95-year-old group seeks new members as it makes vestments for Capuchin missionaries
DETROIT — Sewing vestments for priests in the mission fields is the primary activity of a small group of women volunteers who meet twice a week at the Solanus Casey Center.
And they and their predecessors in the group have been at it now for 95 years.
The Capuchins’ Eucharistic Mission Band got its start in 1917 in the old Third Order Hall adjacent to St. Bonaventure Monastery on Mount Elliott Avenue near Kercheval on Detroit’s lower east side.
Just why a group formed for the purpose of making vestments should have been called a Eucharistic Mission Band is a question whose answer seems to be lost in the mists of time.
“I guess it’s just how they named things back then,” said Loretta Chmielarczyk, who holds the office of custodian in the group.
But Chmielarczyk, 76, a member of St. Louise de Marillac Parish in Warren, still laughs when she recalls the confusion the name caused her when she first heard it.
When Capuchin Fr. Jogues Constance, who was the group’s spiritual director, approached her about joining it after she entered the Secular Franciscan Order back in 1986, she told him she wanted to get her feet wet for a few months before committing to any specific activity.
“Besides, I told him, I didn’t play a musical instrument. And he said that was OK, because it wasn’t that kind of band,” she recounted.
Instead of making music, the ladies of the band make convivial conversation as they sew vestments and other items — such as purificators and corporals — for use by Capuchin missionaries and local priests in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.
They also make the habits in which Secular Franciscans are buried, and sew on buttons or do mending for the friars of St. Bonaventure Monastery.
Most of the members are Secular Franciscans, but that’s not a requirement. It isn’t even required that members be Catholics; the band even includes a few Protestant women who support the Capuchins’ work.
It might sound like work, but Chmielarczyk says it’s also fun, as the ladies enjoy a camaraderie as they sew, pray and have lunch together. In fact, not all of the members sew; those who can’t still contribute to the work by cutting fabric or doing other work, she said.
They have their own room on the second floor of the Solanus Casey Center, and Chmielarczyk drives down to the center each Tuesday and Thursday with her husband, Norbert, who volunteers at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, about a block away, while she sews.
Once a month, a Capuchin priest celebrates Mass for the band as they pray for all their benefactors down through the years, as well as all past and present members.
Doris Ranke, a St. Martin de Porres parishioner in Warren, said she learned about the Eucharistic Mission Band four years ago when she attended a Day of Recollection at the Solanus Casey Center.
“I hadn’t sewn in a long time, but some things you never forget,” said Ranke, 74.
Joining the group is “just a great way to form some friendships with other women — to make good friends and have a good time,” she said.
While Americans just take it for granted that every church has a vestry with cabinets stocked with a full array of vestments, that may be far from the case for a priest ministering in a Third World country.
“We got a letter from a priest who hadn’t had a new set of vestments in almost 30 years,” Ranke said.
Capuchin Fr. Larry Weber knows the women of the Eucharistic Mission Band directly from his past three years’ assignment as director of the Solanus Casey Center, but he was very familiar with their work from his previous 27 years of ministry in Central America.
“In all of those years I was very aware and very appreciative of the work that they do. It’s a wonderful ministry, and all of it was free to us,” he said.
The future of the Eucharistic Mission Band will depend, however, on attracting some new members. Once numbering in the dozens, membership is now down to 11. Some of the older members are no longer able to make it to the monastery — though some of those who can’t be there in person have work dropped off for them to do at home.
Fr. Weber said he hopes more women will join the Eucharistic Mission Band so its work can continue: “They are as dedicated as our missionaries, and we pray for them to attract new members, just as we pray for new vocations to the Capuchin friars.”