Handmade with prayer — Prayer shawl ministry

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen


North Texas Catholic


Loving God, I give you thanks for the gift of my hands. Give me the grace to see my hands as you see them, as instruments of grace. Use my hands to carry out your works of mercy and love. May the shawls my hands create bring blessings to those they wrap in love and healing to those upon whom they rest. Amen
— St. Vincent de Paul prayer shawl ministers

Maria Cedillo believes a patchwork quilt, sewn by members of the prayer shawl ministry at St. Andrew Church in Fort Worth, helped her family experience a miracle.

“She’s truly a miracle baby,” gushes the great-aunt as she begins to recount the saga that brought her premature niece, Isabella, and a brightly colored “Sunbonnet Sue” blanket together. “The doctors are amazed that such a little child could make it through surgery. It shows what prayer, trusting in God, and Mother Mary can do.”

The longtime St. Andrew parishioner turned to her church’s growing prayer shawl ministry after receiving a hurried phone call from her sister, Lynda, in California. A grandbaby, expected in late July of 2011 was born early on May 13 – the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima. Weighing just l pound, 13 ounces, the infant wasn’t expected to survive.

Living so far away from her sibling, the only support Maria could offer was prayer.

“I wanted to send the baby a prayer blanket, but I didn’t think they’d have a small one for a child,” remembers the former quilter who volunteered for the ministry before health issues forced her to quit.

While foraging through the bins of crocheted and cloth coverlets in the pastoral center at St. Andrew’s, Maria came across the perfectly-sized gift. Designed with calming yellow squares and appliqués of a little girl wearing a bonnet, the blanket stood out from larger, all-purpose donations.

At St. Andrew Church, each prayer shawl given to someone needing comfort or healing is blessed by one of the parish’s Franciscan Friars. A card attached to the blanket lets the recipient know the shawl’s maker and others are lifting him or her up in prayer.

When baby Isabella’s prayer blanket was mailed to the West Coast, the concerned great-aunt also enclosed her own message.

“I wrote the baby a letter saying the blanket was from her aunt in Texas and that it would keep her safe,” Maria recalls. “Prayer shawls give hope to the people who receive them, and that’s what I wanted for Isabella’s family.”

An ancient, revered element of Judaism, the prayer shawl or tallit is worn in the Jewish faith during worship as a sign of reverence for God and his commandments. Christians broadened the scope of the tradition by distributing blankets or shawls to sick, grief-stricken, or troubled persons as a reminder that compassion and community are found in God’s love.

St. Andrew’s Prayer Shawl ministry is one of several outreaches at work in the Diocese of Fort Worth that tap into the needlework skills of parishioners to serve the homebound, infirm, and anyone needing physical, mental, or spiritual healing. Two Connecticut women, Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo, are credited with popularizing the prayer shawl ministry in the U.S. Authors of several how-to books on the subject, the pair recognized the symbolic power of a prayer shawl while taking part in an impromptu religious service at Hartford Theological Seminary. A classmate, wrapped in a warm, colorful cloak and circled by other women in prayer, was an image they couldn’t forget.

“It was the perfect metaphor for the comforting, motherly, and unconditionally loving God we had come to know,” they wrote in their first book, The Prayer Shawl Companion.

Inspired, the women began making shawls, blankets, and mantles for friends and family. Before long, the ritual took on a spiritual quality and became a grounding influence in their daily lives.

“It felt different from other work we did because we entered into the process through intention, meditation, and prayer,” they explained.

Friends and acquaintances followed their example and started mailing shawls to other parts of New England and around the country. Articles about the ministry began appearing in magazines and newspapers and helped spread the idea worldwide.

These parishioners at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Arlington are busy knitting not just blankets or, but signs of the love of Christ and his Church for the recipients.

Supporters of the concept say prayer shawls touch lives in a way that words can’t. Jan Nelson decided to start a ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Church after seeing how a prayer blanket given to her nephew, helped him cope with a leukemia diagnosis.

“When he was cold, he used it in the hospital for physical warmth; the Arlington resident remembers. And knowing that people were praying for him was another comfort.

