After her wedding day on Sept. 24, 1949, Mary Scarduzio folded up the dress she had made from satin and Belgium lace, tucked it away, and never gave the gown another thought.
It remained in a box in a closet for nearly 70 years until Scarduzio retrieved it in nearly pristine condition for a project: making "angel" outfits for newborns who never make it home from the hospital. She makes them
to comfort strangers coping with the death of a child from miscarriage, stillbirth, or through neonatal loss.
Scarduzio, 95, of Shamong, volunteers with Heaven's Baby Angels, a South Jersey group that donates bereavement outfits, blankets, and caps to local hospitals. The clothing is used to present the infants to their families as they say a final farewell before burial or cremation.
She carefully took apart the gown she wore when she walked down the aisle of a Camden church to marry her sweetheart, Thomas, a dashingly handsome young man from her close-knit Italian American neighborhood. She transformed the material purchased for $5 a yard in a Philadelphia fabric store into three dozen tiny angel garments.
"It makes me feel good that I am able to help somebody," Scarduzio said in a recent interview in the Burlington County home where she lives with her daughter, Maria, and Maria's husband, Marshall. "Just the thought of losing a baby is enough to make you upset."
Since it was formed in April, the group has donated 500 gowns, hats, and blankets to hospitals in Cape May, Atlantic, Camden, Gloucester, and Cumberland Counties. The volunteers, ranging in ages from 61 to 95, are working on their next batch of custom-made outfits.
For grief-stricken parents coping with the loss of an infant, the outfits mean one less thing to worry about: finding the perfect ensemble to fit their baby. Many hospitals stockpile clothing in a range of sizes for babies weighing just ounces to full-term weights, and allow the parents to select an outfit for their baby.
"It's something to make a better memory for the parents who lost their babies," said Ann Coyle, a registered nurse who heads the Perinatal Bereavement Programs at Virtua Hospital in Voorhees, where about 100 of 8,000 births annually end in death. "These people feel like they are totally hopeless."
Virtua has its own group of volunteers who make bereavement outfits, Coyle said. Inspira Health Network also distributes the angel gowns at its hospitals in Elmer, Woodbury, and Vineland, said Nicole Bruno, a nurse in Vineland who works with the program.
Krista Bender and her husband, Andrew, selected a gown with a vest, a bowtie, and angel wings for their third child, Christopher Joseph, who was delivered stillborn at Virtua in July 2016 in the 23rd week of her pregnancy. At just one pound six ounces and 12 inches long, he was too tiny for a store-bought outfit. They had the baby baptized in the angel gown and saved the garment for a keepsake box Krista later made.
"It means so much to me to have this," said Bender, 32, of Mickleton, a neonatal ICU nurse at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. "It's the first and only outfit that I got to put on my son. This is like priceless to me."
New Jersey has about 700 stillborn births annually; nationally there are about 24,000 every year. A 2014 state law requires hospitals to give families a chance to hold their stillborn child, time to contact a chaplain or clergy for a blessing or other religious observance, and help to make a "memory box" filled with cherished items, footprints of their baby, and a photograph, if the parents request it.
"It's important for families to go through the mourning process," said Stacey Dinburg, of the 2 Degrees Foundation, a North Jersey-based group that seeks to promote stillbirth awareness. She was devastated in 2014 when doctors were unable to detect a heartbeat for the unborn daughter, Rhyan Ava, she had carried for 37 weeks.
Dinburg buried her daughter in the outfit in which she had planned to take her home from the hospital. But she loves the idea that volunteers are helping other grieving parents by donating angel dresses.
Heaven's Baby Angels was founded last April by Pam Voll, of Smithville, after she learned about the NICU Helping Hands Angel Gown program. The program distributes donated wedding dresses to nearly 200 seamstresses around the country who create angel gowns free of charge for hospitals and families in 48 states, including New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and which recently added an affiliate in Australia.
"I just thought 'what a beautiful thing,' " said Voll, 75, the program manager.
Voll recruited women from her 55+ development in Atlantic County. They include eight seamstresses, six assistants, five knitters, four crocheters, and two photographers.
They make gowns for little girls and tiny outfits for boys that tie at the base like a drawstring pouch — tailored for babies at various stages of development, from 1½ pounds and below to newborns weighing 6 to 8 pounds. They also make satin pouches for preemies.
The designs vary because the women add their own touches. It is not uncommon for the seamstresses to redo their creations until they are satisfied.
"They want these dresses to be absolutely perfect," said Voll.
The women sew at their own pace, using donated wedding gowns and their own supplies, adding ribbons, lace, and embellishments. Voll and those who cannot sew help by taking apart the gowns. Others crochet and knit outfits, hats, and blankets that are also donated.
"When they make an outfit, they're so proud of it," said Sally Behar, 61, the group's organizer.
Behar invited Scarduzio, the only outsider, to join their group. Scarduzio learned to sew as a teenager working in a factory in South Camden. The second youngest of seven siblings, she left school during the Depression to get a job. She later worked at sewing factories in South Jersey, making everything from ladies' clothing to parachutes before retiring in 1985.
"God bless Mary," Behar said. "She's an amazing woman."
Her biggest masterpiece was the dress she wore to marry Thomas, a sheet metal worker, who died in 1984. Married for 35 years, the couple also had a son, Thomas Jr., who died in late November. The materials cost about $60 and the dress took about three months to make.
She plans to use the wedding dress she made for her daughter's first marriage in 1975 for the next angel outfits.
"I should have thrown it in the fireplace," Maria King, 63, said with a laugh. "I'm glad she can use it for something good."
Scarduzio spends several hours a day working on the angel gowns at a Singer-made industrial sewing machine set up in a corner in the basement.
Outside of sewing, Scarduzio maintains an active lifestyle, making homemade ravioli when her grandsons visit. She attends a nearby Catholic church and drives a 1998 silver Honda with nearly 200,000 miles. Her only vice? Every Friday, she has a standing appointment with the same stylist who has been doing her hair for 40 years. A brunette in her youth, she prefers a bright red, neatly coiffed updo because "I don't think I'd make a good blonde."
"St. Peter isn't ready for me. He must have work for me," she said with a smile. "I just keep going."