One sunny day in August, Zach Lovig stood in front of a small congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, and baptized Annley Ruth Wentz, welcoming her into her community of faith.
Lovig, a chaplain at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, had traveled some 500 miles to be there. He doesn't often perform baptisms. And he doesn't often make house calls. Lovig made an exception for Annley.
"This was a unique situation," he says. "It felt like extraordinary support was called for."
Lovig first met Annley and her parents, Elisa and Joe, nearly two years earlier. Annley — named after her grandmothers, Annette and Nadley — was born three and a half months early. She weighed less than two pounds and faced an uncertain future. Just days after arrival, Annley developed breathing problems and was airlifted from Bismarck to Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She wouldn't leave the hospital for 543 days.
"I work with families to find out how we can provide spiritual support and help them make meaningful decisions," Lovig says. "Illnesses are an interruption to plans, but they're also an essential time for growth and love."
In his work with the Wentzes, Lovig shared prayers and offered assurances that "the divine hears your lament." He also learned how Elisa and Joe comforted Annley, so he could offer that comfort as well.
And when Annley's medical team cleared her to return home, Lovig rejoiced with her family.
"It's a privilege to offer spiritual care to patients, but it's never the intention that we provide that care forever," Lovig says. "Our goal is always for our patients' families and communities to provide that care."
Which is why Lovig rarely performs baptisms.
"We don't want to take that ritual away from a patient's primary community of faith," he says.
Annley's situation was unique, Lovig says.
"For almost two years, I was the primary clergy in her life," he says. "On top of that, because of her medical needs … she won't be joining a faith community anytime soon."
So when Elisa and Joe asked Lovig if he would baptize Annley, he said yes.
"Zach knows us and knows our story," says Elisa. "We thought it would be a full-circle moment to have him baptize Annley."
While Lovig prepared his remarks, the Wentzes prepared for a ceremony that would be as special as their daughter.
Elisa's aunt made a christening gown from pieces of Annley's great-grandmother's wedding dress and a great-aunt's wedding dress. The gown also included a diamond from a necklace Elisa's grandfather had given his wife.
"There was lots of special meaning in her dress," Elisa says.
There was special meaning in other elements of the ceremony, too.
The baptismal font was the same one used when Elisa and her father were baptized. The wooden crosses that hung behind the family during the ceremony came from trees on the farm where Joe's mother had grown up. And the holy water used to baptize Annley came from both the chapel at Saint Marys and Joe's mother's church.
"We incorporated lots of special pieces of her history," Elisa says. "And she was surrounded by family and friends."
That supportive crowd delighted Lovig.
"Annley's baptism was about introducing her to her first church —her family," he says. "It was wonderful to see the community that will be her primary spiritual support system. They will be marking her life and milestones, the way it was always meant to be."
Annley's milestones included her second birthday, which took place the day after her baptism. It was one more day the Wentzes were enormously grateful for.
"Annley has come so far," Elisa says. "When we first came home, she couldn't sit up or roll. Now she's started to stand and uses a gait trainer to walk. She loves her freedom and is so curious. We have fingerprints all over our windows."
They're marks that Elisa and Joe treasure.
"It's fun to see her be like a normal kid," Elisa says.
Normal and extraordinary.
"She really is the happiest and most content little person I've ever encountered," Elisa says. "She's been through so much in life. I think after all of that, she's decided that life is good."