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Busy hands, happy hearts at First Presbyterian Church in Farmington

Hands busy trimming and pinning the material before her, 96-year-old Irene Spaniol shared a personal philosophy Tuesday morning.

"I think God gives everyone a talent, and it's up to you to use it," she said.

Spaniol has been using one of her particular talents -- quilting -- for the good of others for more than 50 years. She's part of a long-running group of quilters at Farmington's First Presbyterian Church.

On this Tuesday morning, Austa Harmer is busy stuffing pillows she makes with leftover scraps from quilts made in the past. Ruth Bierbaum and Betty Weichselbaum are tying another quilt that's stretched out on a large rack, braced by four sturdy wooden chairs. Barbara Lang will stop by later to pick up the quilts that need to be hemmed. She'll do that work at home. Weichselbaum used to do the hemming, but her eyesight isn't as good as it used to be.

"We adapt," Bierbaum explained. "Betty used to take them home and hem, so Barb, she showed up about the time we needed someone to hem."

It's pretty much the same as the week before, and as the next couple of weeks will bring for these ladies. Come to think of it, it's pretty much how the past several decades have gone for the First Presbyterian sewers. They come around 9 a.m., leave around noon. They take a break midway through so they can have some coffee and maybe some sweets.

In that time, the ladies finish off two or three quilts. Spaniol has been pinning for so many years, she doesn't really keep track of how long it takes her to finish one quilt, but she'd gotten through two of them by 10 a.m. this week, and was starting a third by the time coffee break came around.

Meanwhile, Weichselbaum and Bierbaum tie off just as many across the room. Weichselbaum's eyesight makes it hard to thread a pin, but the tying comes easily because she can just feel where the yarn is supposed to go. Harmer has her own little pile of stuffing and material, so she sits at a table where she's able to finish two or three pillows in a morning.

In its earlier days, the group was formed as a sewing circle. Some made pajamas, some made book bags. They made clothing for kids, and they made quilts and pillows. They had 10 or 15 members, so they were able to do more kinds of sewing projects.

Back then, the items were made for a mission project. The Presbyterian church had a quota of items they were supposed to make to send on to Africa, so the ladies were very busy. All these years later, the church no longer participates in the mission project, so the quilts and pillows are shared with the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul. The St. Paul church has a distribution center attached, so the quilts and pillows are ultimately given out to needy families.

It may be small, but the sewing group still puts out a big number of quilts and pillows. Last year, they donated 102 quilts and 100 pillows. In addition, Harmer made some children's clothing to donate. The items are taken to St. Paul around Thanksgiving -- after a short dedication ceremony is held here in Farmington beforehand -- so the warm quilts can be given out before the cold winter weather comes on.

Rev. Jean Greenwood remembers the first time she participated in a dedication ceremony, back in 1988. Greenwood served as the pastor at First Presbyterian from 1988-91, and returned to her post this year. The impression of that first ceremony has stuck with her for all of these years, because all of the quilts were spread out on pews in the church.

"The whole sanctuary was full of quilts," Greenwood said. "It was so colorful. It was so gorgeous. It was like a flower garden."

The group is much smaller now -- there's only a half a dozen members or so -- but they've been meeting together at the church for decades. In that time, they've made thousands of quilts, and they'll likely go until they can go no longer. However, they'll also welcome anyone who wants to help.

The sewing group will continue through the spring, but they'll take the summer months off. Once the fall rolls around, though, they'll be right back at it again.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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