Crocheting a Thousand Prayers

Wearing a colorful prayer shawl crocheted for her by Margaret Richardson and a pink hat knitted by Peni Chandler, Mary Thomas holds a lap full of crocheted prayer shawls that she plans to distribute to other patients in need of comfort. (Photo/Barbara Ball)

WINNSBORO – When Mary Thomas, 68, of Winnsboro underwent surgery last year for a stomach aneurysm and a month later for lung cancer, she faced many challenges, not the least of which was survival. Although optimistic by nature and full of enthusiasm, Thomas, a widow, realized she was facing a daunting battle. To comfort Thomas during those difficult days after her diagnosis, a friend and fellow member of the Church of the Nazarene in Winnsboro, Norma Branham, gave Thomas a shawl that Branham had hand-crocheted especially for her.

“Norma told me she said a prayer for me with every stitch and there were thousands of stitches,” Thomas said, smiling sweetly, remembering the gift with tears shinning in her eyes. “Norma wrapped the shawl around my shoulders. She said it would bring me comfort. And it did. It was warm and the knowledge that I was wrapped in a thousand prayers brought me amazing comfort.”

Following her surgery, Thomas underwent several weeks of chemotherapy at the South Carolina Oncology Association in Columbia. There she waited mornings with other women, most of whom, Thomas said, were undergoing radiation for breast cancer.

“I noticed one young woman was upset, alone and seemed scared. It was cool in the room and she was shivering, so I took off my shawl and put it around her shoulders. I told her it had many prayers crocheted into it and that it was made with love,” Thomas said. “I could see my gesture brought her comfort. Her reaction made me feel like I had given her something very special But I think the comfort came from the shawl.”

Branham crocheted another shawl to replace the one Thomas had given away. Before long Thomas had given that one away as well, and Branham crocheted another one. Thus began what Thomas refers to as her prayer shawl ministry. Other friends, including Cindy Zimmerman, Velma Defibough and others also began crocheting shawls to supply Thomas’ ministry. Twelve shawls were sent from Mississippi friends of Norma and Eddie Branham’s. During the last year Thomas has given away more than 200 shawls.

Then last month, Thomas learned that her lung cancer had metastasized to her brain. Surgeons removed a large malignant tumor about 10 days ago, Still, Thomas is bright-eyed and cheerful, and her prayer shawl ministry is in high gear. After a week at Health South in Columbia for rehabilitation, she had given away another 20 or so shawls.

“Word about the shawls has gotten around the hospital, and other patients are now coming to my room asking for them,” Thomas said.

A native of Virginia, Thomas spent a rather glamorous career in the Army as a receptionist, first for the Army Chief of Staff and later to a string of generals, including General W.C. Westmorland. Along the way she met folks like General Omar Bradley and was photographed visiting with President Lyndon B. Johnson at the White House. At 42, she married Ricky Thomas and settled in Winnsboro.

“I had a nice life,” Thomas recalled, “and I still do.” While she admits her life changed drastically when she was diagnosed with cancer, she said, it hasn’t been all bad.

“That’s when I decided to start living my life for the glory of God,” Thomas said. “I now have a greater purpose and a new outlook on life.”

Thomas said she doesn’t yet know what her prognosis is, but she will be meeting with her doctors next week to learn what lies ahead.

“But, no matter what, I’m not afraid. I’m in God’s hands, so everything is going to work out. Besides,” she said, gently patting the soft pile of crocheted prayer shawls on the foot of her hospital bed. “I have my work, my ministry, to keep me busy, I have lots of work ahead of me that I’m really looking forward to.”