Updated Nov. 29, 11:19 a.m.
In desperation, a woman entrusted her two-week-old daughter, Maheen, to Our Lady of Refuge, leaving the baby with the pastor and parish staff.
Father Saint Charles Borno, pastor, was conducting a pre-Thanksgiving parish staff meeting Nov. 20, when one of the parish secretaries came and announced: “Father, we have a situation.”
A Muslim Pakistani woman and her father and cousins had come to the parish to leave a baby. After a moment of initial shock, the pastor’s first thought was how he would care for a newborn. The question was immediately answered as the entire staff not only spoke with the family, but also immediately started caring for the baby. Everyone was overcome with emotion, but eager to do everything possible to ensure the well being of the infant.
The administrative assistant, Joane Lawrence, was so affected by the whole situation she could not bring herself to talk about it even a week later. She herself has a baby tucked under her heart, being seven months pregnant. Even if it was for a brief moment, the two babies shared Lawrence’s embrace.
The family explained that because of certain circumstances they could not take care of the baby and ensure its safety. So the parish staff tried to figure out what to do next. Frantz Lafortune, the cantor, has friends in the 70th Police Precinct so he tried to call them – but could not get a hold of them. Father Borno called the diocese; they advised calling the police or fire department.
So they called 911.
“A lot of cops came,” Lafortune said.
Under New York State law, anyone can leave a healthy newborn within 30 days of birth at a “safe haven” location without fear of prosecution. These locations include churches, police stations, firehouses, or hospitals. In this case, this is what happened.
Father Borno said the police did a great job of making sure everyone was okay. Police called the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), who came within two hours to take the baby.
But for those two hours, the parish was this baby’s family.
Father Borno has been called “Father” for the past 14 years of his life. But on this day, he felt it.
“I became a father,” he said, describing the feeling he had when he held the baby. The pastor has nieces, nephews, goddaughters and godsons but this was different. He felt a personal responsibility to care for this precious gift of God, to protect life.
“This is a testimony of who we are as the Church,” he said. “The Catholic Church cares for the helpless. I feel like I fulfilled my duty as a priest.”
Though it was the parish that took responsibility in caring for the baby, they were not the only ones who gave a life-changing gift. The pastor said this little baby, in her vulnerability, changed him in a way that he will never forget. He feels she renewed his pastoral zeal and his commitment to protect children, especially during these times when it is so difficult for women to care for their babies.
That was also very likely not the last time Father Borno will see baby Maheen.
A Mom is Found
After ACS came and took custody of the baby, Lafortune called his cousin, like he always does, to tell her about his day. Of course, the baby came up.
“You should have called me,” said his cousin, Elizabeth Soring, a Catholic who lives in Jamaica, Queens. She would have adopted the baby. Soring is of Haitian and Southwest Asian heritage, connecting her, in a way, with the baby.
He didn’t know she would be interested, Lafortune told her, and well anyway, it was now all said and done.
Later that evening, his phone rang. It was a police officer from the 70th Precinct asking him if he knew of anyone who would want to adopt Maheen.
The wheels went in motion. Soring had connections with people in family court and was able to get in touch with ACS. People helped her cut through the red tape.
One week after baby Maheen was left at Our Lady of Refuge, just as The Tablet went to print, Lafortune and Soring were on their way to Manhattan to pick up Maheen from the ACS facility and bring her home.
Father Borne prays for them. And although he is saddened by the situation that drove the woman to leave her baby, he is thankfully that the parish could serve as refuge in such a practical manner for this baby.
Although the situation is, of course, shocking, Sister Celia Deutsch, N.D.S., said it is not so surprising that the Pakistani family came to Our Lady of Refuge seeking help. Sister Celia volunteers at the parish as coordinator of interfaith relations. She is a co-founder of the Interfaith Coalition of Brooklyn, which is a group that brings together the religious leaders and faithful of the Jewish, Catholic and Muslim faiths in Flatbush. She also works with her order internationally to help bring people of different faiths together.
Our Lady of Refuge is known in the neighborhood for its work to help all its neighbors, no matter their faith. The coalition organizes social, charitable and social justice events. The parish also runs a food pantry for those who need help in the area.
Strong Community Bonds
There is a very strong and positive dialogue of life in Flatbush, she said. People of all religions speak about their faith openly and to each other. She said when living in the area she would often hear conversations about God amongst people of different faiths. She also saw firsthand how neighborly and loving people can be to each other.
Therefore, she said, it is not an out of this world idea for this Muslim Pakistani family to seek refuge at a Catholic Church named after the Mother of God.
A previous version of this story implied that the church asked police not to press any charges for leaving the baby. However, under the New York State safe haven law, “you can leave your baby, up to 30 days old, with any responsible person at a suitable location in New York,” without fear of prosecution.