Prayerful hearts and flying fingers

By: Karen Pelkey, Staff Writer

Several dedicated men and women belonging to various churches and groups have sparked a colorful renaissance of an ancient method of prayer and healing in the Farmington Valley.

Every day, numerous fingers holding sewing needles and yarn are busy in homes and churches, gas stations, stores and waiting rooms crafting soft, warm "prayer" shawls in a rainbow of different colors for sick and grieving members of various parishes, their friends and relatives, and people outside of their own church communities. The recipients are often women suffering from breast cancer and other illnesses or the loss of a child or spouse, according to Carol Farland, who brought the idea of knitting the shawls to the women of St. Bernard's Church in Tariffville a couple of years ago.

"They feel like they're a little more connected to the rest of us," said Farland, who said that shawls also occasionally go to those who are homebound, to men, and as gifts of congratulations for new births, birthdays or anniversaries.

A breast cancer survivor herself, Farland recalled how she felt the day she first learned about the shawls. Her employer, the West Hartford-Bloomfield Health District in West Hartford Town Hall, had started an after-work social group that did various projects. Farland noticed a message about making prayer shawls on a co-worker's desk, which also went into some detail about who they were made for.

"I said, this would have been nice (to have when she was sick)," Farland remembered.

Farland was hooked. She eventually pitched the idea to friends and fellow members of St. Bernard's, who formed a shawl-knitting ministry that has since spread to at least two other parishes in the area, St. Mary Church in Simsbury and Memorial United Methodist Church in Avon.

"Apparently, it just keeps spreading, and it's a wonderful thing," she said.

Candy McGinnis of Unionville said her knitting group at Avon's Memorial United Methodist Church put out a newsletter about its ministry on the Internet, which garnered requests for information from people around the country interested in learning how to make the shawls.

Her group - which includes a man who's made three or four shawls - loves to knit.

"I've never had to say to anyone, 'I don't have one for you,'" said McGinnis. "One time, I said, 'I'm running low on prayer shawls!' and the next week, I had six! Once it's started, it really runs itself."

In the past year and a half, almost 30 shawls made by the group at St. Bernard's have warmed shoulders and comforted souls in the area, Farland said. The women learn about those in need from their deacons and priests. Eventually, the knitters would like to visit hospices, various charitable organizations and hospitals, and meet more future shawl recipients, including children who are sick.

But the general knitting movement remains close to home for now. Almost all of the handcrafted items made by St. Bernard's are handed out personally by church leaders and parishioners, Farland said.

Before each shawl is sent off, it is blessed - officially, once a month at the church - and a label is sewn into the fabric with a message that says, in no specific words, "as you wrap yourself, we're wrapping our arms around you." The note explains that the shawl was made with love by the people of St. Bernard's, Tariffville.

According to Farland, a veteran knitter, there is no wrong way to craft a prayer shawl. She said the women use a very "forgiving" yarn, which makes the hobby popular with inexperienced knitters, and even with those who have never tried it. Although there are only about six "very regular" knitters at St. Bernard's, Farland said about 20 people have consistently produced shawls. But she said people ask her about helping all the time.

Farland recalled a woman once telling her after church that she would like to help, but did not know how to knit. Farland sent her husband home for her yarn and needles, and after a thorough lesson at the church, she sent the woman home, and now "she's knitting away," she said.

"It's just something that's easy to do while you're riding in the car, or watching television," she said, adding that the women often say a prayer before beginning their work, asking God to bless their hands, yarn and knitting needles, and "in their simplicity, to find comfort and solace."

The money for the materials to make the shawls - the cost to craft one is usually between $10 and $15 - comes mainly from the knitters' own pockets. But the group sometimes comes up with a creative way to save. Last fall, the women made scarves for the St. Bernard's Ladies Guild fall bake sale, and sold them for the price of one shawl.

"So people got something, while also giving something back," said Farland.

