Olga Ciaravella, left, and Janette Castellan show off some of the prayer shawls they have crocheted as part of a prayer shawl ministry in Guelph, Ont. Photo courtesy CWL/ Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate

Shawl ministry generations in the making

  • September 30, 2020

Like countless generations of women in her family, Olga Ciaravella spends her evenings quietly crocheting prayer shawls for those in need.

As a little girl growing up in Italy she would sit with her mother, grandmother and other women in the family and community making the garments while praying the rosary with every loop and hook. The recollections of that time are filled with beauty and nostalgia even after all these years.

“It is a very emotional thing for me talking about this because it brings back all the memories from back home,” said Ciaravella, who grew up in the Abruzzi region in central Italy and migrated to Canada in 1965 at age 18. She resides in Guelph, Ont. “My parents are not alive anymore, but it brings me the memory of the time that I spent with my mom. She always worked from the home because she did a little bit of sewing and she knit all kinds of stuff, so my sister and I spent a lot of time with her.”

Crocheting since she was five or six years old, Ciaravella says the women in the community would travel to a different house in the neighbourhood to crochet each evening, especially in the month of May when the Virgin Mary is honoured. More than just giving them out to the sick, she says the needs were so great at the time, the shawls were sent to various people across the community.

“People needed them to keep warm in the winter,” she said. “I was born after World War II and where I come from, it was really bad. (Many people) didn’t have anything. Everything was destroyed.”

A member of the Catholic Women’s League at Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate in Guelph, Ciaravella formally began a prayer shawl ministry there in recent months and has been able to put several of them into the hands of the parish priest Fr. Ian Duffy. He says they have been a blessing for him to give out to those in need of encouragement during this challenging time.

“If I’m called on a communion call or especially if I’m called for the sacrament of the sick, I’ll often bring one along with me,” said Duffy. “The people are very thankful, especially to know that they were being prayed for as the shawl was being made.”

Her fingers fast with from decades of practice, Ciaravella crochets various items including baby blankets, scarves and even lap blankets to be given to men in lieu of the shawls. She spends up to three or four nights working on larger items and can make a scarf in just one evening. She has given them out herself to friends and family in the community over the years before beginning the ministry at the church.

While she does go into the store to buy wool from time to time, she says it’s the supportive women in the church in large part who provide the materials for the ministry. A friend at the parish, Janette Castellan, has also begun helping with the crocheting as well. Jakki Jeffs, head of the parish CWL, believes the real ministry of the items comes from the care and compassion infused throughout the entire process of making them.

“(Ciaravella) is such a wonderful lady,” beamed Jeffs. “Every stitch has a prayer, you know. It’s such a labour of love.”

With two children and five grandchildren, Ciaravella says crochet is something she enjoys doing on a personal level but never put any pressure or had an expectation for anyone else in the family to take on the tradition. To her surprise, she says her granddaughters, age 16, 20 and 22, who have watched her throughout the years, have shown interest as well. Through the help of online resources, they have learned and have continued the practice in their own unique ways.

“One of my granddaughters knits socks and I think she had given them to people and the other girl knits blankets for the cat,” laughed Ciaravella. “The 16-year-old also knits socks and toys and she’s very good at it too.”

At 73, Ciaravella is still very active, goes to the gym regularly and shows no signs of slowing down her prayer shawl ministry. She continues to stay connected with family in Italy including her sister who crochets as well. Duffy, who has worked with prayer shawl ministries at other parishes in the past, believes the powerful and personal gesture will continue to be vitally relevant for generations to come.

“I think in a time like now, a ministry like that is even more needed than perhaps it was before, because one of the great difficulties that we’re seeing with people who are shut in because of COVID-19 is loneliness and the feeling of being forgotten and neglected,” said Duffy. “(For one person I visited), something as simple as just giving her the shawl and telling her that she was being prayed for just completely brightened up her day.”

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