'You have no idea what it means to me': P.E.I. prayer shawls comfort sick and troubled

We take you to Stratford, P.E.I., where a group of women from Our Lady of Assumption parish make prayer shawls for anyone seeking comfort from illness, addiction, or grief.
Members of the Our Lady of Assumption Prayer Shawl Ministry in Stratford, PEI, wrapped in prayer shawls they made for people dealing with illness, addiction, or grief. L-R: Carol Gabanna, Paula MacKenzie, Pat MacIntyre, Teresa Hennebery (Submitted by Sarah Keaveny Vos)

Gerri Corcoran is the kind of woman you want to be friends with. She's got an easy laugh, an open heart and a vibrant personality that warms you to her instantly.

Not long ago, Corcoran's life was filled with family, friends and fun adventures. But last June, after a feeling a little tired and rundown, Corcoran had some blood work done.

The news that came back was bad. Corcoran had acute myeloid leukemia. Her doctor told her to pack a bag and head immediately to Halifax where a hospital bed was waiting for her and a medical team was standing by to begin her treatments.

Gerri Corcoran wrapped in her prayer shawl while undergoing treatment for leukemia (Submitted by Sarah Keaveny Vos)

Life had changed in an instant.

When Corcoran's friend Pat heard the news, she reached out to Teresa Hennebery from the Our Lady of Assumption Prayer Shawl Ministry in Stratford, P.E.I.. Pat asked if she might have a prayer shawl to bring comfort to her friend in hospital.

Corcoran's voice cracks with emotion when she recalls receiving the gift.

"So she arrived within four days of diagnosis with a beautiful, my favourite colour blue, prayer shawl. I wore that shawl every day, every day for almost 4 months." 

A prayer shawl is like a wearable hug. The shawls are made for people going through difficult times like illness, addiction or the death of a loved one. As the shawl is being made, the knitter offers prayers of comfort, healing and love for the person who will receive it.

Sometimes that is a person they know, but most times it is not.

A divine nudge

Hennebery started the Our Lady of Assumption Prayer Shawl Ministry in March 2016.  Her sister, who is part of a ministry in Ancaster, Ont., had suggested that Hennebery start one in P.E.I. Hennebery liked the idea, but felt busy with family and career commitments, so she put the idea aside.

But one day, Hennebery received a sign that she just couldn't ignore. It felt like a gentle, divine nudge.

Each shawl has a charm and a label. People often rub the charm for comfort. (Submitted by Sarah Keaveny Vos)

"The summer of 2014, I was on vacation and I happened to wander into a used bookstore and the first book that I put my hand on was 'How to make a prayer shawl' So I thought, that was a pretty strong message, that maybe I should do something about my sister's encouragement over the years."

Hennebery put a notice in her church bulletin and wondered if anyone would reply. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. Eleven people attended that first meeting, including life-long knitter Pat MacIntyre.

"I think when I heard the word knitting, I thought, okay, I can do that. I didn't know what to expect at all and I was kind of overwhelmed to find out what it was all about. You think you're not worthy to make something for someone," said MacIntyre.

Paula MacKenzie was drawn to the group's mission right away. MacKenzie crocheted her shawls and saw the impact they have on those who receive them.

"There's a special bond when a person receives the prayer shawls [...] When we meet with recipients after they've had their shawl for a while to enjoy — the word that keeps coming back is 'I have such feelings of peace, I have such feelings of love' and 'let me give you a hug,'" said MacKenzie. 

Teresa Hennebery found this book about prayer shawls in a second hand book store. It was a moment of serendipity that prompted her to found the ministry at her parish in Stratford, PEI. (Submitted by Sarah Keaveny Vos)

"Strangers that you've only met a time or two but now every time you see them, whether at the grocery store, at church, on the street you get a hug or you give a hug"

Carol Gabanna knits her shawls with yarn in bright colours to help lift people's spirits.

"You know we've all had someone perhaps with cancer and we make meals for them and they're very wanted and valued at the time, but they're gone in a day. Making the shawls, it's something lasting," said Gabanna.

Gabanna said she wants every person who receives a prayer shawl to feel the message carried within it: "You are important and you are loved."

Once a year their church holds a special "Blessing of the Shawls" service where the colourful creations are displayed on the altar and even hung from the rafters. The shawls are blessed by the parish priest and the entire congregation offers prayers of help and healing.

The power of the shawls

Since March 2016, the Our Lady of Assumption Prayers Shawl Ministry has given out 290 prayer shawls. Hennebery is happy the ministry has brought people comfort and love.

"I think we're all here on Earth to give and I believe that there's really nothing better for us as human beings than to give to other people, to make us feel better."

Every shawl is blessed by a priest. (Sarah Keaveny Vos)

MacIntyre is happy that her simple stitches have helped comfort people through difficult times in their lives.

"That's the best kind of gift. I'd rather they not know me, but know what I put into it. I don't need thanks or acknowledgement or anything like that. No, whatever goes into the shawl the prayers, the thoughts, that's what's important — not me."

After several months of good health, Corcoran recently had to return to the hospital in Halifax. Her leukemia returned. She wrapped her shawl was around like a coat of armour and prepared to do battle once again. 

"I can't thank those ladies enough for doing this for so many people. Because I know what that shawl meant to me. It's the people that are sick that really, really know what that does. The whole thing around my shoulders was like a big prayer because I know it was made by these women with love and prayers and hoping that you were going to be well," said Corcoran.

"To you ladies, it's awesome. Just awesome."


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