Red Brick church hosting quilting event Saturday
The local Mennonite churches are rich with history, steeped in tradition, and committed to assisting others, whether in communities close to home or on far-away continents.
If they see a need and they can help, they will.
One of the activities that combines all three, tradition, history and helping the needy, is the congregating of women in church basements across the country to sew or quilt together. Many of them are following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers, while enjoying a time of fellowship.
Both Cornerstone Community Church and the Niagara United Mennonite Church have sewing groups that now concentrate on making warm quilts for those in need. There are members who remember their mothers setting an example and drawing them into the gatherings to stitch, socialize and acquire a life-long commitment to helping others.
At Cornerstone, two groups of women meet on different mornings, with essentially the same goals. Although they worship at what is called the Orchard Park campus on Hunter Road, they quilt, as some have for decades, in a bright and spacious basement of the building on the corner of Niagara Stone Road and Field Road.
The Monday morning group is the original, with some of the more senior women of the church, those whose mothers might have been there from the beginning. Some can remember the days of the very fine hand-stitching of quilts that were considered a work of art, and being told to rip out their work if it didn’t meet the high standards expected of them.
The methods of making the quilts have also evolved for all groups over the years, from the perfect lines of tiny stitches, to finally deciding to give up hand-quilting to concentrate on what is now putting squares or strips together, sewing them to a backing, with batting in between, and then knotting or tying them with yarn. It’s simple, quick, and is a good solution when the goal is to make as many warm blankets for those in need whose lives are improved by having something warm to wrap around them. It’s also easier on older, arthritic hands, says Isolde Kroeker, the only member of both morning groups.
Helen Klassen and Erna Hiebert, two of the women who have been coming the longest on Monday mornings, say the group began meeting 70 years ago or more, and has continued through the generations. Klassen, now 85, remembers coming with her mother as a young girl.
They recall there were times there was a question of the group continuing, “but new members always came along,” says Kroeker.
Most of the material for the blankets is donated from the community, or from the thrift shop in St. Catharines run by the Mennonite Central Committee.
“This isn’t about artistry, it’s about practicality for the people in poor countries who need them,” explains Kroeker. When the women were hand-quilting, they could make one or two a month. Now they can make four or five each morning they meet, with women working together in pairs.
As she says that, Kroeker holds up some finished quilts, and although artistry may not be their goal, it’s inherent in all they do. The desire to make attractive quilts, while using their time efficiently, must be deep-rooted.
Although all the women help pin the finished pieces together, Hiebert, the unofficial group leader — the women look to her for advice and direction — does a lot of the sewing at home, with patches or strips on one side, and often a flat sheet on the back.
She and Kroeker hold up two beautiful quilts, with one side made of what was once a white sheet.
“We had a stack of white flat sheets donated by Queen’s Landing Inn,” Kroeker explains. Most were given to farm workers, but there were some left over. “White is not practical, so I took them home and tie-dyed them, and Erna chose materials for the front that matched.”
The group doesn’t meet during the summer, and that’s an opportunity for Hiebert, at 87, to get some tops put together for tying. Although she is hesitant to talk about the extent of her work, the other women say she puts together about 100 quilts a year, including some baby quilts which go to Wells of Hope, to be sent to Guatemala.
Klassen and Heibert both say quilting is a good way to give back to the MCC, which collects the quilts to be distributed, for the aid it gave to their families and others more than 50 years ago, both before they came to Canada
and when they were immigrating.
Barbara Hienrichs, although she has adult children herself, is referred to as “one of the younger ones,” by other members. “I love it,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from these women.”
The Tuesday group grew from what members refer to as Breakaway projects, organized to attract young moms who could take advantage of the child care offered, while engaging in activities that included cooking, baking, exercise, sewing and crafts, and giving them a time to socialize away from busy lives caring for their families.
Some of those women just kept on stitching, and as long-time member Dori Wiens explains, although they might have been a younger group when they started, maybe a decade or more, they too are aging.
“A few of us enjoyed the sewing, and thought it would be fun to continue meeting. So we picked a day, and it’s evolved from there.”
They are following an age-old tradition of their church, she says, many of which have sewing or quilting groups.
They too began with hand-quilting, and then moved to rag quilts — using denim and cotton squares, with unfinished edges. Then the quilts would be laundered to fray the edges, creating an attractive look, but it’s also time-consuming, because of the many washes necessary before they were completed, says Wiens.
Now, they mostly rely on knotting as well, and donated materials, which makes the quilts less expensive and less time-consuming.
“We’re not making these to enter in a contest, we’re making them to donate. It also means that more women can join — they don’t have to be great sewers. They can just come to socialize and help out,” says Wiens, who describes the weekly sessions as the “women’s getaway. We have a great time, getting together and making quilts for a good purpose. And we’re not exclusive — although it was originally a church group, we welcome anybody who wants to join.”
Their quilts are donated wherever there is need — to adults suffering from health problems; to a reserve up north for Indigenous people; to a group called Youth Unlimited, for young people who drop in to the centre; and young, single moms for their babies.
Eleven quilts were donated to Newark Neighbours at Christmas, and some also go to the MCC, says Wiens.
They’ve recently completed two quilts for the MCC’s Great Winter Warm-Up, an event this Saturday in churches across Canada, in an attempt to collect 6,500 quilts to distribute to those in need.
They have also made quilted items such as diaper and toiletry bags to be sold at fundraisers..
They recently made a quilt for a young wife whose husband was killed in a car collision — she gave them some of his clothing, and they used it to make a quilt she could cherish, with his sports jerseys on one side, and the other made from dress shirts.
Although they are always looking for ways to help others, “the point of the group is also to share our stories, pray together, and support each other through our lives, the good, the bad and the sad. It is a safe place for anyone to open up, and feel confident they can,” says Wiens. “We’ve become good friends — it’s a special group.”
The Niagara United Mennonite Church women also meet on a Tuesday morning, to quilt, socialize and enjoy a coffee break together. They are gearing up for Saturday’s Great Winter Warm-Up, just one of many events planned to celebrate the MCC’s 100th anniversary. The Red Brick Church, as it’s known locally, is welcoming men, women and children to a Quilt Tying Bee to help reach the MCC goal, by making as many quilts as possible by noon on Saturday.
Margaret Goerz, at 81, says she thinks the group goes back 40 or 40 years. It actually started with enough women to have four groups, but as they got older and the number of members dwindled, it was reduced to just one, and they too are now tying
If you can show up at the Red Brick Church even for just an hour, Saturday between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., all help will be welcome, and coffee, tea and refreshments will be available.
Twelve quilting racks will be set up for tying the comforters, which have already been put together.
Donations of new quilts, still in their package, are also welcome.