Bright skies shined down on Saturday morning’s meaningful dedication of the new Philip Tai Lauria Memorial Prayer Garden at Our Lady of Fatima Church, as a group of parishioners joined Bishop Frank Caggiano and Father Reggie Norman to bless the space meant to remember and honor deceased loved ones.
The stone structure in the shape of a cross lying horizontally at the center of a circle will bear the names of those memorialized. It’s surrounded by a lush landscaped area and offers two benches for anyone who wants to pay respects, meditate or simply sit in the solemnity of the spot.
Having a memorial prayer garden was a project that Father Norman and church leaders had on the drawing board for over five years.
“When I first got here seven years ago, we had the beautiful 9/11 Memorial in the back. But it was for [memorializing] parishioners. Only a lot of our family members lost other members who weren’t parishioners, and I don’t think we ever did a proper job in acknowledging them. So I said, one day, we want a place to acknowledge them,” he explained.
Church members Phil Lauria and Elaine Tai-Lauria were significant benefactors who made the project possible. The garden is named in honor of their son, Philip, who died two years ago after battling neuroendocrine cancer. Philip attended Our Lady of Fatima School from kindergarten through 8th grade and was an altar boy and devoted volunteer to the church as he got older.
“He spent so many hours there. While he was at Fairfield Prep, they would have social projects that they would do. And I remember when the nuns lived in the house on the hill behind the church, he went over on one of his social work projects to help her with her gardening,” his mother Elaine recalled, adding that there’s a lovely connection to now having a garden that bears her son’s name. “There’s so much of the property that he was a part of.”
Their involvement, she believes, was something Philip prompted the couple to do.
“In life, this one is inspired. Sometimes you don’t know where a thought comes from when it happens and it feels right, when you know it’s the right thing to do. When Father told me about this prayer garden and I saw the sketch, I thought it was a wonderful idea. When he showed me for some reason, I said, ‘We’ll do it, Father.’ It just felt right. I think I got the message,” Tai Lauria said.
Also at the dedication were several other OLF members who helped make the garden possible with contributions to memorialize their family members. Norman purposefully kept the gathering small, only inviting primarily those families so that social distancing could be maintained as well as to let those who supported the project have a very personal experience.
During the service, as the name of each remembered individual was read aloud, their family members were called up to receive a flower from the arrangement that adorned the memorial.
Bishop Caggiano praised the OLF members for creating the garden.
“My thanks for all that you do as a community of faith. This is just a small sign of what you do. In our troubled times to have a community that is dedicated to the things that really matter, it is a great gift. Thank you for erecting this memorial, this garden, this shrine precisely because it is a public act. There’s going to be many people driving up and down Danbury Rd. here who will see it and in very unconscious, and perhaps in sometimes even conscious ways, have seeds planted in their hearts, seeds to come to recognize the greater meanings of life, which will point them to God,” he said.
After the dedication’s conclusion, several attendees walked around the cross, some tenderly touching the stones inscribed with a name, some sitting on a bench comforted by surrounding family members.
It’s something Tai Lauria wanted to create by being part of bringing the memorial garden to life.
“What I think is beautiful is it’s bringing together families we have interacted with over the years, bringing us in a space to continue sharing memories of our loved ones. I saw so many names of families who we met at OLF school, on memory plaques, and that’s special. I look at this and it’s the circle of life,” she said.
Norman acknowledged how meaningful the Laurias’ gesture is.
“I give them credit. They have survived what I don’t think I could survive. And of course, it still hurts, but they haven’t stopped doing for other people throughout this all. That’s what amazes me,” he said. “It fits right into who they are. They give back in a meaningful way, that affects a lot of people, and it’s always done right. That’s them. That’s what I love about them.
Philip’s father is grateful for the opportunity to let his son continue to give back to the community, even after he’s gone.
“We’re so happy to help get this done,” Lauria said. “Philip was a gift to us, and this is a gift to Wilton and to the OLF parish. He loved the town and Our Lady of Fatima School and the parish. And even when he would come back, at 30 years old, living out in Chicago, he’d come back, but he still just loved it here. So a piece of him is here, it will live on.”