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Winter 2003: North Dakota's church quilters

Posted by Candi Helseth 10/20/2016 11:29:18 AM

Five women - and an occasional extra or two - in a small Bowbells church made a big impact last year when they donated 250 quilts to Lutheran World Relief.

The "spring chick" in Bowbells' Bethlehem Lutheran Church quilters' group is 60 and the others are over 70. They say quilting keeps them cognizant of a larger world outside the every day routines of their small town, provides socialization and friendship as they work together and gives them satisfaction that they are helping others less fortunate.

From their perspective, their contribution isn't significant. "We're not special," says Ethel Love, 80, who scrambled to make the 250th quilt in one weekend when she realized they had 249. "Lots of church women around the state are doing the same thing."

In 2000, Lutheran World Relief's annual report recorded the donation and distribution of 371,196 quilts. The Bowbells church is one of several North Dakota churches contributing to the relief efforts overseen by Lutheran World Relief in 21 countries.

For these women, as is probably true of their counterparts in other areas of the state, working together for a greater cause reaps untold blessings.

Alice Ness says, "We've shared our problems and become good friends. I want to do something for our church and the Lord and this is a good project."

While statistics haven't been kept consistently, the church's past newsletters indicate Bethlehem Lutheran donated 215 quilts in 2000, 100 each year from 1995-1997, 150 in 1993 and only 43 in 1998. That was the year the church burned down and with it 166 quilts. Bethlehem Lutheran women rallied and made 43 more quilts by the October deadline, working in another church and the Memorial Hall while their new church was being built.

The Red Cross, the Grand Forks flood, Burke County Social Services, Metigoshe Ministries and other worthy causes have also been recipients of quilts made by the women of Bethlehem Lutheran.

Quilts donated to Metigoshe Ministries are auctioned to the highest bidder. Funds raised from the annual event help pay salaries for summer counselors at their Bible camp, according to Rev. Marsh Drege, camp director.

"It began primarily as an effort of Lutheran women's church groups, but now we receive individual donations as well," Drege explains. "We welcome all donations."

This year $37,000 was raised at the quilt auction, with contributions coming from about 72 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations.

In Velva, at Oak Valley Lutheran Church, women donate more than 100 quilts to Lutheran World Relief every year. A few years ago Oak Valley women also began making a quilt for every graduating senior in their church.

"We heard that some of the Catholic kids were joking they were going to join our church for a year to get a quilt," says chairman Lois Wunderlich. "So we got together with the women from St. Cecilia's Catholic Church and began doing it for all our graduating seniors."

The ecumenical effort expanded to include women from the Methodist Church and then the Karlsruhe area when their school district disbanded.

Materials are all donated, Wunderlich says, and the quilts are made in a variety of patterns and colors.

"We don't do fancy stitching," she stresses. "I've made quilts out of blue jeans, old polyester, whatever we've been given. But no matter what we make them from, the kids seem to appreciate them."

Ethel Love - whose quilting cohorts include Ness, Viola Radenz, Floraine Hagen and Doris Buzzell - says they also work with donated materials and make most quilts from old clothing.

Ness prefers to use new fabrics and often donates fabric she has purchased. Love likes the idea of recycling good fabric and finding new use for it. "People just bring old clothes and fabric to the church and leave it," she notes. "I like knowing that we're recycling and using material efficiently. We don't throw away much."

As she speaks, Love roots through garbage sacks of fabric, pulling out a fleece robe and exclaiming that fleece makes good fill, then extracting a bed sheet which she deems appropriate for the back of a quilt.

Modesty runs rampant in this group. Ness made 15 quilts before she decided she was "good enough to give them to the church." Radenz claims her bad back and bad eyes prevent her from "being much good to the rest of the group, but I can still rip!" The others shake their heads and assure her of her worth, noting that it's Radenz who designs the blocks.

Hagen finds quilting a relaxing respite, especially when her husband was ill and she needed a diversion.

Some women quilt "fancy," Hagen notes, but adds, "We want our quilts to be functional and usable. We try to make them pretty, but it's most important they're warm and comfortable."

The women are reluctant to take too much credit. They point to area churches with active quilters' groups, to other church members who help by collecting fabric and sewing quilt tops at home, and even to the Bowbells' Methodist and Catholic church women as well as their church's young people who meet with them for an annual "tying day," where everyone ties all the quilts they've completed.

Reminiscing is an important part of the women's time together. They talk about their grown children, grandchildren, deceased husbands, what's happening in Bowbells that week, and, of course, quilting.

"I bought my first sewing machine for $3," recalls Radenz. "I made new clothes for my kids out of other people's old clothes."

They all use electric sewing machines, but Radenz, Love and Ness still have their pedal foot machines.

Even if there were no tangible rewards from their giving, the women say they would still enjoy their weekly time together. But the occasional thanks - like the one they received from Grand Forks flood victims - make their cause dearer to their hearts.

Both groups of women also find personal satisfaction in some of the rituals that accompany their efforts. On a scheduled Sunday morning each September, Bethlehem Lutheran Church is an array of colors and patterns as all the quilts that have been made that year are displayed throughout the church. In October the quilts are donated to the causes chosen by the church women. In November Love and the rest of the group start over for the following year.

Oak Valley women find particular reward in the ceremony they hold for seniors the week prior to graduation. Local pastors present an inspirational talk and drawings are held for the quilts. All the seniors' names are put in a box. As each student's name is drawn, that student chooses the quilt he or she wants.

Wunderlich said the value the students place on their gifts was demonstrated when a student at North Dakota State University, Fargo, called home after there was a fire in his dormitory. "He told his mom he had lost everything, 'even my senior quilt,' he said," Wunderlich repeated. "It meant something to him. You can't help but feel good when you hear those things."

Quilting means something to these women, too. It's challenging, yet relaxing; enjoyable but stressful at times; social yet still something they do individually and take personal pride in doing.

When you give away a quilt, Love says, you give away a piece of yourself. "I consider it my missionary work, our missionary work. We enjoy it and it lets us help someone else. That's what it's really all about!"

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