By Zenya Molnar, Contributing Writer
Northborough – In the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northborough, Sister Joan and Lee Zawacki serve at the forefront of the Shawl Ministry, a group of women of all ages who create prayer shawls for people who are ill and for those who are celebrating a joyous event, such as a wedding. The purpose of the Shawl Ministry, which meets twice a month, is to serve people who are experiencing an illness or a celebratory occasion through the comfort of a shawl that is blessed by the ministry.
Zawacki, a Northborough resident, formed the Shawl Ministry in October 2005, when she invited friends from a parish in Worcester to talk to the Women's Club of St. Rose about shawl-making. There was a lot of interest at the initial meeting, and two groups were formed; one meets during the day and the other in the evening. Zawacki said she was originally drawn to the colorful shawls when she saw some being displayed by a family life group at a conference in Worcester. Now St. Rose's Shawl Ministry consists of eight to 24 people who have given away over 400 shawls so far, of all colors and designs.
The shawls are special, because after each one is completed, it is passed around the group and touched and blessed individually by each member. Sometimes the women know to whom the shawl will be given, and other times it is anonymous, so they bless the shawls with prayers of healing, hope, comfort, strength and joy. When they know the recipient, they may choose a specific color or design, as colors are symbolic in prayer shawl ministry. For example, red means energy, strength, power, determination, love and courage, while gold symbolizes illumination and wisdom. Zawacki explained that the women in the group create shawls with their hands and hearts as a way for people to experience God, but the shawls are not given just to people who believe in God.
“It's a way for people to feel that touch without knowing that it is specifically God. It has a lot of meaning for those of us [creating the shawls].”
Tina Gagne, a member of the ministry who has been knitting since she was 6 years old, said that knitting shawls is a perfect way to make God's love tangible, and that the shawls always go to where they were meant to be.
“I came to realize that they really bring peace and comfort to people no matter what,” she explained.
Co-leader Sister Joan, who grew up in Northborough and currently lives in Fitchburg, shared one of her most touching memories. She made a large white shawl, decorated with little gold bells, for a couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. She presented the shawl to them by wrapping it around them as they stood at the altar after renewing their vows.
The shawls have also been given to many sick people, including a young mother who passed away, but whose daughter keeps the shawl as a memory of her mother.
Prayer shawls are far-reaching and affect every age group. One project that Zawacki particularly enjoyed was knitting shawls for veterans at the Coleman House in Northborough and presenting them to the residents on Veterans Day. The Shawl Ministry brought their patriotic red, white and blue shawls to the veterans and held a service, which really touched the men.
Recipients or family members of people who have received shawls send thank-you notes to the ministry. Sister Joan said that people describe how the shawls give them strength or how they feel empty after someone close passes away, but they feel comforted when wearing the shawl.
The shawls are available to be taken at anytime. They are placed in a beautiful antique case located in the corridor of the church in order to encourage people to come and help themselves. When people take a shawl, they are instructed to fill out a card stating the date, purpose and to whom the shawl will be given.
The group is very open and invites anyone who likes to knit to join, even if the person is not a member of the parish. The Shawl Ministry bonds the community and allows people to socialize and connect with one another in a supportive and fun environment.
Zawacki said she knits as a way to express her spirituality and finds it a form of meditation. She said that each stitch is her mantra, like “faith, hope, and love,” and that praying for a person or virtue, centers her while knitting. Then when the larger group prays for the shawl, it brings a sense of community to the finished product.
“I think people just feel loved wrapped in these shawls,” she said. “You know other people are thinking of you, and that somehow lifts up your spirit.”
New members are welcome to join the Shawl Ministry, which meets on the second Tuesday of each month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and the first and third Thursday of the month from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Family Life Center, St. Rose of Lima Parish in Northborough.