“Mere des petites besognes” (Mother of Tiny Tasks) became the nickname of Sr. Josephine Gignac de Portneuf, one of the co-founders in 1904 of the Soeurs Antoiniennes de Marie, established to “take care of the priests and students of the Seminary of Chicoutimi” and to “provide for the education of toddlers who might one day themselves be called to the priesthood.”
Sr Josephine (the only girl in a family of 18 children!) spent her life devoted to serving the needs of others.
I was reminded of this self-effacing servant when I learned about a group of ladies at St. Ignatius Parish in Winnipeg, many of them widowed, who work to provide unique quilts which are then given to longer-term patients at the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with some of these people as they sat together quilting in the St. Ignatius Educational Center and to learn about how they see their work.
There are two distinctive features of this program. First, the quilts are individual and unique and secondly, the ladies never meet the children to whom these quilts are given, this second feature a hospital requirement.
“We like this because it’s anonymous,“ commented Leslie, the lady who designs the quilts which everyone shares in making. “This way we sort of take it on faith that the children and their parents value the quilts and the love we put into making them.”
Chantal, one of the younger ladies involved in this ministry added, “Hospital rooms can be rather drab. These colourful quilts can brighten up a room and, we hope, also light up the lives of the kids, their parents and the doctors and nurses. And then when the kids are better, they take home a souvenir of their time in hospital.”
Every week, members of the quilting group work together for a few hours. They continue working on quilt patches at home when they have time. Val Forrest, the co-ordinator of the Education Center and a quilter herself, told me, “There are also some ladies who make the quilts who never come in to work together with us. But they share in this work even more anonymously. One of them is a lady battling cancer who sees this work as a way she can serve the community.”
Each individual patch is 11” x 11” to standardize the components. Sewn together, they are made into quilts that are about 3’ x 4.5’. Leslie is always on the lookout for designs that can be incorporated into the quilts. “Colouring books are often a great source for these designs,” Leslie shared, with a smile. “I can’t let my grandchildren see the books since they’d want to colour them!”
I saw a number of quilts-in-progress, each with its own theme. One completed quilt was composed of a parliament of owls. “We have to hide this one from Fr. Obrigewitsch,” Val confided with a laugh. “He’s a well-known owl-phile!” Fr. Frank Obrigewitsch, S.J., is Pastor of St. Ignatius Parish. “Sometimes people do want to buy the quilts but we won’t sell them.”
One of the quilters, Cathy, worked quietly for most of my visit but towards the end, she looked up and shared, “We’re often told that in life you have to take it one step at a time. When you make a quilt, you literally do it one stitch at a time. Doing this creates a kind of mindful quietness that I really like.”
Chantal agreed. “It’s a kind of prayer, a meditation, as you sew these quilts.”
Indeed, it is a prayer that these ladies do. Their quiet, unseen service very much reflects St. Ignatius’s ideal of being “a contemplative in action.” And were Sr. Josephine still here, I am certain she would nod in modest approval.
All photos courtesy of Johnston Smith.