A Mount Angel man died recently of pancreatic cancer. The manly fellow — retired military — in his last days told Benedictine Father Philip Waibel that one of the things getting him through the suffering was a blanket.
It was a soft prayer shawl that had been crocheted by a group of parishioners expressly to comfort those who are ill or dying. The crocheters and knitters pray as they work, a fact told to the patients. The man told Father Philip, pastor of St. Mary Parish here, that whenever he felt alone or overwhelmed, he picked up the shawl.
Benedictine Sister Dorothy Jean Beyer, former prioress of Queen of Angels Monastery and now a pastoral care coordinator at St. Mary’s, got the shawl ministry going.
“Illness can make people feel isolated,” Sister Dorothy Jean says. “The shawl is saying we care for you. It is a sign of God’s unconditional love.”
Creating shawls in contemplation heals the maker, too, says Sister Dorothy Jean. “It’s about God wanting to touch people’s lives.”
The Mount Angel shawl makers work together once per month, 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month in a parish classroom. There are about two dozen, but not all the knitters and crocheters come to the group sessions. Some work and pray quietly in their homes. One of those solitary workers is Benedictine Sister Jill Aigner, 91. She uses a walker and does not get out of Queen of Angels Monastery much.
Sister Jill, who has made 14 shawls so far, became excited when she heard Sister Dorothy Jean describe the prayer shawl ministry. Sister Jill has been knitting since her grandmother taught her the art 80 years ago. Praying for the ill during the work brings her peace and comfort, she says.
“We start life with a blanket and end it with one, too,” she says.
Florence Balog, a resident of Mount Angel Towers retirement community, recently learned the art of crochet. Now, as a shawl maker, she sees her prayers for the aged and sick becoming tangible in her hands.
“It is a way of building relationships and understanding yourself more,” Balog says. “It makes the love visible.”
Balog’s first shawl had what she called errors. When she was about to pull it apart, her husband suggested she leave it, since people like to see something made with human hands, imperfections and all. It became a lesson.
About 450 shawls have come out of St. Mary’s.
Shawl ministry is also in place at Queen of Peace in Salem, St. Patrick in Canby, St. Cyril in Wilsonville and St. Edward in Keizer, where more than a thousand of the comforting blankets have been knitted and distributed.
Arleigh Lulay, the parish nurse at St. Edward’s who leads the shawl ministry there, was taking care of her dying mother years back when someone sent a prayer shawl. The blanket comforted both mother and daughter as they bid farewell.
“I wanted others to experience what was so helpful,” Lulay says. “People say, ‘They mean so much because someone loved me enough to make something beautiful and pray for me while they were making it.’ That is an amazing gift.”
Anita Ruggiero, parish secretary at St. Cyril, says a talk by Sister Dorothy Jean prompted Wilsonville Catholic women to start the ministry a year ago. The nun offered a few shawls that day. Ruggiero took one and gave it to the mother of 9-year-old boy who had just died of brain cancer. Now 15 to 18 women are making shawls and praying, gathering in a parish room that includes a fireplace. They have created 150 so far.
“This has been awesome because we didn’t think we could do it, but it’s working,” Ruggiero says.
Priests bless the shawls before they are sent out. In Mount Angel, Father Philip has been in awe at the power of the ministry.
During a talk an an April retreat for 44 shawl makers from around western Oregon, the priest tied the ministry to Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. The pope said no one should fear goodness or tenderness.
Father Philip said the shawls fit ideally into what’s been called the pope’s revolution of tenderness since they are “corporal and spiritual works of mercy made manifest.”
One cancer patient, a woman who had raised a large family alone after her husband died, received a shawl with delight and surprise that anyone was thinking of her.
“For her, every good thing is incarnate in that shawl,” Father Philip says. “Our faith is incarnate. This is like an incarnation of prayer.”