“The first gift of Christmas was love. A parent’s love. Pure as the first snows of Christmas,” writes Richard Paul Evans in The Christmas Box.
In The Christmas Box (Simon & Schuster, 1995), a woman mourns the death of her daughter by visiting her grave, marked by an angel statue. Following reports that grieving parents were searching out the statue, Evans had one commissioned in Salt Lake City in 1994. Now, there are more than 120 statues across the nation.
Natalie Ann Valitchka, daughter of Julie and Jeff Rageth, passed away at age 32 in 2020. She attended school in Duluth, a city she loved. “She was fun-loving, beautiful and, simply put, a most wonderful person,” Julie Rageth says. To honor Natalie’s birthday in June 2021, Rageth and her sister, Jill Strand, as well as Jill’s daughter, Samantha, visited Duluth.
“Jill, Samantha and I took a walk … It was a beautiful morning across from Lake Superior. Up on the right were beautiful lilacs and a statue of an angel with a girl’s face,” Rageth says. “We noticed the children’s names around the angel, and we were really touched by it. We painted a rock and put Natalie’s name on it, and left it by the angel.”
Andra Sonnek, daughter of Lynne and Rick Sonnek, passed away at the age of 24 in 2019. “She was spirited, passionate and kind hearted,” Lynne Sonnek says.
Rageth and Sonnek connected at Strand’s gym, UpLift Guided Fitness, where the two connected on a deeper level. “... You build a greater connection when you lose a child,” Rageth says.
“They were very excited about the angel,” Sonnek recalls. “The feeling you get when you get up to the angel is just awe and comforting, and peaceful knowing that there’s somewhere you can go to read the children’s names and remember them … So we decided to go to the City of Woodbury, and that’s where it started in spring of last year.”
The trio went to the City of Woodbury to gauge interest in building an Angel of Hope in the community and partnered with the Woodbury Community Foundation, who assisted in obtaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. The process began with a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting; “Everybody thought this idea was something that our community needed and would want, and thought it would be a blessing,” Rageth says.
“In this last year, so many Woodbury children have passed,” Rageth says. “... We want to keep working on reaching out to other families who lost a child.” She notes that the statue is intended to honor children of all ages, who have passed away too soon, and serves as a place to gather. “Grief conversations are really hard, and if you have someone who understands it in a different way or in a way like you, it’s very helpful. It’s comforting,” she says.
“One of the taglines we’ve heard is, ‘Everyone is a child of someone.’ So be it an infant, child, grown adult, it will just be nice to recognize all that are passed,” Sonnek adds.
The angel, created by the same sculpture artist who made the first angel and every angel after that, stands at 4-feet, 3-inches tall and has a wingspan of 5-feet, 3-inches. “It has ‘hope’ written in the left wing and ‘hope’ written in two other places, which is a mystery from the sculptor,” Sonnek says, noting that it takes three to four months for the statue to be finished. Parents of children who have passed away will also have the opportunity to purchase a remembrance plaque for their child, which will be on display with the angel.
The three have been fundraising to bring the statue to Woodbury—which started in January 2022. On September 17, they held the Angel of Hope Walk in City Hall, where the completed angel statue sat. The angel and memorial site are currently slated to be completed in June 2023 and will become one of many Angel of Hope Memorials in Minnesota.
“It’s a place to honor or remember that isn’t a grave site,” Rageth says. “It’s going to be a beautiful place. Jill said, ‘It can be for anyone to go and find peace,’ and she’s right. That whole area will be a memorial … We really want to get the word out to parents to know that we’re here, too.”
For those interested in donating to the Angel of Hope Memorial or to purchase a plaque, go to woodburycommunityfoundation.org. To see where all Minnesota Angel of Hope locations are, visit woodburymag.com.
Jill Strand, Lynne Sonnek and Julie Rageth
Angel of Hope Memorial communities around the nation gather annually to participate in a candlelight vigil. The ceremony typically takes place on December 6—the date in which the mother in The Christmas Box would bring a candle to the angel—but Rageth and Sonnek have yet to set a date for Woodbury’s annual ceremony.
“For [other angel sites], it’s December 6, and it’s so beautiful, and the flowers will be great and everything is OK … We anticipate having it [in] spring, summer or fall,” Rageth says, noting that Minnesota’s harsh winters make it difficult to hold a candle lighting vigil during the season. “It will be a nice place where people can gather, and we will say every child’s name,” she says.