As Christmas neared, priests from seemingly everywhere were telephoning to inquire about the living baby who had been found in the crèche, the manger scene depicting the birth of Jesus.
“They want to know how the baby’s doing because they want to preach on the baby for Christmas,” Father Christopher Heanue of the all the more aptly named Holy Child Jesus Church in Queens, New York, tells The Daly Beast. “This story will be in many churches in this country this Christmas, maybe around the world.”
The 28-year-old Heanue was ordained just this year and he was a month away from celebrating his first Christmas as a priest when his part of this story began. He reports that he was meeting with a soon-to-be married couple in the parish office. His phone began ringing.
“Being polite, I, of course, didn’t answer it,” he recalls.
The parish secretary then burst in, saying, “Father, I need to talk to you. There’s an emergency.”
Heanue excused himself and got startling news from the secretary.
“He told me, ‘There’s a baby in the church,’” Heanue remembers. “We just ran over to the church to see.”
Heanue entered and hurried up to the crèche that the custodian, José Moran, had set up late that morning. Moran told Heanue that he had taken a lunch break and had then been back on the job, sweeping in the church when he heard a baby. He had figured somebody with a child must have come in and he kept sweeping.
But when he heard the sound again, Moran had looked around and had seen nobody. He had approached the crèche, where he had yet to place the religious statues and the animals. He had discovered what Father Heanue now beheld in the very place where the figure of the baby Jesus would be placed come Christmas.
“He was still in the stable,” the priest recalls of this living newborn. “He was healthy. He had good color. He was moving around a little bit.”
The infant had been swaddled in dark purple towels. He did not seem to be in any distress.
“Doing what I guess newborn babies do,” Heanue says. “They goo and gah and move their hands a little bit. He was just basically doing the normal things.”
Heanue and the others who gathered around this remarkable nativity scene sought to assure the child that he had been left in exactly the right place.
“We were just sort of kind of touching him and giving him reassurance,” Heanue says.
Heanue understood that he was seeing life in its first hours outside the womb. He was stunned and amazed and thrilled.
“It was quite a beautiful thing,” he recalls. “It was so precious… His innocence, his helplessness… So young and so tiny.”
Heanue saw that the umbilical cord was still attached.
“I had never seen an umbilical cord in real life,” he says.
The nurse from the school across the street was on her lunch break and came running. A parishioner who has children of her own was also there. They understood that the umbilical cord needed to be tied off.
“They both sprang into action,” Heanue says. “A knot out of the actual umbilical cord.”
The towels in which the infant had been swaddled were wet, apparently from bodily fluids. Heanue dashed to the priests’ residence and returned with clean, dry towels, these blue.
A call had gone in to 911 and soon the fire department, the police department, and emergency medical services all responded. The firefighters, cops, and paramedics arrived knowing the nature of the call, but the members of the three agencies nonetheless found the sight as spellbindingly wondrous as the Three Kings must have at that other nativity long ago.
“They knew what they were responding to, “ Heanue says. “When you see it, it is such a different surprise.”
Cops would later remark how glad they were that this was not a call like the one in the Bronx a few weeks before when a woman had thrown her newborn out a window.
“It wasn’t them responding to one of those cases,” says Heanue, whose brother is a NYPD detective. “They were relieved how this story turned out.”
The infant was wrapped in insulating material such as is given to marathon runners. A paramedic was holding a warming lamp over the child as Heanue took a photo. The glow looks in the picture like a light from on high.
“The North Star,” Heanue says.
Heanue accompanied the infant to the ambulance.
“I blessed him,” Heanue says.
Detectives set to tracking down the mother. They found a video of a woman going into the church with a baby swaddled in purple towels, taken minutes before the discovery. The footage matched an earlier video from a nearby discount store of a woman with a baby purchasing purple towels.
The detectives soon after identified and spoke to the mother, who proved to be an 18-year-old, just arrived from Mexico five months before. She was living with an aunt who had been unaware of her pregnancy and she had kept her secret by wearing loose-fitting clothes.
