Stitch by stitch, Catholics help children in need


By Celine Klosterman

Mary Pester, Mary Pieper-Axthelm, Valsa Thekkaniyil, Nena de Guzman and Fran Conrad pose at St. Mary of the Visitation Church in Ottumwa with girls’ dresses and boys’ britches they sewed for the Christian organization Little Dresses for Africa. The women have made more than 150 items of clothing.

OTTUMWA — When Valsa Thekkaniyil sews a dress to send to a girl in need overseas, she prays for God to bless the child who will receive it.
“I think of the girl who’ll be wearing that dress. It makes me happy to do something for her when we’re in this country with lots of opportunities,” said the member of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish.
She belongs to a quilters’ group at the parish that is working to make 200 simple dresses to send to the organization Little Dresses for Africa. The Michigan-based, Christian nonprofit distributes the clothes through churches, schools and orphanages to children in need.
Several women at St. Mary’s began their effort during Lent after they ran out of filler material for sleeping bags they’d been making for local people without homes. The seamstresses still had plenty of print material, so parishioner Mary Pester decided to use it for a charitable dress-making project she’d read about in the Des Moines Register.
Father Bernie Weir, pastor, helped the women by promoting their work during a Sunday homily. The homily referenced Matthew 25:35-40: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me …. whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
“These ladies are serving the poor both in our communities and internationally,” he told The Catholic Messenger. “We need to make sure we take care of people whether we know them or not.”
Almsgiving is about more than just money; it can mean giving time, Fr. Weir said. By donating their labor, the quilters are “leading the way for the parish.”
To further highlight the women’s work, he had some dresses the quilters made hung up in the church for two weekends. “That really generated a lot of conversation before and after Mass,” he said.
Since then, some Catholics have sewn dresses at home to give to the quilters. Other supporters are continuing to donate fabric.
One-hundred dresses have been made, and another 50 were being finished two weeks ago, Pester said. Parishioners also have sewn more than 40 boys’ britches.
The quilters have raised the possibility of selling some clothes in Iowa to raise money to donate to Little Dresses for Africa, Fr. Weir said.
The organization doesn’t claim to address all the needs of every child, its website says. But “we not only offer relief to those receiving the dresses, but also encouragement to their care-takers, the villages in which they live, people that hear about it and those sewing or donating supplies or dresses or money.  Any time someone helps, it raises awareness of the plight of the little girls of Africa and awareness is Step One in closing the divide.”
“My heart is in doing charity,” Thekkaniyil said. “I’m glad for the opportunity to make a difference.”
Parish’s charity extends to Mexico
In addition to supporting quilters’ work to provide clothes for children, St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa recently paid for nine rural, Mexican families to receive wood-burning stoves. People using the stoves are less likely than people cooking over an open fire to suffer illnesses related to smoke inhalation, said Father Bernie Weir, pastor. The estufas ecológicas – ecological stoves — also cook food and burn wood more efficiently, meaning fewer trees need to be cut down.
A Mexican government program made the stoves available for 250 pesos, or about $19, a price not all families can afford, Fr. Weir said. Informed of the program by a friend in Mexico, the priest arranged for a parish in the state of Sonora in northwest Mexico to help find the recipients of St. Mary of the Visitation’s charity. One widow who begged for and received a stove is caring for seven children whose mother is missing, Fr. Weir said. “We dramatically changed the lives of 60 people for less than $200.”

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