ST. PETERSBURG -- Eva Lysek and Marie Williams took passing interest as their mother turned out one handmade rosary after another, numbering hundreds over the years.
Though they never would have predicted it, 13 years after their mother's death both women find themselves immersed in the art of rosary-making.
The sisters are members of the Holy Family Rosary Makers Group, a year-old guild that has made and given away more than 10,000 rosaries to Roman Catholics throughout the world.
Tuesday, the Feast of the Assumption, which commemorates the Virgin Mary's being taken into heaven, was a day of celebration for the 22-person rosary group. After morning Mass, members met at a local restaurant for an anniversary brunch. It was their first social gathering, since members prefer to concentrate on their task, foregoing even coffee during their weekly rosary-making sessions at the home of sisters Nancy and Pat Carroll.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Lysek worked with her sister, 11 other women and two men around the Carrolls' dining table. Pliers in hand, she snipped bits of wire for the colorful beads before her. Making rosaries with wire, those sitting with her agreed, is not a skill easily mastered.
"My mother used to make them years ago. She used to make hundreds of them, but I never learned when she was here," said Mrs. Lysek, a retired nurse. "When she passed away, it dawned on me that I didn't know how to do it."
But she learned a year ago from the Carroll sisters. It was Nancy Carroll's idea to start the group.
"Pat and I talked about it. We decided it would be a good way to meet people from church and at the same time get interest in the rosary started," Ms. Carroll said.
They spoke to their priest at Holy Family and a notice in the church bulletin solicited members. Ruth Mattick, a member of St. Raphael's who has been making rosaries for about 12 years, was the Carrolls' teacher.
"They came about once a week for about six weeks until they got it down pat," Mrs. Mattick said.
By then, the sisters were ready to teach their own group. Nancy Carroll is pleased with the results.
"Originally, we had planned to meet once a month," she said.
"It's not a gossiping group. It's a very upbeat, positive group."
For June Hill, who had been active in her Orlando parish before moving to St. Petersburg, the rosary makers group was just what she needed.
"I was looking for something to do in connection with the church," said Mrs. Hill, who has arthritis, which mainly affects her back. "This is something I can do for the church and I can do it sitting down . . . and meet new people."
The group also was a natural outlet for Frances McVay, a convert to Catholicism who had been fascinated with rosaries as a child.
"I make them in the evening watching television. . . . It's a lot of fun," she said.
While most construct rosaries at home, they also manage to turn out a respectable number of the colorful prayer aids during their two-hour meetings.
They purchase most of their supplies -- crucifixes, bags of beads, spools of cord and coils of wire -- from Our Lady's Rosary Makers in Louisville, Ky., an organization founded in 1949 by the late Brother Sylvan Mattingly to encourage volunteers to make rosaries for people around the world.
Besides buying supplies from Kentucky, the Holy Family rosary makers also keep an eye out for sales at local craft shops and scour garage sales for old jewelry that can be taken apart and reconstructed into rosaries. The group also purchases old and new beaded car seats to turn them into giant rosaries that can be hung on walls.
Last week Nina Schmidt worked with a set of pinkish pearlized beads she bought while visiting her daughter in San Diego. The discarded necklace, picked up for 25 cents at a garage sale, would yield three rosaries, she said.
Charles Sanders, one of only two men in the group, also reflects his friends' common sense and frugality. He converts umbrella spokes into a tool to make the special knots required when stringing cord rosaries.
"It makes a neater knot and then we take fingernail polish to seal the knot," said Sanders, who became part of the group after 89-year-old Susie Benkart asked him for a ride.
Mrs. Benkart, who no longer attends the weekly sessions because she is allergic to the Carrolls' cats, nevertheless produces hundreds of rosaries for the cause.
"I love making them," she said. "It's good for my hands. It's good for my mind. I could make one in 10 minutes."
The rosaries Mrs. Benkart makes are strung with cord rather than wire. She and other Holy Family rosary makers learned the skill from group member Elizabeth Lewis, who had been making rosaries on her own for years to send to a priest who runs a leper colony in Ethiopia.
The group has been touched by thank-you letters from places such as Malawi, India and Haiti.
The Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of Holy Family Church, said praying the rosary is a tradition dating to the Middle Ages.
"The rosary began as a pious tradition for people who couldn't read and write," Schneider explained of the set of 50 beads that guide the devout through recitations of the Hail Mary and Lord's Prayer.
"They couldn't read the 150 Psalms in the Bible and so they replaced them with the Hail Mary and that is why there are five decades or five sets of 10 beads. Each set has a mystery assigned to them, which can be said together or individually on certain days. They are the joyful mysteries, the sorrowful mysteries and the glorious mysteries, which add up to 150 Hail Marys. These trace the life of Mary and Jesus, so it was kind of everyman's Psalter," Schneider said.
The rosary is an optional private devotion, he said, and not part of the official liturgy of the Catholic church, "But it's encouraged."
During the past months, the Holy Family group has been spreading more than their creations. On a visit to Texas, group member Ruth Flannery taught her daughter the art of rosary making.
In turn, Mrs. Flannery said, "She's teaching some of her lady friends and also teaching them how to pray the rosary."
Nancy Carroll says the guild has received much more than it has given.
"There have been many, many blessings that have come to the group and people's families in the group. We attribute it to Mary's intercession," she said.
Her sister Pat agreed.
"It's a wonderful thing that has transpired over the year," she said.
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