March 07, 2019
Nobody ever said it was easy
PHOTOS BY TONI CASHNELLI
Team of tailors: Front: Lois Shegog, Judy Melish; top: Julian Collins, Rita Gray, Virginia Marie MeyerBY TONI CASHNELLI
When you’re making a habit, a crooked seam is no big deal. Just pull it out and do it again.
“We’re great rippers!” boasts Virginia Marie Meyer on behalf of the five tailors sitting around tables at St. Anthony Center in Over-the-Rhine. Today, as they complete their first Franciscan garment, they admit that the learning curve has been steep.
“It’s more complicated than it looks,” says Rita Gray, adding the finishing touches to a cowl embellished with neat rows of crosshatch stitches. “I thought it would be a challenge for me,” says Judy Melish, who has been sewing since she was 10. “I didn’t realize it was going to be THIS challenging.”
Leading the project is Lois Shegog, Director of the Sarah Center, a program of St. Francis Seraph Ministries. Known for creating distinctive jewelry and handmade quilts, they’ve built a close-knit community by encouraging women to develop their strengths and skills. Last year Lois picked up the habit-making baton from Poor Clare Sr. Rita Cheong, who was ready to retire after 16 years of crafting more than 200 habits for friars in several provinces.
“It did not take me many months to become comfortable with making habits,” says Sr. Rita, a fashion major in college who worked in the industry for 10 years before entering religious life.
It took this crew slightly longer. “This was different than anything I had ever done,” says Lois, a quilting virtuoso.
“It’s more complicated than it looks,” says Rita Gray, putting finishing touches on a cowl.
Virginia Marie, from Our Lady of Visitation Parish, learned “serious sewing” through 4-H, starting with pincushions and working her way up to making habits for sisters of the Handmaids of the Precious Blood. “The challenge for habits is getting the measurements right,” she says.
Rita Gray made all her own clothes in high school and college and has sewn quilts for the homeless and mended vestments for her parish, St. Matthias in Forest Park. “It fills a need to make a garment that’s practical and durable,” she says of the end result. Besides, “Most of our sewing is for women. This is an opportunity to sew for men.”
According to Judy, whose parish is St. Vincent Ferrer, “The invitation in our bulletin was meant for me. I had retired a few months prior and was looking for a volunteer opportunity.” After years of making clothes, she turned to quilting for the Pregnancy Center East. “I enjoy the creativity of sewing, that I can put my own stamp on it.”
Julian Collins is here because “I am friends with Lois,” who admits, “I begged him to come.” Julian, a member of St. Peter’s United Church of Christ, enjoys sewing and “wanted the experience of making something I hadn’t made before. And I see this as service to the community-at-large.” He also does the heavy lifting, dragging around 50-pound bolts of cloth and cutting fabric with scissors as hefty as hedge clippers.
Top, Judy Melish has been sewing since she was 10; above, Lois Shegog at her desk at the Sarah Center.
For those who stayed, says Lois, “It’s such a learning experience.” But the project has done more than boost their sewing skills. “I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and working together to problem-solve,” says Rita Gray.
“Every week we’ve learned the next step or two,” says Judy. “It’s been a team effort.”
The process began with training that sounds like boot camp. “I met with Sr. Rita two days a week and she coached me on how to do it,” Lois says. “She was tough. She showed me how to work with different sizes, how to cut it appropriately, what kind of table and scissors to use. I was overwhelmed with the intricacies. The hem has to be at least 3 inches deep. You have to consider the way the fabric flows. There are different qualities of the fabric,” depending on the blend of wool, cotton and polyester that’s used. “Some friars are allergic to wool. Others like a little more warmth.”
Sr. Rita turned over her precious patterns and a trove of fabric – five bolts, enough to make more than a dozen habits at 6-7 yards apiece. Guardian Frank Jasper donated fabric from St. Clement’s, a legacy from yesteryear’s friar tailors. Lois also inherited a loose-leaf binder of measurements for 150 brothers. Calling it “My Book of Friars”, she handles it as gingerly as if it were The Dead Sea Scrolls.
When the proper thread was found – it’s called “Cloister Brown”– work began on the “training” habit, earmarked for friar Tim Sucher. After they took nine measurements, there were choices to be made: Pocket in sleeves? Pocket or slit (or nothing) in sides? Pen pocket on front top? Clasp or Velcro for the throat closure? “Velcro disintegrates in the dryer and collects a lot of hair,” Lois says. “Some friars want a button, so that means a buttonhole.” She figures, “They don’t get many choices on this thing, so they may as well be comfortable.”
Top, Julian Collins with a bolt of fabric; above, Tim Sucher tries on his habit.
Some of the tailors took work home, with arms, cowls and pockets tucked into craft boxes so they could spend extra time on the precision work. When Julian finishes the hem, they’ll be ready for a final fitting.
On Ash Wednesday, Tim stops by the Sarah Center to pick up his habit.
“We added some fabric in the back” where it was snug, Lois tells him as he pulls it over his head.
