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Women in prayer shawl ministries put care and prayer into their creations

April 1, 2015
The wool shawl is knitted in bands of yellow and lavender. It's big enough to wrap around your shoulders, which is the first thing Carol Leonard had done every morning since she received it.

The shawl is cozy and warm but it was also, to Leonard, a patient at Stella Maris Hospice, "a work of love. It's such a comfort that someone made this for me."

"Mom is very pleased" with the shawl, said Kathleen LeNoir, one of Leonard's eight children. "She asks for it all the time."

LeNoir traveled from her home in Texas to be with her mother, who died March 28.

On a breezy March day, Sister Kathy Dauses, of the Order of St. Francis, and head of pastoral care, surveys the prayer shawls stacked in her office at the hospice in Timonium. Sometimes she has a lot, sometimes only a few. Today, there are a half-dozen on a shelf and a bag with at least a dozen more that Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Towson just delivered.

Pam Tillman, of Timonium, a volunteer, founded the Stella Maris Hospice Prayer Shawl Ministry in 2006. She and Dauses run it, rounding up volunteers, buying yarn and, even, printing a brochure with knitting and crocheting instructions and prayers to be said before starting thehandiwork as well as when finishing it.

The hospice's prayer shawl ministry is one of many. Nearly a dozen churches in the Towson area alone have similar ministries, some of which donate their finished items to Stella Maris Hospice.

Dauses gives a prayer shawl to patients as soon as they enter the hospice. But she doesn't just drop it on their bed, or hand it to a family member if the patient is unresponsive.

She turns the event into a "spiritual ritual," in her words, with family and friends gathered around their loved one while she tells the patient that the person who made the shawl was praying for them even before they came there.

The response is as emotional as you'd expect.

"It's hard to explain the comfort prayer shawls bring," Dauses said. "Patients ask, 'Can I keep this? Is this mine?' They want to put it around themselves immediately."

"My feeling is, this is the last gift the person will receive and it helps them on their journey," said Tillman, who estimates Stella Maris Hospice which is run by the Sisters of Mercy, distributes 1,200 prayer shawls annually to patients and their family members.

'A spiritual process'

Indeed, so meaningful are the prayer shawls that it is not unusual for people to be buried in them or have them laid over their casket. They become family heirlooms, a last treasured reminder of mom or dad. In fact, when Leonard died her family asked Dauses for their mother's prayer shawl.

The shawls are even attributed with healing power, as one cancer patient who went into remission did.

"She handed it to another cancer patient. I recently came across it and it's now with a third cancer patient," said Maureen O'Brien, chaplain at University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center.

St. Joseph is one of two Towson hospitals that area churches frequently mention as recipients of their prayer shawl ministry's items. The other is Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC).

At St. Joseph, O'Brien distributes about 500 prayer shawls annually, primarily to critically and terminally ill patients in the intensive care and cancer units. Similarly, GBMC gives out 600 prayer shawls annually to patients in those units.

GBMC Chaplain Joe Hart, an ordained minister, runs the prayer shawl program with Sue McKenna. As popular as the shawls are with patients, they are equally meaningful to the people who make them.

"They joyfully donate what they have created. The prayer process benefits them," Hart said.

If there is a national association of prayer shawl ministries, none of the churches is aware of it or belongs to any such organization. However, all seem to follow the same practices and that may well come from a grassroots group called Prayer Shawl Ministry.

Victoria Cole-Galo and Janet Severi Briscow cofounded the grassroots group in 1998, the result of a program they took on applying feminist spirituality at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

"We wanted to share what we'd learned with other communities," said Cole-Galo, whose website,, has instructions, patterns, suggested prayers, a message board and more. The two women also publish a series of books on prayer shawl ministries.

"It's not just the knitting and crocheting, it's not just a craft project," she said. "It's a spiritual process."

Cole-Galo doesn't know the number of prayer shawl ministries. "It's very popular among churches," she said. Her website lists hundreds in the U.S. although thousands more exist that aren't listed. They're also popular abroad, from Canada to South Africa.

Whatever the number, Cole-Galo believes prayer shawl ministries are increasing. "We started our website through word-of-mouth," she said, "and now we get millions of hits per year."

'Way of showing God's love'

Hunt's Memorial United Methodist Church's Prayer Shawl Ministry dates to 2009. Lucy Otto, a co-founder, had read about them and loves to knit.

"The minister was enthusiastic. We sent around a clipboard at a service and 20 people signed up," Otto said.

The group meets regularly in members' homes. The oldest member is 97; the youngest, 12, the daughter of a member who learned to knit so she could make prayer shawls, too.

As they work, the women pray for the future recipient. At the end of the meeting, a blessing is read over all the shawls. The finished shawls are wrapped and tagged with a printed prayer.

The shawls are given to parishioners or their family and friends. "We always have a few in the church office," Otto said. "People call and ask for them."

At Ascension Evangelical Lutheran Church, Jeanette Beck heard about the Stella Maris Hospice group. "I thought it was a good idea for our church," said Beck, founder in 2008 and chair of its prayer shawl ministry.

The Towson United Methodist Church Prayer Shawl Ministry makes it as easy as it can for its dozen members. "We provide needles, directions and yarn," said Carol Matlin, a co-founder of the group, and accept "any stitch, size and color" shawls they make.

Holy Cross Lutheran Church hosts three services a year at which the finished prayer shawls are blessed. They are also available during services several times a year, or any time through the church office.

"I do it because it's a way of showing God's love," said Lynne Funck, who founded and runs the Holy Cross Lutheran Church Prayer Shawl Ministry.

Central Presbyterian Church calls its ministry "The Hands of Love." "Some people knit, some crochet. We meet twice a month and we pray as we work," Patti Richardson said.

Denise Noll started the prayer shawl ministry at Church of the Holy Redeemer in 2011. In the past two years alone, the group has given 81 shawls and lap robes to parishioners and others.

The St. Joseph Parish and School Prayer Shawl Ministry doesn't have meetings. Its dozen-plus members are elderly so they knit or crochet at home. But every morning, six members meet for 8:30 Mass and then segue to a nearby Panera Bread restaurant where they eat breakfast and make prayer shawls, lap robes and baby blankets.

"They're retired and they enjoy it," said Ann Marie-Labin of St. Joseph Parish, which donates finished items to St. Joseph and GBMC.
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