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  • Writer's pictureDiocese of WNC

Knitting with a Purpose: Behind the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Good Shepherd, Hayesville

For years, knitting never came easy to Elizabeth Rybicki. As a child she struggled with the large knitting needles and yarn that easily tangled. Years later she tried again, but after multiple calls to her mother, unsuccessfully trying to decipher the instructions she'd purchased, she abandoned her project yet again, and accepted defeat. It wasn't until years later that she suddenly had the urge to knit again.

"It's kind of an usual situation!" laughed Elizabeth Rybicki, the founder of the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Good Shepherd, Hayesville. "I had been feeling that I should knit for a couple people in our church who were ill, and I didn't even know them all that well so it was kind of a weird feeling to do that, but it was so strong!"

The year was 2003. At the time, Rybicki owned a bookstore in Hayesville. Actively involved at Good Shepherd, Rybicki had been seeking out ways to be a larger part of outreach ministry, even considering joining the diaconate. It was during this period of discernment that the answer came to her on a regular day at the bookstore.

This was a turning point for Rybicki. In looking for new ministry books to feature at the bookstore, she encountered, "Knitting Into the Mystery," a 2003 book by Susan S. Jorgenson about the history and deeply-rooted spirituality of knitting in prayer. Inspired by the stories shared in the book, Rybicki knew she was being called to start a prayer ministry of her own at Good Shepherd. With the encouragement of the rector at the time, the Rev. John Rice, Rybicki placed a notice in the bulletin calling members of the church to join the ministry. A few weeks later, the first 12 members of the Good Shepherd Prayer Shawl Ministry joined together for what would become the first of many gatherings for years to come.

In the 17 years since the start of the ministry, the Prayer Shawl Ministry at Good Shepherd has grown and expanded. For many years, Rybicki traveled throughout North Carolina teaching other parishes of many denominations how to create prayer shawl ministries of the own and giving lessons on the basics of knitting. While prayer shawls are the main items to come out of the ministry at Good Shepherd, the ministry has taken on other knit and crocheted projects over the years.

"Shawls are blessed at services whenever we happen to have one finished, but we don't just do shawls," said Rybicki. "We've done preemie caps, prayer squares, we even had a member of the parish who had a daughter with a unit in Afghanistan. We did helmet liners for everyone in her unit!"

Since their start in 2003, the ministry has knitted close to 1,000 shawls. Shawls are blessed at Sunday services, and then delivered to those in need in the community. While the shawls are knitted as part of the ministry at Good Shepherd, you do not have to be a member of the parish to receive one.

"If there's someone in need they come to us, so you don't have to be a member of our church," Rybicki said. "We've given shawls for everything--illnesses, grief, new babies, whatever sort of need someone might have. One thing that's important is that the shawls are never sold, you can't buy one, they are gifts of love."

Now a major part of healing ministry at Good Shepherd, the Prayer Shawl Ministry has expanded worldwide. As shawls began to make their way across the world, similar ministries began in connection with Good Shepherd. When the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina began a relationship with the Diocese of Durgapur in India in 2005, Father John took some of the information about the prayer shawl ministry with him on one of his missions. The result was the creation of a prayer shawl ministry of their own in the Diocese of Durgapur, tangentially connected with the work being done at Good Shepherd.

"I know that they do it their own way over there, using primarily cloth to make the shawls, but they have started a ministry there that is connected with our church," Rybicki said. "It's amazing the worldwide impact of the ministry, shawls have gone to all kinds of people and places!"

While the ministry has made an impact worldwide, it has also fostered a sense of community within Good Shepherd and in the surrounding community. For Rybicki, she feels the ministry has created a sense of support in the parish that ultimately can get them through the most challenging of times.

"The church is kind of our family," Rybicki said. "And that's really the thing about being family, they're supportive of each other, it's a real warmth and you know people genuinely care about you."

To learn more about the healing ministry at Good Shepherd, please visit


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