Walking with the Saints

Deaconess Emily Cooper

This week we commemorate the life of Deaconess Emily Cooper who devoted her later life to orphans as the Director of The Home of the Innocents, founded in 1880 in Louisville, Kentucky. The home’s primary purpose was to rescue helpless children suffering from neglect, disease and abandonment. The home provided the very first kindergarten in Kentucky.

During her time as Director of the home she assisted in the baptisms of 284 children, many of whom were nameless and given Christian names by Sister Emily upon their baptism. Sadly, the number of children she buried was even larger than those baptized. Eventually, it was discovered that 220 of the children who died while in the care of the Home of the Innocents were buried in unmarked graves in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery; many of whose graves surrounding that of Sister Emily.  

The Gospel from Matthew (18:10-14) that is assigned to Sister Emily’s feast seems so very appropriate. It speaks of the shepherd of a flock of one-hundred leaving the ninety-nine when just one wanders away, and rejoicing over the return of the wandering little one. It rings of the Parable of the Two Sons, only this time we are talking about the meek and helpless little sheep. But something else in this passage strikes a deep chord. It begins with: “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” It is such a sweet vision of God’s love. I wonder how it was for Sister Emily when she gazed upon the frightened and desperate faces of these little holy ones. My hunch is that she saw the face of God. And when the children gazed upon her, they saw God.

It is powerful that those nameless children were given Christian names upon their baptism. Naming is important in scripture. When God names you, God claims you. The life of Sister Emily is a powerful and beautiful story of God claiming the least, the last and lost little ones through Sister Emily. In doing so, God not only staked a claim on each child’s heart, but also staked a claim on Sister Emily’s.

This story of God’s love for the little ones and Sister Emily sounds biblical.  Here is a sister who was widowed at the age of forty-four, decided to give her entire life to God, particularly in love of the most vulnerable and despairing among us. The image of her grave being surrounded by those of the little saints she shepherded is one that touches me deeply. It feels like the loving shepherd lying as the sheep-gate with her flock keeping them safe under the starlit night of eternal rest.

Not unlike some one-hundred years ago when Sister Emily was rescuing, protecting and caring for the children of her time and place, sadly, in our world today, millions of children are orphaned in need of help. They are wandering as refugees and fighting for their very lives. Many are being separated at the border from their parents who are seeking a better life for them. To all of this, Jesus is on record as saying to let them come.

Sister Emily was responding to a child crisis of her time in a way that was informed by the identity she claimed as a Christian. Surely, we should all honor her life at this time of her feast day. But we shouldn’t stop there. We should allow her life of service to the poorest and most vulnerable among us inspire us to the same in our own lives. This is how we can truly honor her life and those of the children she loved, as well as the children who need our help now in our own moment in time.