Tucked away off County Road 16, just minutes outside of Orono, the Garden of the Sleeping Angels is a memorial for babies lost during pregnancy or infancy. The garden, a place of reflection and remembrance, is especially significant during October’s Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, when families can collectively acknowledge their grief.
Nancy Sawyer and her husband Thomas own the property, but Sawyer is quick to point out that the garden actually belongs to the families. “I feel really blessed to be able to share this property, so [families] can reflect and heal,” says Sawyer. “We’ve realized that people need to remember to heal. That’s the purpose of the garden.”
The garden encompasses several small landscaped areas, many of which overlook a tree-lined marsh. Nestled among the rose bushes, birdbaths, hanging baskets and greenery are dozens of ceramic angels, each about eight inches tall and each with its own name and design. The angels represent babies gone too soon, and they rest here, in these spaces designed to offer peace, dignity and healing to families who have suffered a loss.
Sawyer has spent her entire career as a nurse, and during most of that time, she worked with families facing difficult pregnancies. “When you’re in a life-changing situation with patients, it also changes you,” says Sawyer. As a longtime gardener, she often found solace in her hobby. “I used to plant a yellow rose for a baby who had died,” she says.
In 2012, Sawyer was standing in her yard when she was struck by the idea to create a memorial. “I was listening to the fountain and looking at the garden, and it was like God telling me, ‘This has to be a garden for babies,’ ” she says. “It wasn’t even a thought. It was a direction.” Tom named it Garden of the Sleeping Angels, and slowly, through word of mouth, news spread that this was a place for families.
Local artist Nina Guertin, owner of the Northeast Minneapolis-based clay angels and aromatherapy business 4 Angels Creations, provides each family with an individualized ceramic angel. Guertin delivered three stillborn daughters, so she knows firsthand the importance of remembering. “With each angel that I make, I am intentional about my prayer for that family—that in some way, by placing their baby’s memorial in the garden, they will find peace and healing as they honor their child and their dreams for that child,” says Guertin.
Families are encouraged to place or hang these angels, which are provided free of charge, somewhere on Sawyer’s property. Today there are about four dozen angels in the garden.
Sawyer says she trusts that families will use the garden in ways that best meet their needs. “It started out that I was in control. But now I know that I’m just the caretaker,” she says. One family held a memorial service at the garden for the daughter they lost. Another family met there to celebrate what would have been their baby’s first birthday, and they ended the gathering by sending off balloons in remembrance. Still another family gathered to have a picnic at the garden.
As interest in the garden has grown, so has the number of gardens on Sawyer’s property. To help offset costs and to ensure longevity, Garden of the Sleeping Angels became a nonprofit organization in 2014. “Everything has a story,” says Sawyer, and she is committed to ensuring that all families can remember their stories in the Garden of the Sleeping Angels.
Visit the website here to find out how you can participate or contribute.