At this time of year, Christians around the world spend time on a craft unique to the Lenten and Easter season: palm weaving of sacramentals.
Palm weaving originated in the tropics, where palm trees grow. Though it may have spread from there by sailors who spent sea-faring days weaving and braiding objects to give away or sell, many countries claim the custom to be theirs alone. Italians, Germans, Swedish and Polish folk all made small objects of religious significance.
The palm’s religious connection came through the Biblical story of Jesus’ triumphant ride through Jerusalem. People waved palm branches honoring him. The custom of bringing palms into the home commemorates this event and honors Jesus as the Lord and master of their homes. Since braiding or weaving of palms was already an established tradition, creating small religious symbols intended to increase devotion and protect from evil was a natural next step.
Franciscan Sister Fabian Schneider, now in her mid-nineties, remembers braiding palms as a child. “We would make small objects, reverencing the blessed palm, and eventually burn them as protection for our home from storms.”
Sister Fabian is among a few other sisters at the convent in Little Falls who still make these sacramentals, which are blessed by the parish priest around Easter time. Sister Mary Lou Eltgroth and Sister Georgine Larson spend time each spring remembering how to make the various designs and teaching others.
Sister Georgine, a long-time nursing home activity director, grew up in the Carlos and Belle River area. She enjoys helping kids learn the simple weaves like the “leaf” pattern, rose, cone or simple cross. “Kids like to do it, but parents really watch; parents want to learn,” she said of this art that was once nearly lost.
Sister Cecilia Schmitt, also a Franciscan in Little Falls, went so far as to write the book on what she feared would be lost if she didn’t do it. An educator, performer and director of a music school, Sister Cecilia learned to braid palms as a child. She dug into the history and traditional patterns for her 40-page book, which she wrote and illustrated to assist her dream “that the tradition of creating and treasuring palm pieces will return to our nation’s families.”
Sister Mary Lou always orders a bag of 100 palms in advance of Palm Sunday, the traditional time for Catholic churches to distribute palms to parishioners and commemorate Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. She shares the palms with other sisters who like to create the sacramentals prior to the Easter season. The palms are delivered in an airtight bag, which Sister Mary Lou, who learned the art of weaving only after joining the convent, puts in the refrigerator. The palms are kept wrapped in a wet towel to retain their pliability, though the three sisters agree that dried palms can also be soaked or even boiled and become flexible enough for weaving.
Each sister has her own favorite design to weave: Sister Fabian likes to make “little tiny ones” suitable for tucking into greeting cards and the “leaf” design; Sister Mary Lou enjoys weaving fish, having practiced by creating hundreds of ribbon fish for mobiles; Sister Georgine has made thousands of ribbon fish, she said, but can’t remember how to make them now. She is, however, an expert in the crown of thorns design.
“I put my fish in my car,” said Sister Mary Lou. “I always have a piece of blessed palm in my car.” She grew up in West Union and taught and served as a principal in schools from Waite Park to Morris, Fergus Falls and St. Michael. She also remembers helping Sister Cecilia with a two-day palm weaving workshop in Bloomington. “Sister Cecilia didn’t want that art to fade away.” Her books are sold in the Franciscan Gift Shop and have been shipped all over the country.
Sister Fabian, originally from Flensburg, worked for bishop Bartholomew for 16 years. Besides weaving palms, she gardened, canned food, tended chickens and did whatever was required to keep the Bishop’s residence running. Now, she commutes from Flensburg, where she lives with three other sisters, to the St. Francis Center where she works as the receptionist.
Sisters Georgine, Mary Lou and Fabian reminisced about other sisters who crafted palm objects over the years. “Sister Genevieve Burke taught me the crown of thorns and four-piece cone,” remembers Sister Fabian. Sister Mary Goretti Lampert, a teacher from the Bowlus area, did a lot of weaving, as did Sister Trudy Schommer and Sister Seraphine Stanoch. Sister Mary David Miranowski made laminated crosses accented with calligraphy, which she gave to staff members for their cars.
Palm sacramentals may be kept from year to year or burned, along with other dried palms, to be used in ceremonial distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday. Acknowledging the blessed nature of even small pieces of palm, these are saved and burned along with larger pieces. “On the day before Ash Wednesday, we’d bring dry palms and pile them on a grill and burn them,” remembers Sister Mary Lou of the method of demonstrating to the schoolchildren the respect for the sacramentals, as well as the preparation of the ashes to be used the next day.
See online palm weaving instructions at http://www.origami-resource-center.com/palm-weaving.html which also links to Sister Cecilia Schmitt’s work. To learn more about the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, visit their website at www.fslf.org. To see several more photos from this article, click here for our gallery.