Providing warmth for cancer patients

Coquitlam church crochets and knits prayer shawls for sufferers around the world

Just the mention of thank-you notes knitters and crocheters of the St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Coquitlam prayer shawl ministry receive has some of them dabbing their eyes.

“It tears your heart out,” says Laura Hughes, one of the founders of the group that has been making shawls for cancer patients for five years. “When we started this I had no idea.”

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Hughes says several years ago the Catholic Women’s League of Canada asked its members to knit prayer shawls for reconciliation efforts that were being made across the country. Hughes did so but wondered if there was something that could be done on a local level. When she approached parish priest Father Craig Scott he instantly suggested cancer patients could benefit.

“It’s just that it’s so prevalent,” says Scott of the deadly disease. “I’ve seen what chemo and radiation does. Part of that whole process is fear and loneliness. There are the times even the caretakers can’t do everything, they have to leave. I just thought that prayer and what the shawls represent, the warmth that goes around like [a hug], that the prayer shawls can be there when others cannot be there with them.”

Since then the shawls and lap blankets made by the group of about a dozen women have made their way to 275 recipients across Canada and 16 other countries.

It really hit home for Hughes in its early days. Someone called to request a shawl for a woman in Winnipeg who had been given 24 hours to live. So Hughes shipped one by courier immediately. A year and 18 chemo treatments later, Hughes got a note from the woman saying the chemotherapy was working and that the prayer shawl and their prayers had “made a difference.”

“It’s hard not to tear up,” says Hughes.

The shawls provide as much comfort to those making the request and the patients’ families as it does to the recipients.

“They can just feel the prayers that go into making them,” says Jennifer Durkin, one of the knitters.

Hughes adds family members say the shawls are a uniting force for them to do something.

St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church prayer shawl ministry organizer Laura Hughes with some handmade prayer shawls that will be distributed to cancer patients around the world. - Mario Bartel/The Tri-City News

“I had no idea that it would go this far, or what all the implications for them and for the families would be,” Hughes says. “It gives them a sense of belonging to a community that cares about them and they’re not alone in this.”

Many of the requests ask for particular colours. One asked for yellow so the recipient could be “wrapped in sunshine.”

Each shawl contains a label identifying the group and saying it had been blessed by the parish, and comes with a card.

Despite requests for shawls for those suffering from other illnesses, the ministry has focused on cancer, although they do make mittens and toques for advent. However, the detailed list Hughes keeps of the recipients — first names only — contains an extensive variety of the deadly disease.

Some of the places they’ve sent shawls to, like Scotland, have started their own prayer shawl ministries, according to Scott. Hughes acknowledges there are many other groups producing similar prayer shawls in the area and notes during their startup they got some helpful advice from one at Eagle Ridge United Church.

St Clare’s membership is not limited to parishioners.

“We would welcome some younger members. We’re at a certain age that we would like this to continue,” says Hughes.

While the assumption is knitting is passé, St. Clare knitter Anita Carlin noticed at a recent trade show there were lots of young people there wanting to keep it going. “I thought I was only going to see white hairs, but I was surprised,” says Carlin.

The group doesn’t charge a specific price for the shawls but they are available by donation. “They’re really quite generous,” says Hughes, adding the money they receive is more than enough to keep their supply bins full.

Anyone seeking a shawl for someone with cancer, or wanting to join the group, can reach Hughes at 604–944-9064.

In addition to many Canadian provinces, the shawls have been sent to recipients in the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Brazil, Indonesia, Hungary, Philippines, Ireland, Guinea, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Mexico and India.


Samples of notes received by the St. Clare of Assisi prayer shawl ministry:

“My good friend, Monique, brought me a shawl made by your ministry. I would like to thank each of the people in your group for this extremely thoughtful gift. When I wear the shawl and feel its warmth, I am aware that the warmth is greatly enhanced by the love and prayers with which it was made. I am reminded of God’s presence and love at those times and this gives me strength in accepting and dealing with my illness.” — Louanne

“A quick thank you to all for making the beautiful shawl for my friend, Julie. I just delivered to her and she is trilled, especially with, to her, beautiful Saskatchewan Roughrider colours.”Ellen

“Thank you so very much for this beautiful gift. It has been a tough time for our family and this blessing of hope and comfort has warmed our hearts dearly. Love, Chloe and family.”Note: Chloe was three months old

Shawl 3
The label on one of the shawls that will be sent out to a cancer patient by the St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church prayer shawl ministry at the Coquitlam church. - Mario Bartel/The Tri-City News

“Frances (a 64-year-old recently retired nurse who cared for premature babies) was diagnosed with kidney cancer in January 2014. She had surgery to remove the affected kidney, at which time cancer was also found in her aorta, and tests recently have confirmed cancer in her lymph nodes. The family is terrified and is struggling immensely. Your prayers are greatly needed and deeply appreciated. Frances and her many siblings were born in Ireland, and the green colour of the shawl will be a warm and comforting reminder of her Irish mother who is now so close to her, praying for her along with all of you. We cannot thank you enough for the hope and consolation you are bringing.”S and K

From a Winnipeg recipient with lung cancer and a brain tumour — whose shawl was shipped by courier when a request came in after she had been given 24 hours to live — sent a year after she received the shawl: “To let you know I have completed 18 treatments and see the doctor next week. Hopefully he will give the go-ahead to start another six. The chemo has been doing its job and I have had really no ill effects from it. Thank you again for the prayer shawl and the prayers. I know it has made a difference. As the flowers are all made sweeter by the sunshine and the dew, so this old world is made brighter by the lives of folks like you. Many thanks.”Kim

“I wanted to tell you how much mom loved the shawl you gave her. I read her the card and she hugged it and held it. We laid it alongside her and the bow was tied to her bed until the end. It meant a lot to us kids too and the shawl will stay with mom when she is buried. There’s just some comfort in knowing she will have something made with love and blessed by a priest with her always. Thank you.”Steve

“I saw Shirley at the park this morning and she was telling me how comforting her prayer shawl is. She said that she can’t understand it, but when she puts it on she has an overwhelming feeling of comfort and closeness to God and that it has helped her express herself in prayer.”M


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