by Marie Elena Giossi
By day, Maureen Walsh is a polished professional running a Rockaway-based real estate agency. By night – at least Wednesday nights – this mother of four gathers with friends and fellow parishioners at St. Francis de Sales parish, Belle Harbor, to make quilts for newborns in need.
This summer, Walsh and the St. Francis de Sales ABC Quilters are celebrating two decades of providing “love and comfort” to hundreds of babies across the city.
Walsh was inspired to start this quilting circle after seeing an article in The Tablet about Donna Boyle and Maureen McCormack. These young Brooklyn mothers responded to the AIDS baby crisis of the early 1990s by joining a nationwide crusade to make and distribute quilts to babies born with HIV and AIDS.
The group was an extension of a grassroots effort started in 1988 by Ellen Ahlgren, a grandmother from Northwood, N.H.
The effort was called ABC Quilts, which originally stood for AIDS Babies Crib Quilts, but was changed to At-Risk Babies and Children’s Quilts as outreach expanded to include all at-risk babies and to eliminate any stigma attached to the effort.
Moved by the story, and in thanksgiving for her own children, Walsh decided to get involved. She contacted McCormack, then a teacher at St. Rose of Lima School, Parkville, for guidance.
With McCormack’s encouragement and the blessing of then-pastor, Msgr. Martin Geraghty, Walsh started a group at her parish and recruited members through the bulletin.
What formed was a band of like-hearted women – some experienced quilters and others, like Walsh, with only basic sewing skills – but all wanting to contribute in whatever way they could. The group met once weekly that summer, and everyone learned from each other.
When everything was stitched and sewn, by machine or hand, they’d created 60 quilts, which McCormack helped deliver to babies at Jamaica Hospital.
The Belle Harbor quilters convened again the following summer and eventually decided to meet nearly year-round, a practice that continues today.
Grants from the parish and local Rotary Club, fundraising raffles and donations from family and friends have helped offset expenses through the years.
Although some quilters have come and gone, Walsh says 15-20 regulars continue to meet weekly.
One of those regulars is Peggy Moerler, and she wouldn’t think of missing a session – even if it means venturing out in the pouring rain as she did on a recent Wednesday evening.
“I make about two quilts a week. I do it piece by piece,” she said. She pins the material by hand and then assembles it using a Viking sewing machine her children gave her.
Moerler joined the group in June, 1998, four months after her husband died. She needed something to occupy her time and saw a notice for the group in the parish bulletin. Though she’d never quilted before, she was willing to learn.
“After my husband died, this got me through everything,” she said. “I just say thank God I can do it.”
Quilting for those in need, she said, makes her “feel wonderful” because she knows each creation has an important journey ahead of it. Last year, one of her quilts made its way to Singapore, where it was used to cover a child’s coffin during a funeral service.
Every time she completes a quilt, Moerler says she touches it to her cheek, both to ensure its softness and to impart her warmth to the recipient.
Over the last 20 years, Walsh estimates that the parish group has donated close to 3,000 quilts, mostly to at-risk babies, but they’ve also filled requests from local nursing homes and hospices in recent years. Each quilt bears a handwritten patch wishing “love and comfort” to its recipient.
The quilts are blessed at an annual quilting Mass, held on the first Sunday of October, before they’re given to McCormack for distribution.
Though her quilting group at St. Rose of Lima has disbanded, McCormack continues to distribute the quilts she collects from St. Francis de Sales as well as Our Lady of Peace parish, Lynbrook, L.I.; the Brooklyn Quilters Guild; and the Sisters of Mercy for whom she works.
“How could I stop? The calls keep coming in,” McCormack said. “I’m giving out 200-300 (quilts) a month,” to hospitals, WIC programs and organizations that work with pregnant girls.
Besides quilts, the St. Francis de Sales group has donated other handcrafted items, such as knit caps for premature babies, stump socks for wounded soldiers and muslin surgery dolls, to various hospitals and organizations.
“Of all the things I’ve done in my life,” Walsh said, “this is the most rewarding next to having my own family.”