FORT KENT, Maine — It’s often the gift straight from the heart that carries the most weight.

Just ask any of the scores of St. John Valley residents who have received a handmade prayer shawl crafted by one of a group of women in St. John Vianney Parish.

According to Louise Barresi, the group’s founder, this is not a typical knitting circle.

Rather, she said, the shawls they create are knit with love and prayers in every stitch because they know the recipients are suffering and in need of hope, courage and strength.

“A woman from New York sent me a [prayer] shawl a year ago when I was ill,” Barresi said. “It gave me the idea to start a ministry up here.”

The goal is simple: create hand-knitted shawls for area residents suffering from serious illnesses.

“When we started out, the shawls were just for cancer patients,” Barresi said. “But we soon found out there were so many people out there who are hurting who need our prayers [and] I placed three shawls just this morning.”

To date, the group has made and donated 118 shawls to oncology patients, critical care patients, nursing home residents and other people in the community in need of healing and prayers.

A member of the ministry does not just show up unannounced at a patient’s home, Barresi said. First, a family member is contacted, and a suitable time to present the gift is arranged.

It’s an emotional time.

“I always try to go with another one of the knitters,” Barresi said. “We always say a prayer with the recipient, and one of the girls who went with me was afraid she would cry. I told her that was OK because it shows she cares.”

Often, it is the strength of the recipients that strikes the group’s members.

“There was one woman who had cancer who had gone out of remission and when we took her a shawl she told us she wanted to make some for other people,” Barresi said. “She made 23 before she died.”

About 20 hours of work goes into a shawl, and each comes with a blessed prayer card compliments of the Rev. James Nadeau, pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, and the promise each member of the ministry will pray for the recipient daily.

“I felt that I wanted to do something with my time,” prayer shawl ministry member Joan Albert said. “I asked myself, ‘What have I done all day?’ and wanted to do something for others, so I was happy when Louise [Barresi] called me to knit.”

Albert said there is an immense feeling of satisfaction when a completed shawl is presented to its new owner.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “Our group is fantastic and really enthused about this.”

Fellow knitter Katherine “Kats” Pelletier agrees.

“Those who receive the shawls are so thankful and appreciative,” Pelletier said. “They are mostly people I know so it can be hard, but I love doing it — you really can’t find enough words to describe it.”

Barresi said recipients often contact individual knitters with updates on treatment and their conditions.

“That rapport is very important to us,” Barresi said. “We need to hear from people and how they are doing, and we know it helps them to talk to someone.”

While the group does accept donations to help defray the cost of yarn, Barresi said, much of the expense is met by the members themselves, who have no intention of stopping their special ministry anytime soon.

Quite the contrary, according to Barresi, who said the group will meet soon to establish some formal guidelines for itself.

“I’m having eye trouble and am not sure how much longer I can keep doing this,” the 79-year-old Barresi said. “I want to make sure there are guidelines for the next person who takes over.”

In the meantime, anyone who would like to make a donation or who knows of an individual who would benefit from one of the group’s prayer shawls may contact Barresi at 834-3125. “Your time is the most precious thing you have,” Barresi said. “If you do something to help someone, that is precious.”


Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.