GLADSTONE - It started as a ministry after World War II and has continued as an ongoing ministry for more than 60 years. Since that time, thousands of handmade quilts, health and school kits and baby layettes have been shipped to scores of nations around the world.
"The ladies started making quilts after the war for their relatives and other needy families in Germany," said Lillian Strom, a long-time member of the First Lutheran quilting group in Gladstone. "Germany is heavily Lutheran so there were lots to send to."
Although all of the group's activities take place in First Lutheran's multi-purpose room, the quilting group is non-denominational with many of the women attending their own churches elsewhere.
Ann Flinn, left and Chris Johnson prepare fabric that will be used to make baby gowns. (Daily Press photo by Dorothy McKnight)
Lou Maniaci, who was a long-time member of the former Mennonite Church in Soo Hill, said she was looking for a church that had a good women's circle.
"When I heard about this one, I came over and snooped around a little bit and I was hooked," she said.
In addition to quilts, hundreds of baby gowns, undershirts and diapers are also sewn annually for use in baby layettes. Although the undershirts and diapers are traditional, the ladies have become very creative in selecting unique fabrics and patterns from the donated used clothing in order to make the gowns. According to volunteer Sandy Boutilier, the women used to make them with an opening in the front, but in more recent years, the gowns look more like small t-shirts to avoid the inconvenience of having the sides separate while the baby is wearing them.
Tall cupboards in one of the workrooms are filled with swatches of fabric cut from used clothing donated by St. Vincent de Paul, and the ladies laud the charitable organization for supplying them with sufficient clothing, curtains and bedding to use for the quilting and baby gown project.
"If it wasn't for St. Vincent, we wouldn't be able to do what we do," said volunteer Chris Johnson. Pointing to the lined shelves in the cupboard, she added, "All of this would have gone into the trash as unwearable, but instead, St. Vinnies gives it all to us and we're able to use it."
A recent call went out to St. Vincent de Paul for denim jeans to make quilts and the ladies were astonished at the response.
"We asked for blue jeans and we got more than 80 pairs," said Johnson.
While small pieces of fabric are put to good use in making baby gowns and quilt blocks, large pieces are required to make the quilt backing. Sheets and some curtains are particularly useful to fill this purpose. When sheets are scarce or the donated sheets are particularly thread-bare, or if the curtains are not large enough, the ladies use their ingenuity to sew the best parts of two or more curtains or sheets together to make one backing.
Johnson said she uses much of her spare time scouring the area for bed sheets and other items suitable for use as backing for the pieced quilts.
"I bought 42 sheets for $1.80 apiece at Pamida in Manistique," she said. "I spend all summer in Indian Lake and checked out the prices. When they get down to $2, I figured they're not going to get much cheaper, but I did happen to get those even cheaper."
Bolts of flannel are purchased whenever one of the ladies can find it on sale and the fabric is cut and hemmed for baby diapers.
The ladies have a silent auction in the fall of each year to raise funds for shipping the quilts and kits overseas.
"Last year we raised $2,500," said volunteer Connie Salmi. "That was really helpful because it costs us $2 to ship just one quilt."
Many of the ladies expressed surprise at the response they receive for their silent auction.
"Just about the time we think we're not going to have much of anything, we get lots of really nice things to auction off," said Strom. "They go through their cupboards and closets and pick out stuff they've been saving for years. And you know how people are - they really like vintage stuff."
The quilts are put on display at the church each November prior to mailing them to predetermined destinations. In 2010, the ladies sent 801 quilts and more than 500 baby layettes and health kits.
Not all the quilts are sent to overseas missions. Strom said some of them are saved and given to families who lose their homes in fires. In addition, some of the baby layettes and quilts are donated to the local Salvation Army, who distribute them to needy families in the area.