A special group of women in the Ladies of Charity group at St. John the Baptist Parish in Kenmore sew, knit, crochet and assemble layettes, infant clothing sets, for needy newborns in Western New York and Canada.
This group has been gathering in the parish hall to share friendship, faith and patterns once a week since 1963. They are rich in community, creativity and pride. Doyenne Zena Allen has seen it all.
"I'm the oldest; I'm 93," Allen said looking up from the triangular baby wrap she is knitting. "I was the second person in this group. The next is 92. We have 185 years between us." Allen was awarded a Lifetime Volunteer award for Church service a few years ago.
The group includes families, generations and a multitude of talents. Peggy Kolber, with her mother, Florence Kedzierski, work on one side of a stretch of tables. Three sisters Marita Spaulding, Mary Draves and Joanna Van Dewater, are active members.
Idle minds won't be found in this workshop. Most of the crafters participate in online communities, where they find and share new patterns.
Mary O'Shei has been involved in the specialized ministry for almost 20 years. She said that the group loves having this space to meet, with a cupboard designated for their supplies, built by Father Richard Reina, former pastor. She also said that Father Michael Parker, present pastor, is very supportive.
Every member brings and shares ideas, techniques, fabric and fiber. Kedzierski said experienced knitters don't need much direction. She remembers Irene Couture, a legend since her passing in 2010.
"Irene did everything from memory," Kedzierski said. "She was wonderful. I've only been around six, seven years. I used to sit next to Irene, and she used to help me. She was a treasure."
Couture's daughter, Rosalie Kniedel, continues the tradition.
The room is set up with tables and donated sewing machines. The group depends on the technical expertise of Connie Weise.
"Connie goes and checks them out, and if it works, we take it," O'Shei said.
Seamstress Natalie Bialy is working on a bright patchwork bib-in-progress which will match a gown. O'Shei said Bialy artistically arranges leftover scraps into pieced fabric, and then cuts out the bibs.
"It started because we don't waste anything," O'Shei said. "We use all the scraps. We are a very thrifty group."
The room is filled with the whirr of sewing machines and conversation is punctuated with laughter. Then, prayer cards are passed, and the room hushes. Voices rise together in prayer dedicating their work. They always conclude with an "Our Father" and "Hail Mary."
Prayer shawl groups are found in many Western New York parishes. Their members knit and crochet prayer shawls, which are then blessed and presented to comfort many who are experiencing difficult life transitions.
This parish group is distinctive for its focus on creating layettes. About 150 completed sets are provided each year to various charities, including the Ladies of Charity Center on Broadway, and refugee assistance programs, including the Priscilla Project of Jericho Road Community Health Care and Casa de Norte in Fort Erie. The layettes are provided regardless of faith traditions of recipients.
The layettes are one-of-a-kind. Each includes a handmade crib blanket, sweater set, two nightgowns, and Bialy's signature bibs.
The parish hosts a "Christmas in July" giving tree, providing practical items such as diapers, crib sheets and play clothes. Members match items and gather each set in a large bag, tuck in a card with the group and parish name, and tie it with a blue or pink ribbon, before they are delivered.
"And if you notice, our babies are very colorful," says O'Shei. "Our babies are very bright and beautiful."
These Ladies of Charity let their energy, productivity and yarn spill over. Last summer, the women collaborated on a quilt for Fresh Start, which provides household items to individuals such as refugees, or persons recently released from prison who are beginning a new life.
Each member of the group contributed at least one knitted or crocheted foot-square patch to the project.
O'Shei said that since the group doesn't meet when school is closed, "it was a really nice assignment to keep us busy and out of mischief this summer."
The group will occasionally receive thanks from a family who was especially touched by a gift. These women are happy to know that children will start out life's journey with such comfort.
"This is a really good group," O'Shei said.