A quilt that built community

July 30, 2014

By Mike Killeen

CSB/SJU employee Gwen Geisenhof (top right) works on the quilt along with volunteers from Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud.

Life sometimes has a way of coming back full circle. Just ask Deb Lehman.

Back in September 2012, Lehman had a vision of assembling a quilt that would build community at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. After almost two years of planning and stitching, the finished quilt was donated at the end of June to Quiet Oaks Hospice House in St. Augusta, Minnesota.

"I didn't know anything about Quiet Oaks when I was proposing all of this," said Lehman, director of community outreach for Fine Arts Programming at CSB and SJU. "A year later, I wound up spending the better part of a month there with a loved one.

"You know how serendipitous that can be. You go into something to do something special for an organization such as Quiet Oaks, but little do you know that that gift comes back to you. I think that's what this project is all about."

Nine people with ties to CSB and SJU worked on the quilt - other Fine Arts Programming employees (Gwen Geisenhof, Diane Scheierl, Deb Guertin and Lehman); retirees (Cheryl Knox and Bev Radaich); and current staff and faculty members (Shirley Kelly, Kaarin Johnston and Gloria "Chick" Hardy).

"I got to be a part of this experience because of my work, but ended up getting so much more than I imagined," Geisenhof said.

In addition to the core group of CSB and SJU quilters, members of the Whitney Senior Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the general public also assisted in making the quilt, which began in earnest in November 2012.

"Fine Arts Programming was doing a gallery exhibit on quilts, which was scheduled for February 2013," Lehman said. "It was in collaboration with the CSB and SJU Theater Department, which was doing the performance of 'Quilters' (a musical which was performed in March 2013 at the Gorecki Family Theater). 

"The quilt exhibit was a call to community quilters, both in our CSB and SJU community but also in the surrounding towns," Lehman said. "The only thing was, the quilt needed to have some sort of story. So, we did a quilt board called the Tree of Life."

Six of the CSB and SJU quilters — Knox, Geisenhof, Radaich, Kelly, Hardy and Lehman — designed 12 squares and "wondered if it was all going to come together," Lehman said.

The quilt went into a frame, which was placed in the exhibit with some simple instructions on how to quilt that allowed the public to contribute.

"That's why it took so long, because each stitch is hand done," Lehman said. "Some of the stitches were long, some were crooked. But, we left them all intact. Sometimes, quilters are real perfectionists. This was just letting go of all of that. It became very meaningful, because all the stitches — whether they were long, short, straight or crooked — they all came from community. Nobody made a judgement."

One of the favorite times to work on the quilt came on Saturday mornings. Lehman recalled how S. Dennis Frandrup, OSB, professor emeritus of art at CSB and SJU, would share stories of quilting as a child.

" 'Gathering time' is the description that comes to mind," Geisenhof said. "I met some new people and got to know some I'd only met briefly before. We came together to make progress toward the goal of quilting but also laughed and learned about and from one another."

Quiet Oaks has hand-made quilts on beds for guests and families, and are hung throughout the house.

"Actually, it was easy to let the (quilt) go. It was destined; it already had a home," said Lehman, who is now a volunteer at Quiet Oaks. "The minute we took the first stitch, we knew where it was going to reside. Everybody knew it was going to give comfort to somebody who was celebrating the end of their life. I know there were a lot of prayers over that quilt."

"It felt good to get it completed but kind of bittersweet — like finishing a favorite book," Geisenhof said.