Hitchin's Holy Saviour has earned its reputation as a welcoming and friendly church through being a close-knit community that comes together not just for worship, but for social and fundraising events, too. Yet despite this, and the fact that there are a lot of talented needleworkers among the congregation, we'd always tended to sew separately in our own homes: what we needed was a group project that would bring us all together. A couple of open meetings brought out plenty of good ideas, but nothing that really sparked everyone's enthusiasm at least, not until the vicar at that time, Rev. Frank Mercuno and his wife Carolyn, returned from a visit to the Sudan where they'd been teaching and preaching
 
Among Frank and Carolyn's photographs was a picture of the church altar at Wad el Bashir, and making an altar frontal seemed not only an ideal group project, but a perfect gift for the members of the Sudanese congregation that would be uniquely from us in a way that money, no matter how useful, could ever be.
 
The plan then, was that we'd all take a square of calico and portray on it an aspect of our life at Holy Saviour. There were no hard and fast rules for the designs (except that the choice of materials should reflect the likelihood that the frontal would need to be laundered during its life), so it was interesting to see how varied the designs were, and what people had chosen to show.

Multi-faceted life

Sheila Daw, for example, embroidered the emblems of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Sheila ran the Guide Company at Holy Saviour for many years, and both organisations make a real contribution to the community by setting a positive example to young people. Similarly, the Mothers Union (MU) logo was used by Janet Barker, the leader of the local branch, as the design for her patch. The MU, a worldwide organisation within the Church of England which was founded to promote family life, has a long-standing connection with Holy Saviour, and is very active in the church community especially when it comes to refreshments after important services!
 
The frontal also features the symbol of the Women's World Day of Prayer (WWDP) on a patch made by Elizabeth Dew, Holy Saviour's WWDP representative. This event, which is planned by a group of women from a different country each year, brings together women around the world in a common service.
 
Florrie Newbury, another MU member, embroidered the purple patch with the dove of peace, which is another logo if you like: its used in Christianity to portray peace, and to symbolise the Holy Spirit. The cross, of course, is the most universally recognised Christian symbol, and we had no shortage of those in the frontal! The three very different versions were made by Clare Fleck, who appliquéd a Celtic cross with the vibrant block colours used throughout the frontal; Jenny Hiley, who filled her simple cross shape with tiny flowers; and Pam Thomas, who embroidered a Celtic cross in chain-stitch.
 
There's more powerful symbology elsewhere. Kay Watts, for instance, took a miracle as her inspiration, and her appliquéd fish and barley loaves represent the feeding of the 5000. Ann Parsons and Margaret Marland, meanwhile, chose to depict the Eucharist on their patches, whose designs feature the bread and wine that represent Jesus' body and his blood; Margaret also included the rainbow to signify the promise of Jesus' return.
 
Elsewhere in the frontal, you'll find patches that illustrate the important part that music plays in life at Holy Saviour. We not only have an excellent choir master and organist, but a large choir that has recently returned from its first tour in Barbados a wonderful opportunity organised by one of our congregation, who has returned to live on the island. There are three patches on a musical theme: Rachel Thomson, a soprano in the choir, embroidered the treble and bass clefs, while Gill Chidgey's patch shows three choir members in their Holy Saviour blue robes. Finally, for my patch I chose a Christmas tree decorated with red baubles. Why? Well, each Christmas Holy Saviour holds a Christmas tree festival. This is our major fundraising event and attracts over 4000 people to the church where more than 50 trees have been decorated by various groups and organisations from the town, and by families or individuals within the church community. For the past two years, we've also decorated a tree to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees in Sudan. My patch, then, represents the lovely atmosphere of the festival, which brings so many people together in the church.

Getting Together

When the patches were collected in, we spent a lot of time arranging them to achieve a balance of colour and design. Then we had to settle on the finished size of the frontal. Having only a small photo to go by for dimensions, and agreeing that if we made the frontal either too wide or too narrow it would look silly, we decided to simply cover the altar from back to front and not attempt to go over the sides; a sheet underneath would cover the rest.
 
The patches were then machined together, the rest of the calico attached, and pinned together with the wadding and the backcloth. During one of their branch meetings, the members of Holy Saviour's Mothers' Union quilted the layers together in the ditch around the sides of each patch, and around the cross templates (which were drawn and cut by Margaret Worbey) on the plain part. Enjoyable as it was to work together, it was too big a job to finish in one evening, of course, but Florrie kindly took it home and finished off for us.
 
When Florrie had finished the quilting all that was left to be done was the edging. I machined together strips of plain cotton in lively colours to co-ordinate with the colours in the patches, then cut strips on the bias and made the edging from these diagonal pieces. The finished altar frontal was then displayed in the window of a handicraft shop in Hitchin for the local community to view, though it will shortly be going to its home with the people of Wad el Bashir.
Hopefully, we've inspired you to join together and have a go at a group project: theres a lot of fun to be had from joining together for sewing just try not to get coffee on the finished article!

Khartoum Picture

My involvement with Sudan, Carolyn Mercuno explains, began when I looked at a friends photographs of the women and children outside the church in Wad el Bashir resettlement camp. These people, I learned, were just a few of the million people living in resettlement camps near Khartoum. For the camps refugees, most of whom are women and children, jobs and basic education are luxuries, many children die because of the lack of safe water and basic medical care, and young people are committing suicide because they have no hope for the future. Yet despite this, the faces in my friends photographs were happy, and I wanted to know more about the kind of faith that gave one joy in such conditions.
 
Our journey to Sudan began by raising £180 at Holy Saviour, which was sent out to the church community in Wad el Bashir where it was used to repair the church roof, provide salaries for their unpaid teachers, to support projects for the young people and the womens group, and to set up workshops on tithing. Then in 1999, during our visit to Sudan, we spent two days with the community at Wad el Bashir, and saw not only how the work of agencies such as Save the Children, Comic Relief, Water Aid, and Medicines sans Frontiers have improved conditions for refugees, but how the church community there tries to pass on its culture and traditions to the children born in the camps.
 
The refugees' need, however, is still great, so you may wish to contribute to the Holy Saviour's Sudan fund that helps to support the Amidi Self Help School for 360 pupils at Wad el Bashir, and several womens projects that generate income for the camps. If you would like to make a donation, send cheques, payable to Sudan HS to 117 Whitehall Road, Hitchen, Herts SG4 9HT.

First published in Popular Patchwork Volume 11 Issue 12 December 2003