Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Prayer Shawl ministry offers comfort to those who create and those who receive
by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff
(From the Jan. 18, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)
St. Augustine Parish, Spokane, boasts a Prayer Shawl ministry that meets regularly in a parishioner’s home. (IR photo from St. Augustine Parish)
Most Monday mornings, about a dozen women gather in the Adult Center at Spokane Valley’s St. Mary Church, but they aren’t there to attend a class or committee meeting. What this group is all about is (for them) a fairly simple project: turning yarn into shawls.
These are no ordinary shawls, however. They are prayer shawls, and their sole purpose is to bring comfort to people who are seriously ill and could use a tangible, warm reminder of God’s all-embracing love.
In this sense, prayer shawls are an expression of the Catholic sacramental imagination, which experiences God in and through created things and the works of human hands.
Most of the shawls made by the Prayer Shawl Ministry at St. Mary Parish go to Hospice of Spokane for distribution to their clients who are terminally ill. Shawls are fashioned by those who attend the weekly “knit-in,” but others work quietly at home, on their own time, and drop off the finished shawls at the parish center.
The prayer shawl ministry at St. Mary traces its origins to a national non-denominational organization called, simply, Prayer Shawl Ministry. One of the founders, Janet Bristow, describes the philosophy behind prayer shawls thus: “Shawls … made for centuries universal and embracing, symbolic of an inclusive, unconditionally loving, God. They wrap, enfold, comfort, cover, give solace, mother, hug, shelter and beautify. Those who have received these shawls have been uplifted and affirmed, as if given wings to fly above their troubles…”
Maggie Albo, of St. Mary Parish, is a chaplain with Hospice of Spokane. She first heard about the Prayer Shawl Ministry a couple of years ago.
“When my boss and mentor and friend Rev. Kathy Cooper passed away two years ago in October, I had a very difficult time with her death. A friend and co-worker … knitted and gave me a prayer shawl. It seemed a bit strange as I had never heard of such a thing, but I did use it and still do, during prayer, meditation, and when I need comfort. It wraps around me and I do feel a tremendous sense of being enveloped in something … care, concern, love, help, not-being-alone-ness … something. It helped to ease the pain of Kathy’s death and has brought me through some rough patches. I imagine it will help me through even more.”
Each prayer shawl takes shape under the caring hands of the one who knits or crochets it, of course, but during the days when it is taking shape, the one doing the work prays for the person who will receive the shawl. Catholics can easily imagine one Hail Mary per stitch. Before an accumulation of prayer shawls from St. Mary Parish is distributed, the shawls are blessed during a Sunday Mass by the entire Eucharistic assembly.
Hospice chaplain manager Ann Hurst displays some of the Prayer Shawls created by members of St. Mary Parish, Spokane Valley. (IR photo from St. Mary Parish)
More than 30 shawls were blessed at the 11:15 Mass the morning of Dec. 17. Ann Hurst, chaplain manager for Hospice of Spokane, attended that Mass and spoke to the assembly about two clients who greatly appreciated receiving prayer shawls. One was a 101-year-old woman whose daughter wrapped the prayer shawl around her mother and said, “Mommy, I hope this makes you feel wrapped in love.”
The other was a man in his 50s who had been feeling great anger at his situation. He received the shawl from a Hospice chaplain, wrapped it around himself and said, “I’m feeling better already.” Two hours later he phoned Hospice of Spokane to exclaim again over the gift of the shawl and to say how wonderful and comforting it was to know that someone had been praying for him “all this time.”
Each prayer shawl sent from St. Mary Parish, to become a reminder of God’s love for someone who needs it, arrives with a little card pinned to it. On the card are these words, signed by the one who created the shawl: “From the first stitch to the last, I have prayed for you. As your body is warmed by this Prayer Shawl, may your heart and spirit be filled with God’s love, peace and strength. – Prayer Shawl Ministry, St. Mary’s Catholic Church.”
