When a family member is ill or a friend is in distress, Edna Peters picks up her knitting needles and yarn and begins to pray.
"I pray into the shawl," says the Charleswood resident about knitting small blankets for others. "I find it a centring activity, a quieting activity when I'm anxious about something."
Peters and the other 10 members of the intergenerational knitting group of Charleswood Mennonite Church meet monthly to knit shawls for people experiencing loss, illness or celebrating a significant milestone.
"When they're sick or in grief, I think it's the softness and just the idea of having God's arms around them with the shawl," says Martha Rempel, who co-ordinates the shawl program for the congregation of 300.
Over the past four years, the knitters have produced about 30 shawls for distribution in the congregation and beyond, knitting up donated yarn or purchasing their own skeins at a cost of about $20 a shawl, explains Rempel.
Modelled after a program developed a dozen years ago by Janet Bristow and Victoria Galo, two Catholic women from Connecticut, the prayer shawl program at Charleswood Mennonite Church is one of a dozen or so in Winnipeg, and among the thousands of groups across North America.
"It's overwhelming because we never meant for it to happen," says Bristow about the huge increase in the ministry in just a few years. "It's just a grassroots (movement.) As we started making (the shawls) and giving them away, it got passed around."
Instructions for making the blankets are available at www.shawlministry.com as well as in two published pattern books by Bristow and Galo, who are considering writing a third volume.
Bristow says the pair hatched the idea of the shawl ministry after taking a course together at the Women's Leadership Institute of Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn.
"Vicky just happened to be knitting," says Bristow in a telephone interview. "We thought (the shawls) were the perfect metaphor of what we had been studying, being wrapped in divine, motherly love."
The shawl ministry was initially developed as a way to pray for people experiencing distress or trauma in their lives, says Bristow. The original shawl pattern is a simple pattern of knit three, purl three, which repeats over and over, allowing the knitter to concentrate on prayers for the intended person while knitting. She says knitting the shawl over days and weeks is a deliberate act of prayer by the maker, while also providing the recipient with a sense of comfort and caring.
"It's tangible. It's something people can hold onto and know someone was praying for them," she says. "It's called a prayer shawl because the person making it was praying."
That practical aspect of the project appeals to Megan Friesen, a beginning knitter who recently joined the group at Charleswood Mennonite Church.
"You don't always know what to say (to someone in need) but you can give a shawl," says the St. Boniface College student.
Across the river from Charleswood, a group of eight knitters at St. Charles Roman Catholic Church have met weekly since July and already completed at least 50 shawls, says Bertha LaFleche, a member of the group.
"Anyone who needs any kind of spiritual help can use a shawl," she says. "The satisfaction comes in that we can connect with a person going through hard times."
Connecting with people in difficult times is the reason Winnipeg knitter Janice Ludberg asked her online knitting group to help her make shawls for Hospice and Palliative Care Manitoba.
They're called comfort shawls instead of prayer shawls to respect the universal nature of the non-profit organization. The shawls were part of a recent fundraising event and more will be handed out to clients.
"We'll keep them coming," says Ludberg, who posted requests for shawls in January and has already received more than a dozen finished ones. "I like to (knit) and it's nice to do something for someone else."
Whatever the motivation, sending prayers in the direction of someone in need is the essence of the shawl ministry, says Bristow, who manages the website and fulfils speaking engagements about the ministry in her spare time. She never dreamed a project that began with two knitting needles and a skein of yarn would grow into a worldwide movement of knitters across the generations and faith traditions.
"It is lovely to see everyone is there for one purpose," she says. "It doesn't matter about your age or gender or belief system. It crosses all lines."