Knitted shawls wrap recipients in prayers

News-DemocratJune 9, 2014 

Vera Schaefer recovered from shoulder surgery with the help of medicine, therapy and a prayer shawl.

She'd wrap herself up in the powder blue shawl, which was knitted by someone in the Prayer Shawl Ministry at St. Augustine of Canterbury Catholic Church in Belleville and blessed by the Rev. Bill McGhee.

"It was a comfort to know that they were praying for me," said Vera, 87, of Belleville, a retired receiving clerk. "It was just a warm feeling."

A year later, Vera's husband, Clarence, got his own prayer shawl, except it was more masculine with brown and tan stripes.

He had fallen on ice, fracturing his left wrist and two vertebrae.

"The shawl seemed to have a soothing affect on the pain," said Clarence, 89, a retired meatcutter and photographer.

St. Augustine has about 25 volunteers in its Prayer Shawl Ministry. They work at home, knitting or crocheting shawls for people who are sick or going through tough times.

Shawls are labeled and delivered in gift bags with pamphlets explaining how prayer shawls served as "private sanctuaries" for Jewish men in Biblical times.

"They're not only for sick people," said ministry leader Wanda Knepper, 77, of Belleville, a retired benefits coordinator. "They can also be for joyous occasions.

"We give them to first-time mothers at baby showers, new brides and students who are graduating."

One of the more well-known recipients is Catholic Diocese of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton, who underwent surgery last fall for intestinal problems.

The most prolific shawl-maker is Norma Friederich, 85, a Belleville homemaker who has crocheted nearly 70 in 18 months.

"I've been crocheting since 1948," she said. "That's when I was pregnant with my son. I made a sweater set for him, and I've been doing it ever since. I've got 10 grandchildren, and I've made each of them four afghans."

Volunteer Sandy Cange took up crocheting four years ago as a way to pass time during her mother's chemotherapy.

She feels she benefits as much as the people who receive shawls.

"It brings me deeper into prayer," said Sandy, 52, of Swansea, a church office assistant. "I have no idea who the shawl will be going to, but I try to hold a picture in my minds of someone who has a need, and I pray for them as I'm making it."

Shawls come in all shapes, sizes, patterns and colors. Small squares known as "pocket shawls" are sent to military personnel, college students or people on mission trips.

Beyond the spiritual boost, the shawls can be practical. Janice Bassler, 67, of Swansea, a retired customer service representative, wore her multi-colored shawl daily after falling and fracturing bones in both feet.

"I was laid up during all that cold weather," she said. "I went back and forth from the recliner to the wheelchair, and I had that prayer shawl on almost all the time.

"The realization that all that prayer went into it kept my spirits up. I didn't get down. Prayer changes situations for the better."

Joyce Pawlitschek serves as the ministry's community liaison, identifying people who might benefit from prayer shawls.

She tries to be positive and upbeat when making deliveries, especially if someone's going through a life crisis.

"I tell people, '(The shawl is) like Jesus putting his arms around you,'" said Joyce, 68, a retired government employee.

Joyce's husband, Doug, is the only man in the ministry. He enjoys being creative and helping others.

Doug, 72, a retired security guard and welder, learned how to crochet by watching Internet videos. Wanda and Sandy could only teach him so much since he's left-handed.

"I just do a simple stitch," he said. "The others run circles around me."

Doug is used to a little ribbing about his involvement in a traditionally female hobby. He points to former professional football player Roosevelt Grier, who enjoyed needlepoint.

Doug has gone with his wife to deliver shawls. In one case, a man in a nursing home teared up at the idea that someone cared.

"It's a moving experience, believe me," Doug said.

Several metro-east churches have prayer shawl ministries. The one at St. Augustine started as a project for homebound members, but its popularity spread.

In two years, the 25 volunteers have knitted or crocheted more than 300 shawls. One women mails them from Florida. Another lives in Indianapolis.

"(The shawls are) not a cure-all," Wanda said. "But they're a comfort. That's the magic in them."

For more information on the St. Augustine Prayer Shawl Ministry, call 618-233-7255.

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