a heart attack and died," Ann Rogers said.

He was eulogized as a man with huge hands and a huge heart -- a man who did what he could for others and could solve every problem that came his way, but it wasn't enough to convince the church to bring Maria home.

"God didn't fail him," Ann Rogers said. "The church did."

John Rogers told the Fox 9 Investigators that he would have felt differently if the church had tried.

The Fox 9 Investigators were told St. Hubert's record keeping is not atypical for Catholic cemeteries in the day, but every single public and private cemetery the Fox 9 Investigators called said even decades ago, they would keep track of babies in unmarked graves.

MORE: Bring Maria Home on Facebook

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