By Tony DeGol
Listening to the Gospel at Mass is one thing. Living the Gospel every day is another.
Some charming women at Saint Mary Parish in Nanty Glo are putting the Word of God in action by providing physical symbols of prayer, support, and warmth to those battling cancer or other serious illnesses.
In the words of one of the ladies, it is like giving them a hug.
For more than three years, the women have engaged in a prayer shawl ministry at the parish.
It all started when the friend of some of the ladies was diagnosed with cancer. The women did a skein of yarn on a shawl and presented it to her.
“It just meant so much to her,” recalled Diane Kline, one of the ring leaders of the Saint Mary prayer shawl ministry.
Then Renie Bracken entered the scene and taught the ladies how to crochet. Before too long, they started making shawls galore and giving them to very deserving individuals.
“The more we did it, it just kept growing and growing and growing, and we’ve given about 65 shawls out within about three years,” Kline said.
The feedback from the recipients is quite a reward.
“They’ve just said it gives them a warm feeling,” added Kline. “We like to say they’re getting a hug from all of us whenever they put this shawl on.”
Joyce Wolfe surely agrees with that statement. She is among the delightful women who make the shawls, but she was also the first recipient of one.
Imagine her surprise when the group was deciding who would receive the inaugural shawl, and they voted for her.
“I was so excited – we all cried,” Wolfe shared. “I wore that prayer shawl and I still do to all my chemo treatments, and everyone at the cancer center just thinks it’s such a wonderful idea. Everybody comes over to look at it all the time.”
The shawl offers a feeling that cannot be measured.
“Just knowing that all of the prayers and the love are wrapped around you during the treatment means so much,” Wolfe added. “I don’t wear it just at chemo. There are times I’m feeling down and I wear it at home because I feel all of the love and prayers in that shawl, and that means an awful lot.”
Judy Toth is another member of the ministry, and the prayer shawls have certainly touched her family.
Her sister-in-law passed not long ago, but the shawl provided great comfort to her while she struggled with COPD.
Presently, Toth’s daughter, Gina, who resides in Connecticut, is battling bladder cancer. The women selected a shawl to give to her.
“She was so excited,” stated Toth as she fought back tears. “She’s just such a sweet person.”
Each shawl includes a tag that says “Handmade with Love,” and is presented in a gift bag with tissue.
The pastor of Saint Mary, the Very Reverend Leonard Voytek, VF, blesses each shawl.
His appreciation for the ministry is off the charts.
“I think this prayer shawl ministry is really an expression of faith – faith in God, and it’s really an expression of love for others,” Father Voytek observed. “So what these ladies do is really a great witness to the sick in our community, to those suffering, to those in need. So many lives have been touched by these shawls, but also touched by the faith, the prayers, and love of these ladies.”
The reach of the ministry is not limited to the parish. The women give shawls to Nanty Glo residents regardless of their faith tradition.
And notably, they said some folks have actually returned to the Catholic Church after being exposed to the ministry and realizing how much the faith community cares.
“I think this is really an expression of what Church is all about and how Church can make a difference in the lives of others,” Father Voytek added.
Without question, the ministry has also impacted the women who are engaged.
“It touches mostly the people who work on these shawls because we get to pray together and we socialize too,” Bracken commented. “It’s just a wonderful ministry. It touches you. It just has to.”
Added Toth: “We are like one big family.”
And no one should feel intimidated about joining the ministry — even if one has never held a crochet needle.
“They hardest one I had to teach was a left-hander,” Bracken mentioned. “Her mother had tried to teach her and couldn’t do it so we got together and we figured a way out, and she learned how to crochet. So if she can learn to crochet, anyone can.”
Father Voytek hopes the ministry will continue to thrive at Saint Mary. He cannot hold back his pride for the women and their inspiring service.
“In a world where there’s so much negativity and so much bad news, they literally live out the Gospel,” he stressed. “They bring good news, they bring hope, they bring joy to people by their love and their faith. It is the Gospel at work.”
[Top photo: Very Reverend Leornard Voytek, VF, Pastor of Saint Mary Parish, poses with women from the parish’s prayer shawl ministry.]
[Second photo: (left to right) Diane Kline, Renie Bracken, and Jeanie Berdomas work on prayer shawls.]
[Third photo: The first shawl made as part of the ministry. It was given to Joyce Wolfe.]
[Fourth photo: Gina, daughter of Judy Toth, proudly wears the shawl given to her.]