NEW PALESTINE — The prayer shawls have wrapped around the shoulders of a man recovering from open heart surgery, of a young woman away at college and feeling homesick, of others who could use a touch of comfort and peace.

They’re handcrafted by women who enjoy knitting and crocheting. They may work on them from the passenger seat on a car trip or from the living room while watching television, but as they stitch each shawl they pray for the person who will receive it.

Once a month, the needle crafters gather at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine to work on the shawls together.

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“We make the prayer shawls for people in need, whether they’re sick or have a loss,” Nancy Hunnicutt said. “We hope they comfort whoever gets them and (that it) lets them know that no matter how bad they’re feeling, that there are people behind them praying.”

Hunnicutt said she loves these gatherings and never misses them. As the women work, they chat about children and grandchildren, teach each other new stitches, and enjoy the warmth of fellowship even as they create something to share that warmth with another person.

Joyce Ammerman said the teapot is always on. Nancy Hunnicutt brings the cookies.

“It’s like an old-time quilting bee, almost,” said Lois Dalton, who’s been part of the group for about five years.

Ammerman estimates the group began meeting not long after the church dedicated its building in February 2004.

“It was just a bunch of us ladies … talking about something we could do as a group,” she said. “It sounded like a good ministry, and it is.”

In the early days the shawls went to people in the congregation, but over the years their reach has expanded. Those in the congregation know where to find a shawl if they know of someone in need.

“You don’t have to ask for one … (and can) pass it out if you know somebody who needs one,” Dalton said.

Twice a year — on Mothers Day and at a “Blue Christmas” service designed for those struggling with sadness or loneliness during the holidays — completed prayer shawls are piled up front. The Rev. Mark Havel prays a blessing over them, and anyone at the service can take one for themselves or someone they know.

There’s no quota for how many shawls need to be on that pile. The time it takes to make one may depend on how difficult the stitch is. Members of the group simply add shawls to the stash when they’re done.

“It’s not a ‘we’ve got to crank them out’ type of thing … They’re all made with love,” Dalton said.

That love has sent shawls out of the state and out of the country, Hunnicutt said. While the group writes down the date, the giver and the recipient of each shawl, “We don’t know every direction they go,” she said.

As the reach of the shawls has expanded, so has the variety of projects the group stitches. Scarves for homeless people also have become part of the group’s work, as have fleece versions of the prayer shawls, given to patients at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.

“It just lets people know that they’re cared about and they’re not alone,” Ammerman said.

“They are loved by the family and patients that receive them. I think they are so … important to our mission here at St. Francis,” Shirley Tansy, who works in palliative care at the hospital, wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter. “We greatly appreciate all the hands that knit and sew threads of love and prayer in each stitch.”

The group also has begun making “finger labyrinths,” crocheted spiral circles that can be traced with a finger to focus while praying. It mimics the winding path mowed into the grass to form a walking prayer labyrinth north of the Cross of Grace building.

Recently the group began winding a piece of yarn, the same type of yarn used in a prayer shawl, around a cross. Each strand will be a lasting reminder of someone, somewhere, receiving comfort.

“We can continue to pray and remember (them),” Ammerman said. “It’s an ongoing thing.”

Stitching circle

The prayer shawl group meets at 2 p.m. the first Sunday of most months at Cross of Grace Lutheran Church in New Palestine. New stitchers are welcome, even if they don’t know how to knit or crochet yet. “The more the merrier,” Nancy Hunnicutt said. “We’ll gladly teach you.”

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Anne Smith is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at annesmith@greenfieldreporter.com