Fifteen years ago Jo Malessa was working at a polling station one afternoon when she saw her neighbor from across the street, Barbara Smythe, doing some knitting.
Malessa asked what it was about. Smythe explained that it was a prayer shawl, something she did for her parish in Haddonfield.
It was a light bulb moment for Malessa. She took the idea to the assistant pastor at her own church, Epworth United Methodist Church in Palmyra.
“She thought it was a great idea,” Malessa said. “And we took off with it.”
To say that Epworth’s Prayer Shawl Ministry has been a success would be a mild understatement. The women knitting and crocheting shawls and lap robes have made more than 1,500 shawls since 2005.
Need a frame of reference for how many shawls that is?
If you gathered them all up and laid them out, beginning at the front door at Epworth, you would be able to make your way across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge to Lardner’s Point Park in Malessa’s home state of Pennsylvania.
“I’m a misplaced Pennsylvanian,” joked Malessa, who turns 85 on Monday. “I said I’d die before I came to New Jersey. Well, I’ve been dead for more than 40 years.”
Malessa has a great sense of humor in addition to leading a meaningful ministry at her church. The shawls that Malessa and her fellow ministry members – Barbara Beitz, Sandy Davis, Mary Griscom, Ann Magonigal, Claudia Naus, Cheryl Quickel, Kendal (Noelle) Rose, Liz Rosvold, Audrey Worthy and Bunny Zimmerman – have created with their own hands and a lot of yarn have helped comfort people in need.
While they also make celebratory shawls – for graduations, weddings and baptisms, among other events – the ministry members have made hundreds of shawls of comfort for people battling terminal illnesses or grieving loved ones.
It’s a rewarding missionary to be a part of, especially when Malessa reads the regular correspondences that arrive afterward.
“We get cards back telling us, ‘I took this to the hospital with me and it made me feel safe,’” she said. “That raises the hair on your arms. Those are all God moments, they’re not our moments.”
Malessa’s daughter, Joy, helped design the shawls pattern, “very simple and repetitive patterns,” the older Malessa said, done in “multiples of three, representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” The recipient of the shawl also receives a card and their name appears on the tag along with the message, “Tangible evidence of the love and prayers of our congregation.”
Malessa has a comprehensive record-keeping of each shawl and the ministry’s history.
“Everyone in the ministry is listed,” she began, “and we have a section of meeting notes, a section where we list requests for shawls, another lists the date of dedication and what shawls are dedicated on that date. We keep track that way.
“We have a record of who made the request, who it’s requested for, what the reason for the request is, and who is making it. And then it gets checked off when they’re done.”
When the shawls and lap robes are finished – the latter are delivered to Methodist Hospital in Philadelphia, to comfort those in need in hospital beds or awaiting a chemotherapy or ER visit in a cold hallway – each one is placed over the altar rail before a service and is dedicated and blessed before the pastor in front of the Epworth’s congregation.
“Because it’s the congregation that is presenting these shawls,” Malessa said. “We’re just the hands that do it.”
Originally the ministry concentrated on Epworth’s parishioners. But it didn’t take long for the dedicated women to expand their reach.
Several years ago a request came from Virginia, where a relative of a parishioner had fallen ill. Epworth’s Prayer Shawl Ministry added the woman’s name to their record book and immediately got to work.
Unfortunately the woman passed away. But that didn’t stop her husband from making the trip up from Virginia to visit Epworth United Methodist Church.
“He wore his wife’s prayer shawl the whole time,” Malessa said. “(He wore it) on the train on the way up, brought it to church and stood there and told us what it meant to her and to him, for her to have that shawl. He told us this shawl was in her favorite color. Now, we didn’t know that. We decide what color unless there’s a specific request, which is rare.
“That kind of story,” Malessa continued, “we hear that (all the time). ‘Oh, that’s my sister’s favorite color. How did you know that?’ We didn’t know. There are so many stories like that.”
God works in mysterious ways and has many loving and dedicated women in Palmyra serving him well.