Florida Catholic

A shawl that warms the heart

Shawl Ministry comforts those in need.

By: Heather Felton


   (Venice - May. 22) With a prayer for the guidance the Blessed Mother, the woman was wrapped in a soft tan shawl decorated with beads and charms. The unexpected gift was offered as a prayer for recent family troubles and that those troubles may soon come to an end.

Dangling from the fringe were beads with the letters of her children’s first names, a Bible, a decade of the rosary, a smiley face and a broken shell for the pain she is experiencing.

Then, with several of her friends laying their hands on her, the women prayed for her that she may find comfort in the shawl and the prayers of hope and love that accompany it.

The concoction of soft yarn can be called a peace shawl, comfort shawl or prayer shawl. But for this woman and thousands of others who have received one of these shawls, not only were they given a beautiful piece of handiwork, they also received a tangible expression of prayer and comfort.

That is the reason behind the Shawl Ministry for program creators Victoria Galo and Janet Bristow.

In 1998, shortly after the two women graduated from the Women's Leadership Institute at The Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, they originated this program, reports the ministry’s Web site.

During their studies, Galo said recently, they had been challenged to take their leadership skills and strengths and use them to help others. Both she and Bristow had previous, but different, shawl experiences and, after talking about them, realized the positive power in it. The Shawl Ministry was born and their first recipient was a friend going through a divorce.

The woman, Galo said, was overwhelmed by the gesture and the thought that “all her ‘sisters’ had prayed for her.”

The ministry grew from there and can be found in the Venice Diocese where Galo’s mother, Gladys Cole, has launched a Shawl Ministry at Epiphany Cathedral Parish, Venice.

Each week, she and about 15 other women meet at the Cathedral library where they ceremoniously wash their hands, pray and light a candle before beginning to knit or crotchet the shawls. They also have discussions about different women of Scripture, which, Cole said, is meant to be an educational component of the afternoon.

In knitting the shawls, Cole said, the pattern of knit three, pearl three is symbolic of the Holy Trinity and the Holy Family. By doing it over and over, she said, “your knitting really is a prayer whether you know who you’re giving the shawls to or not….It’s a prayerful experience.”

Proudly, Cole said her daughter, Galo, has knitted more than 300 shawls through this ministry. She has only completed about 60, she said.

Although she is creating shawls for the wives of all the diocese’s deacons, Cole said she also knits and prays for people she doesn’t know. But just because she doesn’t know them personally, the shawl was still created with that person in mind, she said.

“Sometimes I have a sense of the person it’s going to go to even though we haven’t met,” Cole said. “And it’s the same for my daughter. So, feminine intuition is a big thing.”

Once the knitting is completed, the knitter adds little charms to the tassels at each end to personalize the shawl for its recipient. Although she adds different things for each person, based on their personality or what little she may know about them, there are certain things she always adds: a silver thread symbolizing a silver lining, a bell for grounding and a sea shell to remind the owner of baptism and the Gulf water we often take for granted.

“They know it was made in love,” she said. “Prayer and positive energy goes into the shawls.”

If the recipient is also Catholic, Cole adds a rosary decade and little cross for prayer. Adding the rosary decade wasn’t her idea, Cole said.

“This comes from Our Lady. That’s the Holy Spirit,” she said. “I strongly believe in the Holy Spirit.”

Once completed, the shawls can go to just about anyone. They have been gifts to abused women, the hospitalized, people with serious or critical illnesses, men and women in need of spiritual strength or simply as a show of love, prayer and appreciation.

“Everyone is very receptive to receiving these shawls,” Cole said. “To me it’s like having God’s arms around you, Jesus’ arms around you.”

“You give it (the shawl) and let the Holy Sprit do the work,” she said.

As with the woman who received the soft tan shawl, when it is delivered, the knitter wraps the shawl around the recipient and says a prayer for his or her wellbeing.

“The shawl says I love you, I’m here for you and I’m praying for you,” Galo said.

Shawls have been sent around the world, she added, as far away as Afghanistan, Portugal and South America. They have also been carried, via the winter residents, to people in the north, such as Canada, Cole said.

“They (the winter residents) will go back to their communities in the late spring and bring it back with them,” Galo said. “This is how the ministry spreads.”

Because the ministry is ecumenical in design, it isn’t just taking place at Catholic parishes. People of many other faiths have heard of the ministry through word of mouth or the Internet and brought it back to their congregations. This includes Christians of all denominations, Jews and even a Buddhist and a member of a nature-based religion, Galo said.

“It breaks down barriers of religious differences,” she said. “It is women coming together and dialoguing about their faith and their families.”

As the Shawl Ministry has taken off, Galo said they have received more requests for shawls than they can handle. To deal with the demand, there is a place on the ministry’s Web site where requests can be posted. Knitters then read the requests and volunteer to take up their needles to make the shawl requested, she said.

Anyone interested in joining the Shawl Ministry at Epiphany Cathedral or starting a ministry at their own parish can attend the ministry knitting/crocheting sessions at the Cathedral library 1-2:30 p.m. on the fourth Friday of each month, or by going to www.shawlministry.com. Anyone is welcome, even if they do not know how to knit or crochet.




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