She had been the only one in the house when she went into labor and gave birth. She had been to Holy Child previously and remembered it as a warm and welcoming place, where the protective presence of the Almighty was manifest.
On the way to the church, she noticed the baby’s lips were getting blue and she ducked into the discount store to buy the towels. She passed two other churches before she stepped into Holy Child.
The mother could not have known that crèche was being set up even as she was giving birth. She could have only been amazed to see it in the transept, before the Blessed Virgin, next to a bank of votive candles and an American flag.
She set the baby down in the warmest and most sheltering part of the church, double-sheltered by the crèche. She returned the next day to ensure the child had been found. She now told detectives that a parishioner had recognized her and assured her that all was well.
Under New York State’s safe haven law, a mother can leave a child less than 30 days old in a place such as a firehouse or a hospital or a church. The law requires that somebody be made aware of the child’s presence, but the mother insisted that she had not left her newborn unattended.
“I left him with God,” she told the detectives in Spanish.
Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown decided that the mother had acted within “the spirit” of the law. He chose not to prosecute.
Three days after the birth, Heanue, who serves as parish administrator, went with the pastor, Bishop Octavio Cisneros, to visit the baby at Jamaica Hospital. One of the medical staff assured them that the boy was as robustly healthy as he had appeared.
“We were able to pray for him,” Heanue says. “I guess you could say pray with the baby, but mostly we were doing the talking. And just to see him. He was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.”
Heanue adds, “We had really formed a connection with him, you know, with this child.”
In the parish, there was much discussion about what the baby should be named. Some suggested José, after the custodian who found him. More thought Emanuel.
“Which means, ‘God is with us,’ which is apropos for this child being a gift from God,” Heanue notes.
Heanue himself favors John.
“Short for John the Baptist,” Heanue explains. “He comes before Jesus. He heralded His coming.”
On Christmas Eve, Heanue paused in the midst of the preparations for Midnight Mass to speak of the baby who had appeared so miraculously as this holy night neared. He recalled the sight of the living child in the manger as a reaffirmation of his faith and of his calling, which is to say of life itself.
“It reaffirmed for me the beauty of life, the gift of life that we all share, regardless of age, regardless of race or ethnicity or religion,” he said. “It continues to grow and mature to old age and through it all life never becomes less precious.”
He noted that he had not planned for the crèche to be set up until closer to Christmas. It was only because he had forgotten to tell the custodian to hold off that the manger scene was there when the mother came in with the baby. And the video shows that the baby had been alone only minutes before he was discovered.
“It is a beautiful Christmas story about how God’s providence works,” he said. “That God is present, as if we didn’t already know that, that God is working in the midst of all this.”
Dozens of people had expressed interest in adopting the boy, though he may yet be returned to his mother. Heanue would love to see this story gone viral inspire people to adopt others among the countless thousands of children who are available for adoption nationwide.
While John the Baptist was born to his mother after she despaired of ever having children, Heanue hopes that this new John will inspire people to bring a child into their lives.
Heanue also hopes that this story will also inpire other young mothers to seek help in the face of panic. He had told his parishioners that they should be proud that the mother of this child came to their church.
“This is something to rejoice in,” he said.
He reported that he feels a link with the mother as well as with the baby, though she remains anonymous.
“She could walk past me and say hello to me every day and I wouldn’t know who she was,” Heanue said.
He calls this, “The beauty of her anonymity,” adding, “She’s safe in her anonymity.”
For all Heanue knows, the mother will be at Midnight Mass when the figure of the baby Jesus is carried in procession to the manager, where all the other figures and the animals are now in place.
“They’re all there now,” Heanue said. “Everything is where it should be, it’s all set.”
The figure of the Baby Jesus will then he placed in the crèche where the living baby had been left in a real life tale that will be told in churches across the country and even other countries this Christmas.
“It’s a good story,” Heanue said. “It’s just a happy story.”