When teachers at St. Cletus learned that the inter-disciplinary theme for the 2010-11 school year was “In Your Own Backyard,” they began brainstorming New Orleans-related lessons to teach their students on topics such as Mr. Bingle, the French language and the petroleum industry.
“There were a lot of ideas floating around,” recalls Katie Windham, St. Cletus’ librarian, “and I just thought, ‘I kind of want to do something the children maybe don’t realize is here.’”
Inspired by a visit to St. Cletus of two volunteers from New Orleans’ Catholic Worker – an Uptown-based lay ministry that offers meals, shelter and spiritual support to the poor – Windham decided to create a PowerPoint film on Dorothy Day, who opened the first Catholic Worker hub in the slums of New York City in 1933.
“You have to do a project with the students along with your lesson,” Windham said, “so I said, ‘I’ll ask all the middle school students to donate fabric, and if they do, I’ll make a quilt for Catholic Worker.’”
The stunning result: an 85-by-70-inch quilt, lovingly machine- and hand-stitched over the summer break by Windham, the mother of three young children.
Cloth ‘puzzle’ pieces
“This summer has been the summer of the quilt,” chuckled Windham, whose youngest child, Atticus, was born in March. After asking for donations of 5-by-8-inch fabric swatches in early 2011, Windham was inundated with material of all textures, patterns and sizes.
“It was T-shirts, it was leg warmers, socks, felt,” said Windham, rattling off a few of the quilt’s creative sources. One patch, featuring a jungle scene, is from a student’s old car seat; another piece of cloth, illustrated with hot peppers, still sports a circular crease from its past life as a wrapper for a jar of pepper jelly; a maroon swatch of plaid came straight from a St. Cletus uniform skirt, while a terry cloth New Orleans Saints helmet was cut from an Amtrak towel. Windham even salvaged a piece of fabric that had been glued onto a piece of cardboard.
“I used every bit of material they gave me,” Windham said. Daughters Juniper, 6, and Mabel, 5, helped by holding the quilt’s layers of muslin and batting together as their mother fed them through the sewing machine.
“Every single piece has a story behind it,” said Windham, who dug into her own fabric collection to find additional hues for the quilt’s color-specific rows.
Other than its hand-stitched binding, the quilt was pieced together on a sewing machine Windham found seven years ago at a garage sale. She called the fabric puzzle, her largest quilt to date, “a miracle.”
“I could not believe this sewing machine was doing this for me because it wasn’t made to quilt at all, and I’ve never taken a sewing class,” Windham said. “Miracles do happen! It’s been a real labor of love.”
The real miracle, though, she insists, is the daily work of New Orleans Catholic Worker. Windham said she gained a heightened appreciation for the ministry’s work through Rose Spring, her friend and St. Cletus colleague, who cooks meals for the home’s indigent guests and attends its Bible studies.
Ironically, Windham was somewhat acquainted with founder Dorothy Day, having seen a movie on her life as a student at St. Scholastica Academy.
“There are 12,000 homeless people in New Orleans every single night. That’s staggering to me,” Windham said, adding that the operators of the local Catholic Worker home are “very brave,” given the Christ-like hospitality they offer to strangers, and even keep a list of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy on their refrigerator as a reminder to practice each one daily.
“A lot of times you feel like, ‘What can I do?’ ‘How can I make a difference?’ Windham said. “My students have no drivers’ licenses and not a lot of freedom at their age, yet I want them to think that they can do something. So if they each gave me a little piece of fabric, we would be doing something.”
The quilt, complete with an embroidered indication of its St. Cletus origins, will be presented to the ministry in the fall.
For more information on New Orleans Catholic Worker, based at 1910 Constance St., visit www.nolacatholicworker.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.