On the tail end of this winter’s worst cold snap, a dedicated group of volunteers gathered in Steiger Hall of St. Matthias Church to weave a little warmth into the lives of Milwaukee’s homeless population.

The ladies (and one gentleman) present will spend the entire morning, from 8 a.m. to almost noon, assembling durable, warm sleeping bags from donated material — everything from mattress pads to old flannel sheets — that will eventually find their way to the men and women who need them.

St. Matthias parishioner Mary Foscatt mans a Singer sewing machine in the corner of the hall, stitching smaller fabric pieces together to form the 84-inch-by-84-inch squares that will comprise the inner lining of the sleeping bags. Foscatt, a lifelong sewing enthusiast and volunteer with the sleeping bag ministry since it began, said that, while working, she often finds her mind drawn to the individuals who will receive these bags.

“I always think about one of my good friends who was 95 years old when she died. I went to the funeral, and the priest said, ‘All her life she’s been doing things for people she never sees,’” said Foscatt. “That just struck me. We’re doing something here for somebody that we will never see.”
Since its inception almost 20 years ago, the group has created and distributed close to 1,500 sleeping bags to homeless individuals through partner organizations like Repairers of the Breach, MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary and Capuchin Community Services St. Ben’s Community Meal. By following a pattern that repurposes older donated material, the 20 to 30 parishioners who congregate on the first Saturday of each month are able to create 10 to 13 warm, handcrafted sleeping bags each session.

After completion, each sleeping bag is rolled up and fastened with a men’s necktie. While assembling these bundles, the volunteers say a prayer for the recipient, imploring the Lord to “take the work of our hands and bless it, and in thy name, let the person that receives this gift know that he or she is loved.” Attached to the sleeping bag is a handknit hat and prayer card.

Parishioner Millie Schilling founded the group after reading several magazine articles about a similar ministry that began operating on the East coast in the 1980s. Flo Wheatley was a mother from Pennsylvania whose teenage son was being treated for cancer at Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. One day, seeing Wheatley and her obviously ill son struggling with their bags near the subway, a homeless man approached them and insisted on helping. Upon parting, Wheatley thanked the man and gave him some money; he replied: “Don’t abandon me.”

Inspired by his plea, Wheatley began the My Brother’s Keeper Quilting Project, converting old blankets into sleeping bags for the homeless. The ministry eventually spread all over the country, and still operates today.

It was the mid-1990s when Schilling first heard of the project.

“A thought came through me: ‘Oh, you could do that,’” she recalled. “It was the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I was thinking of these people out there in the cold.”

She made her first sleeping bag out of “the good parts of old jeans” in the late 1990s, and suggested the idea of starting a group similar to Wheatley’s at St. Matthias. Then-pastor Fr. Carl Last encouraged her, and the group got its start in October 1999.

Mary Ann Simpson began volunteering with the group in 2001, shortly after joining the parish. “I like the fact that we’re doing something to help people, and we’re helping people clean out their house — and that’s an important thing, too.”

The group accepts donations of old fabric swatches, quilts, comforters, mattress pads and sheets of all materials. The newer, more attractive pieces are set aside to comprise the outside cover, while less appealing ones are compiled into large squares that will form the warm lining.

Almost as valuable to the quilters as the charitable aspect of their work is the social aspect. Simpson named “the camaraderie and fellowship” as one of the reasons she has stayed involved for so long.

“Everybody is friendly and nice. It’s good, it gets us off our feet and gives you a chance to show off your skills,” she said. “This is the new recipe.”

“When I couldn’t work anymore, that’s what I looked for in my parish and volunteer work,” said Linda Pierzchala, who helps to organize the group’s efforts. “And there is such a need out there — when I call MacCanon Brown (to drop off a donation of bags), they’re so excited, it just warms your heart and makes you feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing as a Christian.”

The MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary will be the recipients of today’s workload, and the sleeping bags will go fast, said Brown. Along with staff and volunteers at the sanctuary, she ministers to several hundred people each week in what she describes as “varying stages of homelessness or at risk of homelessness.”

“What we see, especially in our doorway ministry, are the underfed, undernourished, undergarbed,” she said. “It’s just gripping to visibly see this in that sub-zero weather people wearing thin jackets (and) no gloves.”

“We tell the people when we give them the sleeping bags — we say, the group that made this prayed over it — and they prayed for you,” she said. “It means so much that the people cry.”