Knitters see faith intertwine with craft

Across Chicago area, congregations' shawls wrap people in prayer

By Deborah Hallman
Special to the Tribune
Published January 17, 2007

Audrey Palmer was undergoing treatment for cancer last spring when she received a prayer shawl, a gift from a Hoffman Estates church.

"It just felt so good to have so many people [at St. Hubert Catholic Church] thinking about you--people I didn't know who were praying for me," said Palmer, 68, of Hoffman Estates.

Many Chicago-area congregations have embraced a movement that seeks to add a spiritual component to the repetitive act of knitting--a twist from more traditional church knitting circles.

The yarn, needles and hooks used to fashion the shawls were among the prayer tools at a recent gathering of the Prayer Shawl Ministry of St. James Catholic Church in Arlington Heights.

At first, the members prayed over the material. Then hands and fingers awhirl, 19 women knitted and crocheted shawls for people experiencing illness or adversity, or celebrating an event, such as marriage or a baby's birth.

The group finished the day by forming a circle to dedicate the two dozen shawls brought in for blessing--and to pray once again--for the recipients.

"It's meditative for me, and it calms my soul to be able to do it," said Jeanne McDermott, 53, an Arlington Heights resident who knits with the St. James group.

The spiritual and the tangible make contemplative knitting appealing, said Lia Douglas, 46, who co-founded the St. James group about a year ago.

"It's an activity that you do for yourself to quiet your mind and center yourself," she said. "The product of that activity is something that connects you with someone else who's in need."

Not to be confused with Jewish prayer shawls, or tallits, traditionally worn in synagogues, the shawls produced by knitting ministries are made as gifts that enfold people, said Victoria Galo, who co-founded the Prayer Shawl Ministry in 1998 with Janet Bristow after they graduated from the Women's Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where they participated in a program of applied feminist spirituality.

"We've pretty much heard from every continent," Galo said of the ministry's growth. And though the practice has been embraced primarily by Christian women's groups, Bristow said people of other faiths, such as Judaism and Zen Buddhism, have contacted them through about starting groups.

The shawls, which are given away, can be as different as the groups making them. Jo Albert, who heads the shawl ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, uses a soft yarn for her shawls and washes them with lavender-vanilla-scented fabric softener. Other ministries personalize them with beads, favorite colors or ornaments on the fringe.

Rev. Chris Pokorny, lay pastor and head of the knitting ministry at Edgebrook Evangelical Covenant Church on Chicago's Far Northwest Side, said her program provides numerous items for the needy and often distributes them with the help of sister congregations.

The church group of about 15 women--calling themselves Crafty Angels--works with other women across the country to knit not only shawls, but also hats, scarves, mittens, afghans, blankets and baby items for homeless and poor people in the Chicago area. The ministry provides about 3,000 items a year, she said.

"The women pray while they're making [the knit items], not in any particular way, but as the spirit leads them," she said.

Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune



Back To Articles

Main Page