Lessons in needlework

Quilt makers share cultural history and tradition.


Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven always shines, with its two tall Tiffany windows and smaller windows honoring historic African American clergy, and its crimson pew cushions and gleaming altar covers. This weekend Grace Church will glow even more brightly, with a collection of striking jewel-tone quilts.

Created by Sisters in Stitches Joined by the Cloth (SISJBTC), the quilts are not only beautiful, they contain stories depicting with intricate design and color rich themes of African American history and culture over many generations.

“It is the guild members’ wish to transform the church to a place of beauty with our quilts on display,” explained Susi Ryan, president and co-founder of SISJBTC. “We hope to engage meaningful conversations with attendees, sharing our cultural and individual histories and our connections to Martha’s Vineyard and Grace Episcopal Church. Our quilts are a great segue into having conversations!”

Some 30 to 40 quilts will be displayed throughout the parish hall and on church pews. The free public exhibit takes place Saturday, Nov. 10, 10 am until 4 pm. Quilters will be on hand to answer questions and chat with visitors, and refreshments will be served.

Five members will journey to the Island along with the quilts next weekend. Most guild members have visited Martha’s Vineyard since childhood, and several have especially strong connections to the Island and Grace Church. Susi Ryan is daughter of the late Mandred Henry, who was an active and involved member of Grace Church and president of the MV NAACP. Karen Beckett, guild treasurer, is the daughter of the late Albion Boxill, also a dedicated Grace Church member. Jennifer R. Jennings is niece of the late Anne Peterson Jennings, honored by the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail in 2017, the first woman of color to graduate from Hartford Hospital School of Nursing. Christie Rawlins-Jackson, vice president, is the niece of Elizabeth Rawlins, who years ago began the Burgess Committee after being strongly encouraged to do so by the late bishop’s wife Esther.

Next Sunday, Nov. 11, group members will take part in the 10 am worship service, offering perspectives on the journey of people of African descent through the art of quilt making.

As an appealing extra feature, the group will display and take orders for its 2011 cookbook, “Well Seasoned Sisters.”

The exhibit is titled “Sankofa: Our Journey Past to Present,” inspired by the Adinkra symbol from West Africa depicting a bird that faces forward while her head looks back. The word “aankofa,” translated from the Twi language of Ghana, means “go back and fetch it,” or “you must know your past in order to move forward.”

The weekend event is hosted by the Burgess Committee of Grace Church, a group established to honor the presence of African Americans in the church, and to increase diversity of worship experiences. Guided by the question found in the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal Covenant, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” its goal is to provide education and open up dialogue about “difference.”

The committee worked with the African American Heritage Trail of M.V. on the May 20 ceremony for the designation of Grace Church as Site No. 28 on the trail. The committee is named for the Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess, the first African American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Burgess and his wife, Esther, were loyal members of Grace Church after his retirement, and he is memorialized in a stained glass window there.

“The exhibit will feature quilts that tell stories from the past to the present. SISJBTC members have taken on the task to use the art of quilt making to honor their ancestors, to continue the tradition, and to pass it along to the next generation. In line with honoring the past, it is fitting that the exhibit will take place at the historic Grace Episcopal Church, a location on the African American Heritage Trail,” wrote Leigh Ann Yuen, who co-chairs the Burgess Committee with Elizabeth Rawlins.

“For me the idea of ‘you must know your past in order to move forward’ is representative of the goal of the Burgess Committee, to honor the past as we continue to move forward in our desire for diversity and unity,” Yuen reflected.

“Also it seems especially relevant for Grace Church as we begin our time together with our new rector, the Rev. Stephen Harding. I feel so much of the search process involved looking back in order to move forward, and now we are ready!”

According to Ryan, Sisters in Stitches Joined by the Cloth was established in 1997 by women of African descent. It combined two separate quilting bees — Sisters in Stitches and Sisters Joined by the Cloth — into one. Their very first show took place on the Vineyard in August 1999 for the M.V. NAACP Scholarship Tea at the Harbor View Hotel.

“Since the inception of the guild it has been our mission to teach the general public about the art, history, culture, and traditions of African American quilting,” said Ryan.

For more information call Grace Church at 508-693-0332.