People who either can't or don't want to knit, but who still want to support the knitters' cause, sometimes approach Farland with small donations.

"This really helps us, too," she said. "We don't sell them (prayer shawls), and they aren't given as Christmas gifts. They're done more as a need thing."

Her most memorable experience with a prayer shawl, Farland said, was presenting one to a young woman who discovered, while pregnant, that she had cancer. The woman, who happened to be the daughter-in-law of a couple who attended St. Bernard's, decided to have her baby, anyway.

While talking with the couple after church, Farland said she knew their daughter-in-law was the next recipient of a scarf she had been working on at home.

"I finished the shawl that night," she said. "Megan (the daughter-in-law) lived to see her baby be a year old. It was probably the most memorable because my initial concept was (that) only 'little old ladies'(got shawls). She just wasn't what I would have envisioned to need a prayer shawl."

Prayer shawls, however, have been used in a variety of different forms throughout the ages, and have been said to help comfort, heal and cure both men and women, young and old. Biblical historians report that the shawls date back to the times of the Apostles, when it was believed that relics of the saints' clothing helped cure illness and bring comfort to the sick.

The Bible's book of Acts, Chapter 19, Verse 11, reads, "God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul; so that from his body were brought unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the evil spirits went out of them."

Farland said she hopes more people will continue to help revive this form of prayer throughout the Valley. She recently taught her 22-year-old daughter how to knit, and encourages anyone else who is interested to contact St. Bernard's at 658-5142 for a set of directions and other information. To contact St. Mary Church, call 658-7627, and for Memorial United Methodist Church of Avon, call 673-2111.

©Farmington Valley Post 2003


Reasons for knitting are many

By: Karen Pelkey, Staff Writer

WEST HARTFORD - Their fingers fly, but their thoughts hold steady.

They remember the woman who lost her former fiancé to the Vietnam War, and who now grieves over her daughter's deep depression. They laugh affectionately when they hear about Hartford's first female pediatrician, now elderly, who tripped over her nightgown and broke her hip. And they are reminded of the power of their craft when they recall the breast cancer patient, now gone, who taught everyone she knew at the hospital how to knit after she received a soft, warm shawl from their busy hands.

The steady "click, clack" of the women's knitting needles is all that can be heard for many minutes, but it's a soothing sound. The sun shines on all nine women who are busy working in the Quiet Room, tucked in a corner of First Church of Christ, Congregational. The light sometimes catches both the bright solids and multi-colored pastels laid carefully on their laps. A candle burns in the middle of their circle. The work begins and ends with a prayer.

It's unlikely that an average person would even notice the group, which at first glance is just a circle of mostly elderly women from the Farmington Valley and beyond, who meet once a month during the morning to chat about themselves, their families and their knitting.

But ask any of the 350 people - mostly sick and grieving members of the local community and beyond - who have received one of their completed shawls in the past three years about the knitters, and you'll have evidence of a ministry on the verge of widespread fame and appreciation.

"We hear thank you notes," said Myra Bowers of West Hartford. "It's very gratifying."

One such letter came recently from a close friend of Marge Weed of Bloomfield, who is a First Church knitter. The letter read, "I cherish it (her shawl). Everything about it is comforting - the muted colors, the softness of the yarn, the ample size that engulfs me ... but most of all, I cherish it because it was given to me by others of faith."

That faith has spread like wildfire through local communities, as word of mouth about the shawls and how to knit them hooks more and more men and women who want a way to reach out to loved ones and help those who are lonely, especially during difficult times.

In fact, Susan Jorgensen of Burlington was so inspired by the radically-popular phenomenon that she, along with her colleague Susan Izard of West Hartford - who started the knitting group at First Church, where she is a pastor of spiritual life - decided to write a book.

Titled "Knitting Into the Mystery: A Guide to the Shawl Knitting Ministry," the comprehensive work is both a history and a how-to, and contains chapters on contemplative knitting and on knitting alone. Slated for publication by Pennsylvania-based Morehouse Publications in the fall, Jorgensen said the book will be heavily marketed locally.

