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Prayer shawls offer comfort to dying, sick

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
Aug. 24, 2012 at 3:24 a.m.

Chris Stuck, left, and Michelle Frankenberger join hands in prayer during a meeting of the Hospice of South Texas Prayer Shawl Ministry. Members of the ministry meet weekly to crochet prayer shawls that are given to Hospice patients to provide warmth, comfort and prayers in a person's last days.

In a dimly-lit living room on Avant Garde Street, Leo Westerholm sits in a recliner and recalls his former military life as a World War II prisoner of war.

Westerholm's memory at 90 years old is accurate about 80 percent of the time these days; one of the reasons a stack of 1944 P.O.W. journals pile in a back room - so he can preserve his memories for family and friends.

Warming beneath his favorite hand-crocheted prayer shawl - a gift three weeks ago from the Hospice of South Texas - Westerholm arrives at a lucid thought about death.

"I'm not afraid to die. I've been right up to the firing squad more than once, and somehow or another, I was pulled out," said Westerholm, who suffers from myasthenia gravis, a degenerative muscular disorder. "You take each day as you got it, and appreciate each day. What is there to be scared of? I believe I'm going to heaven, and that's what counts."

Since going on hospice service about a month ago, Westerholm and his wife, June, have used the shawl for daily comfort and warmth during what is believed to be the last few weeks of the veteran's life.

A second prayer shawl, an oversized American flag that was gifted to hospice veterans throughout the Crossroads, drapes over the back of Westerholm's couch.

"I appreciate what they did. I'd like to know who's responsible for this, so I can thank them," he said, forgetting for a moment where he received his favorite blanket.

A few seconds later, he remembers.

"Oh yes. It was hospice, that's right," he said. "They did a nice job on this ... It really does keep you warm, that's what I like about it ... I use every time I sit here."

A self-proclaimed religious man, Westerholm said he doesn't necessarily use the shawl to pray, but recognizes the importance of prayer in his daily life. It was something he used often during times of war and tragedy, he said.

"Oh yes, I'm a religious man. I was born that way and I never stopped praying," he said. "I used prayer to get me through some of the hardest moments of my life - through war, through Normandy."

Attached to each blanket distributed by the Hospice Prayer Shawl Ministry is a simple card: "You have been prayed for during the making of this prayer shawl. May this shawl help you feel the warmth of God's love for you. By it, may you be reminded that there are people who care deeply about you and who hope to bring you comfort."

Westerholm is just one of nearly 4,000 hospice patients to receive a hand-crocheted blanket from the 9-year-old hospice ministry.

Every Friday, a group of about 30 women gather around a long table and crochet prayer shawls for hospice patients, attempting always to outdo their last pattern. Many of the women have been crocheting since childhood, others learned to crochet sitting around the ministry table.

"We want them to know there's someone out there who cares for them; that someone is willing to give their time and talents" for them, said Dot Moulier, one of the original ladies who helped launch the prayer shawl ministry nine years ago. "The patients can't believe you would actually spend the time doing this for someone that you don't even know ... It's really neat when you get the reports back from the nurses about how it has affected," the patients.

Moulier said the crochet team finishes shawls throughout the week at their homes, as well as during the Friday crocheting meeting. And several members of the ministry will make sure to finish one blanket each time they meet.

"There are always patients coming on and off service," she explained. "So, we try to keep them stocked."

Moulier's husband, Billy, who is also a veteran, was responsible for delivering Westerholm's shawl to his Victoria home three weeks ago.

"He told me he wanted his shawl folded and laid in his casket on top of him," Billy Moulier said, smiling.

And for Westerholm, parting from his shawl indefinitely has been a conversation, of late, as the reality of his death looms.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with them. First, I gotta die, then my wife will do with them what she pleases," Westerholm snickered. "But I think I'd like to be buried in it."



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