For the past five years, the dozen or so ladies in the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish in Elysburg have been knitting and crocheting tangible signs of prayer, support, encouragement, solace and God’s unconditional love.
From shawls for those who are sick or grieving, hats for newborn babies and chemotherapy patients, and blankets for veterans and women in shelters, the ministry’s outreach is as varied as the stiches and patterns that go into the comforting creations.
Parishioner Judy Brokus started the ministry five years ago while looking for something to be involved in after her retirement. She joined several knitters and crocheters from the parish in attending a prayer shawl retreat offered by the Harrisburg Diocesan Council of Catholic Women, and they were inspired to begin a prayer shawl group at their parish.
“We started out by meeting our parish needs first, especially for people who were experiencing difficulties, grieving or shut in,” Brokus said. “We also began making shawls for those were being baptized or in the RCIA program, to give our prayers to people coming into the Church.”
The ladies say a special prayer when they’re creating the prayer shawls, scarves, caps and blankets. The finished pieces are blessed by Father Joseph Scanlin, pastor, and affixed with a prayer card and a Miraculous Medal.
“Mother Teresa told us to do little things with great love. The ladies in this group have a certain talent, and we hope that God-given gift translates into love and comfort and joy for people, so they know their parish is with them no matter what they’re going through. It’s a small way of showing our parishioners that we care,” Brokus said.
Eventually, word of the beautiful handmade items spread from the parish and into the community; in response, the ministry’s efforts expanded. To date, the ladies have created blanket, hat and scarf sets for clients of the Elysburg Food Pantry, the Toys for Tots program and a local women’s shelter; infant caps for Birthright in Sunbury; patriotic and military-theme blankets for more than 100 veterans and first responders; blankets for residents of a local rehabilitation facility; and hats for patients undergoing chemotherapy at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.
Their work has had an international impact as well, as the ministry created several hundred covers for in-home water filtration systems in developing nations through the Water with Blessings program based in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Our mission is to make ourselves visible to the world, and this is one way of being visible,” said Mary Major, one of the first women to join the prayer shawl ministry. “It’s a tangible way of showing prayer. So often we’ll say, ‘I’ll keep you in my prayers,’ or ‘We’re praying for you.’ The prayer shawl is something that shows it, and something that people can hold on to. More and more people are reaching out for our shawls and I think it’s because they’ve seen the visible sign of our prayers. This helps make prayer real for them.”
The prayer shawl ministry meets twice a month at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish. The members discuss current and upcoming projects, and relay messages of gratitude from recipients.
Depending on the stitch, a cap can be made in an hour, while shawls take up to six hours and blankets exponentially more. Members of the ministry work on their projects during meetings and at home.
“We have a specific prayer that we open up our meetings with, and it encompasses the work of our hands,” Brokus said. “While there is a social element to our meetings, we talk about what we’re working on, and prayerfulness is a part of what we do. We pray for whoever is receiving the shawls, although many times we don’t know the specific person they’re being made for. Still, we know they are appreciated.”
“Many times people will tell us how they wear their shawl all the time and it becomes an extension of them. They know we are supporting them and that our prayers are with them,” she said.
Major’s husband was a prayer shawl recipient when he was diagnosed with cancer five years ago. He is now cancer-free, and because so many people in the parish know him, they’ll often talk to him about their own diagnosis, or that of loved ones.
“Because of that connection, I deliver prayer shawls to people battling cancer. I’ve found that it’s not so much the shawl that they’re getting, but also knowing there is support for them within the parish community and people are praying for them,” Major said. “We know how powerful prayer is. It really makes a tremendous difference when you hear that people are gaining strength from the shawls. I know that helped my husband along.”
Brokus expressed gratitude for the women in the ministry, the support of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and individual parishioners who make donations toward the cost of the supplies, and for the blessing Father Scanlin prays over each piece.
“We’re fortunate to be part of this ministry, and we’re going to continue because there’s always someone who is in need of prayers and support,” she said.
“It’s a concrete assurance of our prayers,” Major added. “It’s visible and tangible, and I think it’s powerful in that way.”
(Photos courtesy of Sheila Olsheskie, Parish Managr, Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Parish.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness