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Prayer shawls bring comfort to the ill and grieving

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Sometimes you just need a hug.

Two children attending their mother’s funeral longed for comfort.  They found it in a prayer shawl they received that day. 

Sick or grieving people have received hugs in the form of crocheted or knitted prayer shawls made by prayer shawl ministries at diocesan churches that meet weekly or monthly to create these gifts.

Victoria Cole-Galo, co-founder of the Prayer Shawl Ministry in Hartford County, Conn. with Janet Severi Bristow, said prayer shawls are an expression of the maker’s spiritual practice. The process begins with selecting the yarn and praying for the recipient throughout the entire process. Once the shawl is complete, another prayer is recited.

Cole-Galo said the ministry, which began in 1998, came about after she and Severi Bristow attended at the Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. The goal is to combine a love of knitting and crocheting with compassion for those who are sick or suffering.

“There are times when we do not know who the shawl is going to but, shortly thereafter, we'll learn about someone who needs the blessing,” she said. “It's a wonderful feeling when this happens. It feels like being in the right place at the right time.”

Shawls are made of yarn, crocheted or knitted, but always made with prayer from the first stitch to the last cast-off or knot. One solid color or multi-colored, some incorporate scriptural references. Shawlministry.com has an original pattern created by Cole-Galo that is a variation of the seed stitch. “Each stitch is a planted seed or blessing for the recipient,” she said. “It is created in a series of threes, which has long been a sacred and symbolic number.”

Holy Trinity Church in Portland, Ore., has a crochet pattern that uses scriptural references. The Holy Trinity prayer shawl pattern by Renee Dion-Jenness is available at h-t.org/prayer-shawls. The 80 chains represent 40 days and 40 nights, and the chain three reminds the crocheters of the three persons of the Holy Trinity or the Holy Family in a triangle shape. There are 12 chains on the fringe for the Twelve Apostles.

The prayer shawl ministry at Church of the Nativity in Burke dates back to 2008. It was founded by Toni Rausch after she received one. She ran the ministry with her friends, Flo Grike and JoAnne Dezuttti. Rausch died suddenly last summer and Bonnie Carpenter stepped in to keep the ministry going. Carpenter said there are close to 50 women in the group.

Half the women meet at church once a month and the others send completed shawls to the church office where they are distributed. They are blessed by a priest and the recipients’ names are written in a book to be held in prayer.

People can knit or crochet at their own pace, Carpenter said. Some will complete several shawls during the year while others may only make one. Nativity has given away more than 2,000 prayer shawls — locally and across the world, including Iraq and Russia — since the ministry began.

Michael Birden, a 10-year-old parishioner of Nativity, received a prayer shawl when he was very ill. His mother, Christine, believes he was blessed by the prayer shawl ministry. She had no idea how much the shawl would mean to him. The day she brought it home, “He immediately grabbed it like it was his best friend,” she said. “He put his face on it for months when he would go to sleep and now it has a special place in his room.”

The shawl impacted both Michael and his family. 

“I believe the shawl is a visible reminder to the whole family of Michael's sufferings and how much he has had to endure,” she said. “For Michael, the meaning and the purpose of the shawl is really about the relationship between God and himself. It is an anchor for him.”

Prayer shawl ministers see it as a way to give back to others. Kathy Dzialowy, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Manassas, has been a member of the ministry for nine years. She received a shawl when her parents were ill.

“A lot of people couldn’t help or be there all the time,” she said. “The shawl equated to hugs from people who couldn’t be there.” She said when people are going through chemo or radiation they get cold and having a prayer shawl made for them gives them a little comfort.

Diane Anderson, director of outreach at Sacred Heart, distributes the shawls to anyone who knows or hears of someone who is sick. The shawls are given also to grieving families when there is a funeral at Sacred Heart.

The prayer shawl ministers will keep knitting and crocheting as long as they can.

“The feedback inspires us,” said Carpenter. “The joy of the people who give them and the joy of the recipients keep us going.”

Prayer shawl note

Each prayer shawl distributed by Church of the Nativity includes a card with the following:

"May this shawl made with love, through prayer, be a mantle and sign of God's healing presence. May it strengthen you when you are weary. May it surround you and ease your suffering. May it encircle you when you feel in pain. May it comfort you when you feel alone. May it remind you of God's abiding love. Amen."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017