That's in part due to the high interest in knitting that's been contagious in the area for the last few years, according to Jorgensen, a private practice spiritual director who works from the Spiritual Life Center in Bloomfield.

"I would never have believed the power in it had I not begun it myself," she said.

The habit of knitting - four or five shawls at any given time, she says - began for Jorgensen in January 2001. She joined about 15 other knitters - they come from area churches or are affiliated with the SLC - who gather once a month at the SLC during the evening to work at their craft.

Jorgensen remembered giving away her very first shawl to a woman whose husband was killed in a car crash.

"And I remember that once I started knitting, I couldn't stop," she said.

But Jorgensen's main inspiration for writing the book, she said, came from a woman whose sick 8-year-old grandniece was receiving a shawl from Jorgensen last spring. The woman wanted Jorgensen to write a blessing/prayer that went along with the shawl.

That blessing/prayer, Jorgensen explained, is written on a card that is pinned to each shawl. The card includes information about who will receive it and why, and who knit it. When the knitting group gathers, a prayer is said for the recipient. That prayer is also written and sent along with the shawl.

She thought about what a good idea it would be to have a comprehensive work about the growing ministry, chock full of history and details, like the blessing/prayer, as one model for interested people to follow.

Jorgensen e-mailed her thoughts to Izard, who jumped on the bandwagon.

The soft-spoken Jorgensen hesitates to call the knit pieces "prayer" shawls, because the people receiving them don't always identify with a certain religion and are not always spiritually mindful. They may not actually pray when they wear the shawl.

"We knit our own prayers into the shawls," she said.

And while Jorgensen and Izard can take all the credit for their book, they pass the medal for shawl knitting wisdom to two Connecticut women who came up with the original idea to knit shawls, as well as the very first "knit three, purl three" knitting instructions. Janet Bristow and Vicki Galo began their ministry as a project for the first Women's Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary about three years ago.

"As they knit a shawl, they prayed for each person (each recipient)," said Mary Blume of St. Mary Church in Simsbury, who also works from the SLC and visits there each month with a few fellow parishioners, who all love to knit. Blume recently gave her first knitted shawl to her 92-year-old mother.

"When she received it, she had tears in her eyes. She picked it up like it was a baby," said Blume.

Blume said the knitting has become a bridge between herself and other people. When they notice her work, they stop to ask her what she's doing and it often leads to conversation about their own lives and experiences. So the shawls, she said, touch people in many more ways than just the physical comfort a recipient can receive from wearing one.

The group at First Church realized this when it gathered 25 completed shawls that will be sent to the Afghan Women's Council in Afghanistan, which gives aid to Afghan women, children and refugees, sometime this month. The shawls came from knitters working from four local churches, including their own.

The women call these packages "shawls of peace," and hope to begin a similar project that involves making shawls for United Nations ambassadors from the U.N.'s 191 member states in honor of U.N. Day in October. Each shawl would be made in the colors representative of each ambassador's nation.

The ambitious women are also trying to set up a Web site about the project to help facilitate cooperation and garner interest in creating the U.N. shawls. Bowers had suggested soliciting knitters from other countries through a link on the site.

"This ministry just keeps expanding ... It's so much more than who we are," said Izard, who echoed the power of technology to help expand the ministry.

In the fall of 2000, Izard posted an article about shawl knitting for a spiritual publication called Journal Presence. At the end of the story, she posted her e-mail address, and received letters from all over the world.

"That was the seed for how this all spread," said Izard.

Jorgensen hopes the candle their small groups have lit will continue to burn. She firmly believes in the healing power of the shawl-knitting ministry, and, along with Izard, says that when they're not busy with their yarn and needles, the two have poured countless hours into writing their book.

"This is the most amazing thing I've ever participated in," she said.

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