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A Work of Mercy

A Work of Mercy

By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

Five white burial caskets rested in a solemn row before the sanctuary of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church in Philadelphia on Feb. 16.

The center casket held the remains of Cornellry Laura “Candy” Robinson, 25. In smaller caskets on either side rested her children, Jassiah Joseph, 1, and Mikal Enrico, 3. Flanking them were the caskets of Kristian Xavier, 4, and Alyssa Cierra, 6.

Robinson and her children died in a fire in the early morning hours of Feb. 11, in a partly-boarded-up, presumed vacant house at 59th and Walnut streets. It was a bitter cold night, and space heaters were connected to power strips and extension cords leading to an illegal hookup to the Philadelphia Electric Company line.

There were no smoke detectors. It was almost a certain recipe for disaster.

Horrified firefighters found the young children huddled in bed with their mother, who had tried to protect them in death just as she had tried to do, in her own fashion, in life. One of the little ones still held her tiny, lifeless hands against her face, in what had been a futile attempt to shield herself from harm.

Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament’s pastor, Capuchin Father Paul Kuppe, who said the funeral service, never met Robinson or her children in life. Neither had Bishop Robert P. Maginnis, who gave the final blessing, representing Cardinal Rigali.

As a child, herself, Robinson well knew the beautiful old church. Until 2005, before parish consolidation, the church was known as Our Lady of the Rosary, and it was there she was baptized as an infant.

She attended the parish school from kindergarten through eighth grade and then moved on to Mercy Vocational School, where she studied cosmetology, the skill she practiced for most of her short adult life.

“She was a respectful, courteous, wonderful girl who always took pride in [her] appearance and who she was,” recalled Sister of Mercy Barbara Hoffman, who was Robinson’s guidance counselor at Mercy Vocational, which she left shortly before her scheduled 2001 graduation date.

No one, not her grieving extended family nor several hundred mourners in the church, knew why this pretty, spirited young woman, along with the children’s father, Mikal Johnson, made the fatal mistake of taking the children into the tumble-down house, a mistake that cost them their lives.

No one knew why, in her obvious need, she didn’t turn to her relatives, her friends, or to the social service system.

No one knew why, in this nation of wealth any family could be allowed to suffer in such a way.

Never in his life had Father Kuppe presided over the funeral of five people, let alone a mother and four children. Make that five. Robinson was carrying within her another baby whose life was snuffed out with her own.

“It is a catastrophe,” he conceded in his homily. “There is nothing that can be said, and nothing that can be done.”

Beyond that, he based his homily on the comforting Gospel of the service, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. He said everyone, including Robinson and her poor children, can expect eternal life through Jesus, no matter the circumstances of their death.

There were no charges or expectations of payment for the use of Father Kuppe’s church, and the five caskets were provided by Final Farewell, a small, local foundation that assists families that have lost a child. The Garriest Crawley Funeral Home discounted its service rates, and its fee was covered by the American Red Cross.

After the service at Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament, a line of hearses carried the caskets of Robinson and her children to Cathedral Cemetery on Lancaster Avenue. There a burial plot, provided without cost, received them. Philadelphia’s oldest active diocesan cemetery, “Old Cathedral,” as it is generally known, still has a few interments every year.

Many people might be surprised to learn that out of 7,800 burials in the archdiocesan cemeteries last year, 211 were provided free of charge. “We do this in time of need, and the numbers seem to be increasing,” said Robert Whomsley, director of the Catholic Cemeteries Office. He considers providing the plots to families in need as part of the mission of the church.

“This was one of the more tragic cases we’ve seen,” Whomsley said.

Generally, requests for burial assistance for needy families come through the recommendation of a priest, Whomsley said.

For Robinson’s family, the request came through Msgr. James King, a former Christian Brother who is now a Maronite priest living in retirement in Lansdowne. Msgr. King still serves. as a military chaplain for the Veterans Administration.

“My niece is a funeral director, and she asked me if I could write a letter for assistance for the family,” Msgr. King said.

His niece, Patricia Quinn of Olney, is a licensed funeral director and the wife of Thomas Quinn, a third-generation member of the Givnish family, which operates several area funeral homes.

Aware how difficult it can be for families to cope with the unanticipated costs of a funeral at the time of the death of a child, Quinn joined a group of like-minded people to found Final Farewell last year. When she heard about the death of Cornellry Robinson and her children on the news, she contacted the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’ Office to offer assistance.

Quinn said she chose to supply caskets because they are the greatest single expense connected with a funeral. As a funeral director, she obtained them at the dealers’ price. The total cost for the five caskets was just under $2,400, she said — far below retail cost.

Working with very limited funds, last year Final Farewell helped bury 10 children. This year’s total is already eight. Ordinarily, the organization does not provide assistance for adults but Robinson was an exception because she was pregnant with another child.

“It is so sad to see five caskets,” Quinn said. “It is sickening.”

Although her foundation helps families of all denominations, Quinn sought archdiocesan assistance because Robinson was a Catholic, and she believed they should be afforded a Catholic funeral. The Catholic Cemeteries Office was in prompt agreement.

The death of Robinson and her children reflects unqualified societal failure. The dignity of their funeral and burial helped soften the blow to their grieving family. It was a combined effort from Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Church, the archdiocesan Catholic Cemeteries Office, the American Red Cross, and Final Farewell. That is as it should be — to bury the dead, after all, is a corporal work of mercy.

Most fire deaths are preventable. Smoke detectors save lives. For free smoke detectors go to any Philadelphia Fire House.

For further information on archdiocesan Catholic Cemeteries call 215-895-3450
To learn more about Final Farewell see

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.