After her nephew died, Lutheran friends consoled her devastated sister with a prayer shawl made by members of their faith community.

“It made such an impact I decided my parish needed a prayer shawl committee,” Nelson recalls. “I don’t knit or crochet, so I contacted the volunteers at the Lutheran Church for information about yarn and patterns.” She says she learned how the movement got started on the Internet.

A small notice placed in the church bulletin brought together 10 enthusiastic needle crafters who made the Arlington parish’s first prayer shawls. That was three years ago. Today the thriving ministry relies on the skill of 30 members and has given away 360 blankets.

Nelson keeps a distribution log of where each blanket is sent. Thank you notes from grateful recipients are saved and shared with knitters during monthly meetings.

Although there is a standard prayer shawl pattern, the organizer encourages creativity.

“Some members knit scarves for men they can wrap around their necks,” Nelson explains. “Others make a square that looks more like a lap blanket. We’ve got pink, blue, yellow, and white blankets that are perfect for a baby.”

Yarn for the ministry is donated by the parish men’s club and ladies’ guild but many volunteers often pay for materials themselves. The most profound aspect of the community effort is the sense of spirituality it creates for both the giver and receiver.

“The women who work on these prayer shawls tell me time and time again they know the people getting these shawls are comforted by them and they pray for that person,” Nelson says. “But they also receive comfort themselves and feel closer to God.”

Once a completed prayer shawl is turned in to the parish office, it is blessed by a priest or deacon and wrapped in white tissue prayer. Nelson affixes a prayer card and note that says in part: “Always remember the person who made this shawl wove prayers for God’s love and healing into the shawl to create a vessel for God’s mysterious presence in the life of the recipient — you.”

A prayer blanket ministry at St. Frances Cabrini Church in Granbury reaches out not only to the sick and grieving but also to military families.

“It’s a tangible thing that lets people know you are praying and thinking about them while they are going through a crisis,” explains Claudette Knezek who started the ministry at her parish eight years ago.

A former nurse who understands a patient’s need for comfort, she remembers the solace a prayer blanket gave her late husband while he underwent radiation treatments at M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston.

“What else helps when you’re fighting a war on cancer?” Knezek asks rhetorically. “Prayer is the answer.”

St. Frances Cabrini members, working in groups or individually, have sewn more than 2,000 blankets since the ministry began. The 3 by 3 ft. coverlets, targeted for the military, are made in patriotic colors and stored with the other blankets in the sacristy.

Knezek understands the stress and hardship affecting soldiers and their loved ones. Her son, Col. Andrew Wilcox, served tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the prayer blankets given to soldiers are packed in duffle bags and go overseas. Others stay here to comfort the families left behind. They serve as a reminder to pray for the person in harm’s way.

“It helps them remember that others outside the family are praying for them too,” Knezek explains.

Prayer shawls allow a faith community to reach out to people who are hurting or isolated, according to Julie Kinch, who organized a ministry at St. Andrew three years ago. Using contact information supplied by her parish’s extraordinary ministers, the blankets are often distributed to the homebound or nursing home residents. Others are sent out through the parish’s social ministry services or simply requested by a parishioner. Six regular volunteers knit, crochet or quilt the prayer shawls, but Kinch hopes to get more women involved by offering monthly workshops.

“It’s a hobby we share, but we’re doing it with a specific purpose of making these shawls for people who are in need,” the quilter explains.

Before each prayer shawl is sent out, Kinch attaches a card inscribed with two prayers — a daily prayer for healing and a prayer by St. Augustine.

“They’re broad enough to fit any situation — physical, emotional, or spiritual,” the program’s coordinator says. “The blankets have gone out to parishioners and non-parishioners, Catholics and non-Catholics. When someone picks up a blanket, they write down their information, and we begin to pray for that person.”

A priest’s blessing is the final touch that makes the prayer shawls special Kinch says adding, “It’s like being wrapped in a hug from Jesus.”

Maria Cedillo believes a patchwork quilt, sewn by members of the prayer shawl ministry at St. Andrew Church in Fort Worth, helped her family experience a miracle.