“I love it,” Tim says, looking for a mirror. “My favorite thing is I now have an eye and hook instead of Velcro” at the neck. “Velcro wears out and it never comes together.” The habit hangs a bit long, but “the cord will take some of that up,” Lois says, and washing should make a difference.
“It’s wonderful,” Tim says. “And it’s new, and it doesn’t have holes in it, and it’s not worn out.” So nice, in fact, “I’ll only wear it on Sundays.”
Lois sighs with relief. That’s one done, and, God willing, many more to come.
They’re also able to handle repairs on habits.To place an order or request repairs for a Franciscan friar’s habit in brown or missionary white, please contact Lois Shegog at the Sarah Center via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and write “Habit-making” in the subject field. She will arrange for measurements. (For those outside of Cincinnati, Lois can send directions for measuring.) Depending on the number of orders they have, completion should take one to two months. The price will soon be determined.
Lois would like to form another habit-making team in June and hopes to eventually pay tailors a stipend for their work.
Contributions to help offset the expenses of fabric, thread and sewing supplies and equipment are welcome. You can donate online at: sfsministries.org/donate. Please specify the gift is for habit-making.
The Song and Spirit team with host Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi
At the 20th Annual World Sabbath, a service of music and prayer at the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, Mich., Song and Spirit received the 2019 World Sabbath Peacemaker Award, which honors those “seeking to build a world of tolerance, justice, faithfulness and peace.”
Accepting the award were Song and Spirit’s founders, friar Al Mascia, Hazzan Steve Klaper and Mary Gilhuly, and its Outreach Coordinator, Greg Allen. The Song and Spirit Interfaith Choir performed in a variety of languages.
“It is an inspiring event, from which we all emerged with hope that our world will become a better place for future generations,” Al said. “It is always uplifting to see youth of many faith traditions participating in prayer and song and as Children of Peace.”
Steve, Mary and Al create and stage Song and Spirit’s retreats and outreach programs. Greg drives the Care-A-Van and delivers CarePax to the homeless in Detroit.
‘A sign of belonging’
BY BILL FARRIS, OFM
Felix Blake could spin a story while he worked.In years past, most of the larger friaries had a tailor shop and at least one friar trained to turn a section of brown cloth into a custom-fitted habit. Before these skills completely vanished in recent years, Sr. Rita Cheong, a skilled seamstress at the Poor Clare Monastery in Cincinnati, quickly learned them. Now she has passed on those skills to a new team of tailors at the Sarah Center, next door to our headquarters at St. Francis Seraph Friary in Over-the-Rhine.
As a younger friar studying theology, I remember watching Br. Felix Blake measuring and cutting cloth in his shop at St. Leonard College. He was a very accomplished tailor who could narrate a story in great detail while at the same time executing a particularly complicated phase of making a habit. For someone like me, whose only sewing skill is replacing a missing button, his expertise was always fascinating to watch. To this day I haven’t figured out how anyone could have created something as intricate as the cowl and hood.
Top, Bill Farris, center of photo, with the novitiate class of 1970-’71; above, Bill (first row, second from right) with fellow novices; they learned the basics of wearing a habitAs novices we have several months in an enclosed environment to get acquainted with wearing the habit. I remember my first efforts with the basics: putting it on, keeping it clean, getting in a car, learning how to go up and down the stairs in an ankle-length garment.
When novitiate ended with first profession, I experienced the habit as a vivid and visible sign of belonging to the Franciscan brotherhood. This was not a momentary and passing experience for me, but one that is always renewed when we gather to celebrate, or when we engage in ministry, or give witness to the life we have professed. True, it is only one of the external trappings of religious life. But in wearing the habit I’ve always felt the call to be true to its meaning, to live as brothers, and to seek an inward conversion that we outwardly signal by wearing the habit.
— Fr. Mark Soehner, OFM
Send comments or questions to: email@example.com
2014 • Third Quarter
2015 • Third Quarter
2016 • Third Quarter
2014 • Fourth Quarter
2015 • Fourth Quarter
October 13, 2016
October 27, 2016
November 3, 2016
November 10, 2016
November 17, 2016
December 8, 2106
December 21, 2106
December 29, 2106
2016 • Fourth Quarter
2015 • First Quarter
2016 • First Quarter
2017 • First Quarter
2015 • Second Quarter
2016 • Second Quarter
“It’s more complicated than it looks,” says Rita Gray, putting finishing touches on a cowl. Approached by the friars to make and repair habits, she wondered, “How am I going to meet and teach people how to make this interesting garment?” The answer: Recruit a team through church bulletins. “Many people can serve communion. Not everyone can sew.” Her group jelled last summer and has met the first and third Saturday of most months, with a break for the holidays.
Top, Judy Melish has been sewing since she was 10; above, Lois Shegog at her desk at the Sarah Center.Another recruit left early on, Lois says. “She saw all the detail and said, ‘I can’t do it.’” Volunteers were warned, “This is not for the novice sewer. It will bring your skills up a notch.”
The Song and Spirit team with host Imam Mohammad Ali ElahiMarch 3, in a mosque filled with Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists and people of other faith traditions, the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace was recognized for bringing people together “to engage in creative service through education, music, art and social outreach programs” in metro Detroit.