On a brisk winter day last month, six women gathered in a cozy room at Sacred Heart Glyndon, a Roman Catholic church at 81 Sacred Heart Lane. Piled on a table were prayer shawls, lap robes and other crocheted and knitted items ready to be labeled, bagged and distributed.
The Prayer Shawl Ministry meeting was in session.
"We start with a prayer, then we work and talk and laugh," said Sister Helen Wiegmann, who coordinates the group as part of the church's outreach ministry.
Sacred Heart's Prayer Shawl Ministry began in 2009 at the suggestion of Owings Mills resident Betty Schneck. She had seen instructions online for crocheting prayer shawls, and she brought the idea to the church, where she is a longtime member.
"We put a notice in the bulletin and it grew from there," said Schneck, a retired nurse and a widow.
The group averages eight to 10 members, although not everyone attends the twice-monthly meetings. All the members are women, in a range of ages. Knowing how to crochet or knit is not a requirement to join.
"We'll teach you," said Schneck, who provides patterns and yarn and accepts whatever members make, from triangular shawls to long lap robes.
"There is no standard size. Members can crochet or knit any shape they like," she said. "We've even made scarves and hats for a Reisterstown crisis center that asked us to."
As informal as the Prayer Shawl Ministry sounds, it serves a serious purpose. Beyond providing handmade items to people who are sick or in need, there is a spiritual side that is deeply meaningful to group members.
A Sacred Heart label is sewn inside each finished item and a printed prayer is inserted in the bag with the item. Twice a year, the bagged items are blessed by a priest during Mass. They are laid out on a table for anyone to take. The remainders are given to a number of hospitals.
"It's all about prayer and giving," said Margaret Bell, a Reisterstown resident and widow who, at age 82, calls herself the oldest member but the one who has the best time. "It's a gift to have this group because it's something God wanted me to do."
"It's an opportunity to give back," said Judie Schaefer while working on a deep purple lap robe with a design of interlocking hands.
"I enjoy crocheting and I like making things for other people," said Georgene Batz, another member.
Said Sister Helen, "What I love about the group is that they are thinking of others. They are using their gifts and talent for someone else."
Schneck agrees. "We get as much out of this as the people who receive" an item, she said.
Indeed, when she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, she wore a prayer shawl herself. "It gave me warmth and it made me calm because it was blessed. I can't describe all the feelings it brought up."
Sacred Heart Glyndon is not the only religious institution in the area that has a Prayer Shawl Ministry.
There are similar groups at at least three other churches: Reisterstown United Methodist Church, All Saints' Episcopal Church in Reisterstown and Mt. Olive United Methodist Church in Randallstown.
If there is a national association of prayer shawl ministries, none of the local churches is aware of it or belong to any such organization. However, all seem to follow the same practices and that may well come from a grass-roots group called Prayer Shawl Ministry.
Victoria Cole-Galo and Janet Severi Briscow co-founded the grass roots group in 1998, the result of a program they took on applying feminist spirituality at The Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
"We wanted to share what we'd learned with other communities," said Cole-Galo, whose website, http://www.shawlministry.com, includes instructions, patterns, suggested prayers and a message board. The two women also publish a series of books on prayer shawl ministries.
"It's not just the knitting and crocheting, it's not just a craft project," Cole-Galo said, "It is a spiritual process."
Cole-Galo does not know the number of prayer shawl ministries. "It's very popular among churches," she said. Her website lists hundreds in the U.S. although thousands more exist that aren't listed. They're also popular abroad, from Canada to South Africa.
Cole-Galo believes prayer shawl ministries have grown over the years. She points to her shawl ministry website. "We started it through word of mouth and now we get millions of hits per year," she said.
All Saints' Episcopal Church's Prayer Shawl Ministry dates to 2006. Sally Kalbach, a Reisterstown resident and church member, started the group with four members and now has about a dozen, including high school students.
The group makes knitted or crocheted shawls and blankets, baby blankets and hats for infants and cancer patients. Recipients include hospice centers at Gilchrist, Carroll Hospital Center's Dove House, Northwest Hospital, University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center and Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
A label sewn inside identifies the church and the items are blessed once a month during services.
"It's God's love," said Kalbach. "You should see the notes we get from people who've received them, how much it meant to them. It brought them peace."
At Reisterstown United Methodist Church, Marion Yohn coordinates the Prayer Shawl Ministry. The Reisterstown resident and church member keeps detailed records of the group's output of shawls, stoles and lap robes since it was formed in 2007. All are blessed during services.
More than 20 states and five foreign countries have received items, from a missionary in Liberia to the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center.
"We've even sent knitted and crocheted helmet liners to the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan," Yohn said.
Founded in 2008, Mt. Olive United Methodist Church's Prayer Shawl Ministry also sends items to veterans' organizations. Among them are For the Love of a Veteran, for homeless veterans; and American Angels, which hooks together the crocheted squares the group makes into afghans for families of deceased soldiers.
"They get comfort from it," Jackie Burnham, a Granite resident, said of the items the group makes and that are blessed by the pastor.
"They can feel the warmth, the prayers," she said of recipients.
At Sacred Heart Glyndon, Selena Ihnatenko is a relatively new member of the Prayer Shawl Ministry. She joined in 2013 after teaching herself how to crochet. "I wanted to share. I saw a notice about the group within the church and it was perfect," she said.