MANITOWOC — After teaching herself to crochet in 1960, Janet Paszkiewicz spent countless hours over the next four and one-half decades crocheting doilies, tablecloths and related items.
But it wasn’t until 2006 that she crocheted her first prayer shawl.
Now, 12 years later, she’s still handcrafting the roughly 5-foot-by-2-foot prayer shawls at the rate of about one per week — all in the name of providing comfort to those in need.
“It’s good to do things to help others,” said Paszkiewicz, 79, of Manitowoc. “And I’m an energetic person. I can’t just sit around. So that energy gets put to good use.”
Paszkiewicz is among the charter members of the St. Francis of Assisi Prayer Shawl Ministry, which was started in 2006 by coordinator Laurale Stern.
The ministry’s membership includes about 50 women. Stern, Paszkiewicz and many in the group are parishioners, but “anyone who likes to knit or crochet and wants to comfort people” is welcome to participate, Stern said.
Meetings are held the first Tuesday of each month at the St. Francis of Assisi main office, 601 N. Eighth St., Manitowoc. Gatherings start and finish with a prayer, and for the duration of the time spent together members socialize while creating prayer shawls. Most members also spend time working on them at home as time permits.
Completed prayer shawls are blessed by a priest and made available at the main office to anyone, most often those seeking comfort for themselves or another person. Each shawl comes with a small St. Francis of Assisi medal, prayer card and the name of the person who created the shawl.
“We’ve made a lot of prayer shawls since we started,” Stern said. “I stopped counting at 4,000. We must be up to at least 5,000 by now. It seems like we’re always almost out of them.”
Prayer shawls are free, but donations in yarn or funds are accepted to help provide for future shawls. Smaller pieces of yarn are utilized for hand-sized prayer cloths.
Stern said she’s routinely amazed at the skill and passion that go into the creation of prayer shawls.
“They have amazing colors and patterns. They’re just like pieces of art,” said Stern, noting a shawl typically gets created over the course of eight to 10 hours.
“Besides reading, all my spare time is crocheting,” said Paszkiewicz, who estimates she has made about 600 prayer shawls in the past 12 years. “It’s something I enjoy and it’s important to me. I ask God to bless every person who’s getting one,” she said.
Some shawls are intended to match the time of year, while others are based simply on the creator’s preference. Green and gold shawls, designed to match the Green Bay Packers colors, are popular as well.
The ministry also donates red, white and blue shawls to Holy Family Memorial’s veterans hospice program. “It brings tears to their eyes when they receive one of those shawls,” Stern said.
“There are a lot of heartfelt stories with the prayer shawls,” she added. “Some of the most touching stories are people who’ve gotten a disease or are dying and request to be buried with it. That has happened five to 10 times in the 12 years we’ve been doing this.”
Stern served as a parish nurse, first at Sacred Heart and then at St. Francis of Assisi after the merger. She learned about prayer shawls while attending nursing conferences.
“I just thought it was a really good way to bring people into a ministry where they can make shawls to give comfort and connect with other people,” Stern said.
Stern acknowledged she’s “surprised the ministry has become what it has become over the years. I had no idea we’d get to the point where we are running out of prayer shawls each month.”
For more information about the St. Francis of Assisi Prayer Shawl Ministry, contact Stern at (920) 683-3966 or [email protected], or call the St. Francis of Assisi office at (920) 684-3718.