St. Mary parishioner Dorothy Warren said that she has “always been a knitter,” but she became involved in her parish’s prayer shawl ministry only about two months ago, after seeing a notice in the Sunday bulletin. “This was something I could do,” she said, “to give back in this world.” She describes the prayer shawl pattern that she and others at St. Mary use as “very, very simple, and it ends up being quite pretty, too.”
Yarn for the prayer shawl ministry at St. Mary comes from various sources. The knitters themselves often purchase their own yarn. Non-knitting parishioners donate yarn, and knitters who have yarn left over from other projects donate it to the Prayer Shawl Ministry. “Sometimes,” says Dorothy Warren, “there’s not enough yarn to make a shawl of a given color, so you have to use a little bit of imagination, and you can maybe make one color on the front end, and another color on the back end, and yet another color in the middle.”
The Prayer Shawl Ministry began at St. Mary when Albo called Dona Mohr, the parish’s Director of Religious Education. A parish group of about 12 first met last October. “I make prayer shawls myself – I knit and crochet, both,” said Mohr. “This isn’t a religious education activity, but Maggie called me, and I’m a staff person, so I got the ads out because I thought it was such a good idea.”
The Prayer Shawl Ministry is a going concern also at Spokane’s St. Joseph Parish, on Dean Ave., where Holy Names Sister Irene Knopes is pastoral administrator. Sister Irene said that the Prayer Shawl Ministry was started at St. Joseph by another Hospice chaplain, parishioner Jan Nicolai, who read an article about prayer shawls that stayed with her. “She brought the concept to all of the ladies in the Altar Society,” Sister Irene said, “and they all were very enthused about it. So she set up an evening time, and put it in the bulletin, and made announcements to the parish. She wanted this quiet, meditative approach. So when this group meets – which has been twice a month – it is a time of prayer and knitting for an hour and-a-half.” Jan Nicholai died Jan. 10.
Spokane’s St. Thomas More Parish is the site of yet another Prayer Shawl Ministry, which began last spring. Parishioners Helen Durgan and Fran McDonald sparked interest in the idea. “I had been introduced to it through a group at St. Augustine (Parish), and I loved the idea,” said Durgan. “We meet the second Tuesday of the month, and we begin each meeting with a prayer. We have produced about 12 to 15 prayer shawls, so far. The completed prayer shawls go to all kinds of people including people going through (chemotherapy), or recovering from cancer. We get the word out through the parish office and through our parish St. Elizabeth Guild that takes Communion to the shut-ins.”
Durgan says that they have put an announcement in their parish bulletin about the Prayer Shawl Ministery. “But,” she said, “what that mostly did was lead to people who have given up knitting or crocheting giving yarn to us. Meetings usually attract around six people each time, “but it’s a ministry where you don’t have to come to a meeting,” said Durgan. “So we have about 10 people actually making prayer shawls. Most people buy and donate their own yarn. We have had amazing responses from people, they have been so touched. It’s a deep thing for both the person making the shawl and the person receiving it.”
A fourth parish with an active Prayer Shawl Ministry is St. Augustine, in Spokane.
The group meets the first Thursday evening of each month at the home of parishioner Yvonne Shulman, who recalled that the Prayer Shawl Ministry at St. Augustine came about some 18 months ago when someone brought a book about it to her attention.
So far, the St. Augustine Prayer Shawl Ministry has produced about 100 shawls. The group numbers about 20; 12-15 attend the evening meetings. The shawls are donated to whoever contacts them about someone who could use one. “We make prayer shawls for people in the parish and for anyone who needs one,” said Schulman. “We do shawls for people who are chronically ill, and for celebrations, too. Someone made a white shawl for a lady on her 90th birthday, and she loves it, just loves it. We’ve done a few for people with new babies. It says to the person who receives it that people are praying for you and thinking of you. It’s pretty amazing how touched people are by it.”
(For more information on Prayer Shawl Ministry, go to www.shawlministry.com. A book that includes practical information, patterns, and blessing prayers is The Prayer Shawl Ministry: Reaching Those in Need, published by Leisure Arts.)