Knitting communities tightly together

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By Jennifer Monahan


One stitch at a time, two local parishes are knitting together communities as they create all manner of handmade crafts.

Jan Vavro approached Father Nicholas Argentieri, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Center Township (Butler County), four years ago because she loved making crafts and wanted to start a group for adult parishioners. At the same time, parishioner Jerry Hall expressed interest in forming a ministry to make shawls and blankets for homebound members of the community. The result was St. Andrew’s now-thriving Shawl and Craft ministry.

“Some people do cross-stitch and make jewelry. We have a quilter, knitters, people who crochet and make dishcloths, and people who do floral arrangements and wreaths,” Vavro said. “Our main goals are shawls for the homebound, lap robes for people in wheelchairs and baby afghans for the newly baptized in the parish.”

Once or twice a year, the group hosts a craft sale. Proceeds from the event pay for the yarn used in various projects.

Father Argentieri said the shawls and blankets are hugely popular with grateful recipients. He regularly takes a shawl or blanket when visiting homebound parishioners, which he delivers in quilted gift bags — also hand-crafted by a member of the ministry. He said people love the bags because they fit nicely on walkers or wheelchairs, and beneficiaries appreciate the thoughtfulness and effort that goes into crafting each item.

“We keep the shawl and blanket bin full because we never know when Father Nick is going on another visiting binge,” Vavro said with a laugh.

The group has more than 20 active participants and meets every two weeks. Meetings are primarily social, Vavro said, and provide an opportunity for the group to share information, ideas and patterns, and inspire and encourage each other. While the group sometimes does a craft project together, most of the work is done independently outside of the meetings.

In addition to parishioners, the ministry draws the Benedictine sisters from Bakerstown. One sister is able to work on knitting projects while caring for an elderly member of the community, Vavro said, and the ability to complete projects independently as time permits likewise fits well with the schedules of many of the group’s members.

For the first time, the group is also making blankets for parishioners who are away at college. They have been busily crafting blankets — knitted, crocheted and fleece — to share with the parish’s high school graduates in care packages sent by the youth group, Vavro said. Their hope is to let the students know that they are still treasured and remembered even though they may be far from home.

Ultimately, Vavro hopes that the ministry provides an avenue for members to demonstrate God’s love through their creativity. She described a woman with dementia in a nursing home who told a caregiver, “Somebody who loves me gave me a shawl, but I can’t remember who it was,” after one of Father Argentieri’s visits. Stories like that keep Vavro and her fellow crafters using their creative talents in service to others and to help build up the parish community.

The God’s Precious Preemies ministry at St. Ferdinand Parish in Cranberry Township has similar goals and a similarly organic beginning. Eight years ago, longtime parishioner Jan Shaffer was inspired by a family tragedy to do something for parents who had lost an infant.

After her nephew shared how much the gift of a crocheted dress for his stillborn daughter had meant to him and his wife, Shaffer started volunteering with the Helping Hands program at Allegheny Health Network’s West Penn Hospital neonatal intensive care unit, making bereavement dresses, blankets, hats and other useful items.

That involvement led Shaffer to reach out to Barb McCarthy, pastoral associate of St. Ferdinand, with the idea of beginning God’s Precious Preemies ministry. Today the ministry has 26 active members as well as a group of seniors from nearby Sherwood Oaks Retirement Community who call themselves the “Sew ‘n’ Sews” and send garments to Shaffer each month.

Shaffer’s is a labor of love.

“I wash, fold and separate the outfits into Ziplock bags myself,” Shaffer explained, because she is acutely aware of the need for garments to be free of germs. “I researched so much because it would kill me if I did anything to harm (the babies).”

The women also make flannel pads for premature babies to lie on in the NICU isolettes and fleece covers for the tops of the isolettes, which can help shield the babies from harmful light. Although the hospital has appropriate supplies, Shaffer said the handmade items are more personal and offer comfort to the babies’ families.

The women also make memory boxes, hand-painted by Shaffer and parishioner Kathy Bishak, for parents to take home if they lose an infant. Shaffer said in the future the group will add a baby blanket, two small hats, a kimono and a bracelet to the box, in hopes that parents might have some special items that their baby was able to wear during their time together.

The group’s projects have expanded to include stylish chemotherapy hats for adults and children, lap robes, shawls and afghans designed for people in wheelchairs, and hats, gloves and scarves for an orphanage in Greene County and people who are homeless in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Marcia Caffall has been Shaffer’s self-professed “partner in crime” since the beginning, and teaches sewing and knitting to any participant who lacks experience. Caffall said she appreciates being part of the ministry because of its connections to the St. Ferdinand community as well as the broader community that is touched by their work.

Shaffer is proud that the ministry has inspired interest from younger members of the parish as well. A number of students at nearby Seneca Valley High School have chosen to work with the group for their senior projects. Students work with Shaffer and God’s Precious Preemies for the duration of the academic year.

“It’s fun to see the young people get involved and excited about the work,” Shaffer said.

God’s Precious Preemies projects are partially funded by donation, she said, but often the women in the ministry purchase their own supplies.

The women share camaraderie and a sense of community. Marianne Lame, who is often at home to care for her husband who is not well, appreciates that she can attend the meetings every two weeks but still do most of the work while she is home. Lame said her husband jokingly refers to himself as a “crochet widow” because of the time she dedicates at home to this ministry.

At both St. Andrew and St. Ferdinand, parishioners have found ways to use their unique gifts of creativity in service to God and others. Their efforts continue to build close-knit communities within their own parishes and tangibly demonstrate their love to the region.