Next time you approach the altar rail in Ascension Chapel, look down and make note of the divinely inspired artistry of the cushions upon which you kneel to pray and to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Also, notice that each cushion is a distinct part of a series; and just like the Eucharist we take each week, they are repetitive.
In preparation for the kneeler design, Pamela Nelson studied the color and patterns of gothic art and examined church architecture. Much like Ascension Chapel itself, the design of the kneelers is not an imitation of what you might find in a small English country church, but rather draws on elements from the past and brings them forward to the present. Even the prayer across the front edge of the kneelers is borrowed from a memorial display in the narthex of St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue in New York City. After all, borrowing is a very Anglican thing to do.
A contemporary artist at heart, Pamela approached the early medieval style of this project with great humility. “You can tell she is a remarkably integrated person: her life, art, and worship are all expressions of her spirituality,” says Bishop Anthony Burton. “She uses her gift to serve God and the mission of this church.”
“I use my art to serve. I wish all of my art lived in sacred places, but I can’t always control where it ends up. I just hope it’s joyful for its audience,” says Pamela Nelson.
Being able to work with one’s hands is uniquely powerful, and not everyone has the God-given ability to use their gifts to produce fruit that can be readily seen. Incarnation is blessed to have Pamela and the eighteen other women who dedicated themselves to this gift of service that praises our Lord and brings each of us comfort.
Beyond the design, the deadline to complete the kneelers coincided with the grand opening of Ascension Chapel in January 2016. You could call Martha Allday the earthly force of nature behind coordinating that challenge. Administratively gifted, Martha directed seventeen other women in their needlepoint embroidery, meeting many milestones along the way. “We simply did what Martha said needed to be done,” says needlepoint artist, Eula Lee Miller.
One million stitches. Six miles of yarn. Nineteen women. 3,000 hours. Eight months. Deadlines. Families. Illness. A shortage of yarn. Holidays. And God’s hand in every minute of it.
The exact number of collective hours spent on this project are unknown, but it is safe to say that for Martha, there were only a couple of days in the span of eight months when she was not immersed in it. She even taught the needlepoint technique to a new generation who, without a doubt, will become the next generation of Godly women who craft behind the scenes so we may worship in the great tradition of the Church.
“God is always telling us to be quiet and listen to him. This project forced me to sit, contemplate, and pray over what is really important – the church and its ministry,” says Susan Beecherl.
The provision of God is enormous. What these women accomplished is no coincidence – when one woman was unable to continue her needlepoint work, another would have time open up in her schedule. Something bigger than stitching yarn to canvas was happening; it was a lesson to trust in the Lord. In order to lay down their gifts at the altar, these women overcame great obstacles. They stitched, as inconspicuously as possible, in choir stalls, the balcony of the main church, hospital waiting rooms, while recovering from illness, managing complex family schedules, while on vacation, at restaurants, during board meetings, and, for some, practically any time they were seated. Their families had to be very understanding.
“Every stitch has a prayer. You are mindful when you have a pattern and you need to follow it – just like the Lord’s Prayer is a pattern,” says Eula Lee. When stitching was difficult, the deadline loomed, and extended family descended upon their homes for the holidays, the women kept in mind all of the people who would kneel before the Lord. They knitted for the glory of God and for His people who would receive the Eucharist. With God’s grace, the one million prayer-filled stitches will last for 50 years or more and have thousands of more prayers said upon them.
Any number of things could be on one’s mind as they approach the altar. One thing is certain, though, when we kneel together, it is in a posture of humility and thanksgiving as we accept God’s grace. The kneelers serve a purpose. Physically, they are simply velvet, canvas, and yarn, but they are infinitely more than that.
The kneelers at the altar rail are dedicated to Pamela’s late husband, Bill Nelson. The spirit of love and purity of heart he exhibited supersedes his earthly life, just as the love, devotion, and sacrifice poured into the kneelers will supersede, at the very least, our generation and the next.
Design: Pamela Nelson
Needlepoint Team: Martha Allday, Leslie Apgar, Susan Beecherl, Jan Clay, Haley Dettra, Sue Dockery, Deacon Judy Frizzell, Virginia Humphries, Elisabeth Kincaid, Mary Livingston, Sandy Mebus, Anne Mercer, Ginny McDowell, Eula Lee Miller, Vickie Moomaw, Nancy Murchison, Kelley Murrell, Clarice Pasierb