Church offers support, one bead at a time

March 30, 2007|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to the Sun

In the social hall of St. John Neumann Church, Kathleen Loor takes the loose ends of a rosary knot and dips them into the flame of a votive candle. The ends scorch into black nubs, sealing the string of prayer beads together.

The durable rosaries made of parachute cord and Army green, navy blue and black beads are headed to military training bases, hospitals and combat zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have a special meaning for the troops who receive them.

In Parris Island, S.C., Marine recruits - even non-Catholics - snatch them up as quickly as they arrive, said Father Gabriel Mensah, the recruit training regimental chaplain.

"Maybe because the training is very tough, and they need some divine presence," Mensah said.

The rosary makers, mostly senior citizens, meet every Thursday morning at St. John's in Annapolis, a mission church of St. Mary's Catholic Church downtown.

In the past four years, the group has sent out 70,000 rosaries, said Pat Evans, coordinator of the program. The church tries to send the blue rosaries to the Navy chaplains and saves the brown and black ones for the Army in the desert, Evans said. Soldiers dubbed them "Ranger Rosaries."

Each Rosary bead stands for a prayer, including "Hail Mary" and the "Our Father." Francesco Ristaino, a member of the Maryland Army National Guard and a parishioner at St. Mary's, said he came up with the idea in 2001 after seeing his children making rosaries for Catholic missions in third world countries. He knew the bright colors and the string used would not appeal to the military, so he set about creating a rosary that would.

Instead of string, he used black, green and tan parachute cord. At the end of each rosary, a black, plastic crucifix is attached.

Ristaino made a handful of "tactical field" rosaries for his platoon, which was heading to Bosnia. He transferred before the platoon left, but his rosaries went with his fellow soldiers.

A chaplain there liked them so much, Ristaino said, that he asked Ristaino for 500 more. Ristaino enlisted help from the parish youth group and elementary and high schools. Soon, the project grew too much for them to handle.

Evans, who volunteers at the church, started the rosary-making group. About 20 people turn out weekly for three-hour sessions. Many take home unfinished rosaries. The church also sends out rosary-making kits to those who request them.

Loor, 73, started out making 75 rosaries a week at home. After she developed shoulder problems and carpal tunnel syndrome, she scaled back. Her work has earned her a spot at the quality control table, sealing ends and retying loose rosaries.

Cathy Sheahan, 62, started coming two years ago to give her mother-in-law something to do while she was visiting from Tennessee. Her mother-in-law enjoyed the project, and Sheahan ships her beads so that she can make her own rosaries.

"She's praying for people all the time," Sheahan said.

Sheahan's mother-in-law, who is blind, can tie the double knots separating each decade - or ten beads - but she has trouble with the final triple knots that secure the crucifix.

Actually, so do some other members of the rosary group. They do as much as they can and then pass on unfinished rosaries to more nimble fingers to finish.

"It doesn't matter if you're not an expert in rosary making," said Caroline Avery, one of the group's newest members. "You do what you can."

Avery, a member of St. Andrew by the Bay Catholic Church on the Broadneck Peninsula, read about the group and wanted to join. Her 22-year-old son, Christopher, is a second lieutenant in the Air Force and is headed to Pensacola, Fla., next week to begin a year of pilot training. Avery sent him a rosary.

"I'm so proud," she said.

Sheahan, considered a veteran rosary maker by those at her production table, mentors Avery and teaches others how to make the rosaries.

"You're like the traveling teacher," said Fran Green, who moved from Montgomery County to Annapolis last year.

Green, 84, joined the group because she was looking for something to do. The group laughs, jokes and prays together.

"It's very relaxing," Green said. The rosary makers sit at two tables. The production table strings the beads and ties them off. The "quality control" table checks their rosaries and ones mailed to the parish to make sure the rosaries aren't missing any beads.

"We have to make sure there's no `Our Fathers' missing," Evans said.

Quality control also checks to make sure no one has mixed brown and black beads on the same cord and that each is tied tight enough to allow the recipient to slide a bead over after a prayer has been said. If the rosary is loose, it lands on the "reject" tray to be retied. The women trim the excess cord and burn the ends to prevent them from unraveling.

The group makes about 400 a week to send to chaplains who request them. The demand seems never-ending, Evans said. Each rosary costs about $1 to make. The program is run entirely on donations.

The church provides information, including where to order supplies, on its Web site, Evans is not sure how many churches nationwide have launched their own groups. St. Andrew's started this month.

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