This past fall I was assigned after 12 years as novice mistress, to be the vestiarian. What’s that? In the monastery the vestiarian sews, mends and washes the habits. I also continue to sew our veils and guimpes and cappas. Although we are a rather small community of 17 nuns it is nearly a full time job. After those very intense years of responsibility for training our young sisters it is nice change of pace.
The habit sewing department is actually just a small monastic cell, 6’ x 11’ which serves as a sewing room, and a clothes room across the corridor that houses the extra habits, fabric and a large cutting table, which takes up most of the space. In the sewing room are an industrial sewing machine, a serger, and a late model Kenmore and my favorite sewing machine: a 1966 Kenmore 52 (complete with cabinet), which belonged to my grandmother, Maria Diana Frechette, known familiarly as Memere.
My Memere was born in Ste. Hyacinth, Quebec, Canada, in 1913. As a baby, the family came to Biddeford, ME, to find work. My grandmother became was one of the “mill girls”, threading the heddles in the large looms in the big factories. Later, she sewed men’s swimming trunks. She had a sample of the material used in her trunk, and all her life used the stainless steel snippers she received on the job. She was an excellent seamstress and made all her clothes.
When I was about four, I stayed with my Memere for a week, a visit which has remained etched in my memory. My favorite remembrance of that week was learning how to sew on Memere’s sewing machine. Together we made a doll’s quilt. I don’t remember any fear of using the machine nor do I recall any sense of anxiety on her part that I could break the machine. There began my love of sewing. A few years later when Memere moved in with my family the sewing lessons continued. Memere would take a sheet and have my sister and me hem it to teach us how to sew a turned hem. Then she’d cut off our attempt and we’d try again!
When my Memere died in 2008 her sewing machine was left to me and it was brought to the monastery and put in the habit department since by my solemn vow of poverty I of course, can’t own anything. I shouldn’t have been surprised that all the attachments, needles, bobbins, user manual, etc. were all there with the machine and in perfect order.
When I was reassigned to the habits, I suddenly realized I would be using my grandmother’s sewing machine! A wave of nostalgia rose up and memories of Memere’s instructions, advice and yes, even corrections, came back as though it were yesterday. “Don’t forget to shut off the light!” was the first one as almost automatically I employed the trick of wiggling the little button so that it would snap off correctly.
Sewing is for me, at least, a very contemplative work. It is a simple enough labor that my mind and heart are free to be with God more explicitly. As I sew, I pray for the people who contact the monastery with their needs and intentions, for the sick and the suffering, for the areas of the world experiencing great suffering and persecution, for so many intentions.
Most of all, I have found myself praying to my grandmother. My grandmother was a very holy woman and I’m sure she is as anxious to pray for me now as she was when I was growing up. I remember with gratitude her example, her selflessness, her joy, and her prayfulness.
As I work in our tiny sewing room, I can’t help but look forward to our new wing. Its lower level will include a spacious sewing room, where the sisters with sewing charges (now scattered throughout the house) will be working in one room. Here all parts of our habits will be sewn, from guimpes and veils to undertunics and habits, work coverall and aprons, along with the small scapulars for the Dominican laity.
In a monastery, especially a Dominican one, a sewing room isn’t just a place to sew. It is so much more! In this seemingly ordinary place, the work of the Holy Preaching is advanced, as silent prayers are uttered and, through our religious consecration, even the the smallest of gestures, ripping out stitches, sewing on buttons, and sweeping the floor at the end of the day, is sanctified, becoming acts of love, offered for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of the souls.