NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — Knitted shawls in a rainbow of colors overflowed from a basket in Joyce Meekins’ Amesbury living room earlier this month.
Hidden somewhere in Meekins’ pile lay the 1,000th shawl created by the Holy Family Parish’s Prayer Shawl Ministry, a group of 13 industrious volunteers devoted to knitting and crocheting “hugs” for anyone in need. The group has stitched its way to this milestone in just five years.
“Recipients are encouraged to wrap themselves in the shawls, both for warmth and to remind them that the shawl is a work of love and an assurance of prayer,” said Meekins, the ministry’s lead facilitator.
The shawls in Meekins’ living room were quietly awaiting transport to Amesbury’s Holy Family Parish. There, they would receive prayers from the weekly prayer group and a holy water blessing by the parish priest. Members of the community, called “prayer angels,” then individually gift them.
James Massaua, a parish member, calls “the prayer shawl the linking vehicle of comfort.”
Blessings are interwoven in each shawl from conception to delivery. Each volunteer recites a prayer when beginning a shawl. They also may listen to inspiring music or light a candle while completing each shawl.
“There is a lot of prayer in these (shawls),” Meekins said. “Once a month, we bring the book of remembrances (to a meeting). This is the list of all the shawls ever made and distributed. We pray over it. We read all the thank-you notes also. Many people tell me they even sleep with (the shawls).”
Holy Family’s Prayer Shawl Ministry is fashioned after a 15-year-old program developed by Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo, two graduates of the 1997 Women’s Leadership Institute at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
The purpose of the shawls is to bring solace, comfort, warmth and hope to either those suffering from loss or celebrating a life event. Examples of occasions for prayer shawls include sickness, joblessness, bereavement, marriage and birth.
The program is a grass-roots effort, and shawls are not ever to be sold, only given away.
Patricia Elario, who has personally created 133 shawls, and Meekins said they often see “divine intervention” at work with the shawls.
“For some reason when you make one, it goes to the right person,” Elario said.
“I love the miracle part of it,” Meekins said. “I will pick out the color and put it in a gift bag. Then, the feedback I get is, ‘I gave it to that lady, and that was the color of her living room or that was her favorite color.’ Well, that is the one God wanted them to have.”
Elario relates a story about a recent shawl that she made for the wife of her cousin, who was terminally ill. She mailed it out-of-state with intended delivery Jan. 21. Because of ice and snow, the package was delayed.
“The shawl arrived instead on Feb. 5,” Elario said. “As they were taking my cousin out, the package arrived. She took it out and immediately put it on. She wore it when she picked up his ashes.”
Elario said that the benefits of the shawls also extend beyond the recipients.
“It feels good inside to know you are doing something to comfort someone else even though you know you can’t be there or take away their grief,” she said.
Elario became a crafter for the ministry after she received a shawl following the death of her sister.
“I lost my sister in 2008,” she said. “The shawl gave me a lot of comfort. When you get in those moods late at night, I wrap it around myself.”
Meekins remembers being touched by the reappearance of a shawl she had made for a close family friend. Years later, when that woman was struggling with the death of a young friend, she asked Meekins to accompany her to the wake to help her face the challenge. As Meekins was following behind, she noticed that her family member was cloaked in the prayer shawl that Meekins had given her.
“Once you give the shawl, you don’t always know what happens to it,” Meekins said. “It was so nice to see the prayer shawl in use.”
Prayer shawl ministries exist in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, as well as nine Canadian provinces and many other countries.
Each shawl is tagged with a prayer by Janet Bristow:
“May God’s grace be upon this shawl – warming, comforting, enfolding and embracing; may this mantle be a safe haven – a sacred place of security and well-being; may the one who receives this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace and wrapped in love.”