CARIBOU, Maine — In the fall of 2003, Bessie Gray Memorial United Methodist Church member Diane Fitzpatrick happened across an article in the Bangor Daily News about a book titled “Knitting Into the Mystery, A Guide to the Shawl-Knitting Ministry” in the fall of 2003.
Written by Susan S. Jorgenson and Susan S. Izard, the book tells the history of prayer shawl ministries and explains the meaning of the intricate work that goes into creating each shawl.
The first known prayer shawl ministry was a result of a cooperative project by two women in Connecticut, Janet Bistrow and Vicky Galo, when they knitted a shawl for a friend who was going through a painful divorce in 1998. Bistrow and Galo shared their creation with a group of women who were attending a seminar. The women said a prayer of blessing over the shawl before it was presented to the recipient. Word spread, and soon, churches all over the country followed suit in beginning their own prayer shawl groups.
Shortly after reading the article about “Knitting Into the Mystery,” Fitzpatrick discovered another about a prayer shawl ministry at Grant Memorial Methodist Church in Presque Isle. Inspired, Fitzpatrick contacted a member of the Presque Isle group for some advice on how to begin a ministry at her Caribou church.
Fitzpatrick then had lunch with fellow Gray Memorial members Mary Lou Brown and Gail Hagelstein, both of whom shared in Fitzpatrick’s excitement over beginning a ministry in their church. On May 16, 2004, the group held their first meeting with about six members.
Ten years later, the ministry is going strong. Membership has doubled in size, and more than 1,000 shawls knitted or crocheted by Gray Memorial members have been distributed worldwide to those facing illnesses or difficulties in their lives. Members of the church also receive a shawl when baptized.
Fitzpatrick’s mother had taught her to knit as a child, but not all members of the ministry have entered the group with full-blown knitting skills. Member Brenda Curtis had very little experience with yarn and needles when she joined in 2004.
“I had knit one brown scarf when I was 12,” Curtis recalled. After having been diagnosed with breast cancer and receiving a shawl from the Gray Memorial ladies, Curtis joined the group despite her inexperience.
“My stitches were pitiful,” explained Curtis, who was undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the time she joined. “Just pitiful. Finally, someone took pity on me and, with patience, helped me get them right.”
Curtis refers to herself as a “knitting machine.”
“I watch TV and knit and knit. I have no idea how many shawls I have knit,” Curtis said.
Ministry member Jolene Reitmeyer joined the group as a way to pay back the kindness shown to her when her husband was extremely ill.
“I’ve always been one to pay it forward,” Reitmeyer said. “I was looking for a way to recognize the many people who were so kind to me. The prayer shawl ministry became the missing piece.”
Reitmeyer has knit numerous shawls as a member of the ministry and remembered one particular shawl she had given to a co-worker who was facing a similar battle to hers in that the co-worker’s husband was dying. Reitmeyer laid the shawl over the gentleman’s legs during her visit in the hospital. Later, when the wife was ready to go home for the evening, she attempted to take the shawl home with her. The husband requested that she leave it, and he kept the shawl with him throughout the remainder of his life.
“And she still has the shawl,” Reitmeyer confirmed, adding that they also know of people who have had their shawls buried with them.
Each meeting of the prayer shawl ministry is opened and closed with a prayer, and every completed shawl is blessed by the pastor of the church during dedication ceremonies held throughout the year. The spirituality is accompanied by the knitter’s heartfelt compassion and love woven into each stitch and purl that makes up the shawl.
“Our hope is that people can feel the love. The shawl was given to them because somebody cared,” Fitzpatrick said. “Often when you are giving someone a shawl, you’re not sure what to say. But usually you don’t have to say anything.”
Fitzpatrick continued, quoting shawl recipient Mary Theriault’s testimony during the ministry’s recent 10th anniversary service held at the church: “The shawl says it all.”
For those familiar with the craft of knitting, the members of the ministry assure that the shawls are quite easy to assemble. “Knit three, purl three” is their mantra, symbolizing the significance of the number three in Christianity (such as the Holy Trinity). A particular brand of yarn is used consistently with color schemes that have specific meaning such as blues representing healing and reds signifying love and passion.
The ministry is funded by donations from members of the church. Over the years, the knitting has grown from not only creating shawls but also prayer pocket squares, blankets for babies born at Cary Medical Center and scarves given out each year to the church’s high school seniors.
While men have been grateful recipients of the shawls over the years, the ministry has yet to have a male member.
“We’d welcome any man to join our group,” Fitzpatrick declared. “We know there are lots of men who knit. It’s such a soothing, comforting pastime.”
And the shawls are not only meant for those who are ill. Anyone facing a difficult situation or simply seeking comfort is welcome to a shawl.
“They don’t cost anything,” Fitzpatrick said. “There is a quietness and warmth in each shawl. They can be used just for prayer or meditation.”
Anyone interested in obtaining a prayer shawl from Gray Memorial is encouraged to contact the church.
For more information about beginning a ministry, visit shawlministry.com.