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Debbie Boyle walks along the brick pathway at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton, past the weathered tombstones of some 700 souls, including three former North Carolina governors. Inside the

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Debbie Boyle walks along the brick pathway at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton, past the weathered tombstones of some 700 souls, including three former North Carolina governors. Inside the

Debbie Boyle walks along the brick pathway at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Edenton, past the weathered tombstones of some 700 souls, including three former North Carolina governors. Inside the parish hall, about 20 women — all pastels and pearl necklaces, tastefully paired scarves and dresses, and stylish tortoiseshell glasses — await her arrival at folding tables. They’re hard at work doing needlepoint, their nimble fingers pushing and pulling thread in and out of tiny squares on canvases.

Boyle looks around to see if anybody needs her assistance. “Hey, Debbie,” one calls out, “will you take a look at this?” Boyle scans the woman’s row of stitches and reassures her that it looks good.

Martha Blythe, Debbie Boyle, and Kathy Busby are three of the creators of the kneelers in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Edenton

From left to right: Martha Blythe, Debbie Boyle, and Kathy Busby’s needlepoint project culminated in colorful kneelers. photograph by Chris Rogers

Almost every Wednesday for three years, Boyle and the other women met here promptly at 2 p.m. to stitch new kneeler cushions for the church’s altar rail. It was a daunting task — one that Boyle can’t believe is finally over. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet,” she says, finessing the collar of her white button-down shirt.

It’s been a few months since the women finished the project, but they’ve continued to stitch together. The sense of community and friendship that they’ve found while working on the kneelers has motivated them to keep meeting regularly.

• • •

The project started in spring 2018, when Martha Blythe and Kathy Busby, co-chairs of the altar guild, took inventory of church-improvement projects. New kneelers were at the top of their list because the existing ones were more than 40 years old. “They looked tired and worn and dull,” Boyle says. She has the right to critique the old kneelers. She was part of the team that made them.

That’s why Blythe and Busby first approached Boyle about creating new ones. “Debbie will say we coerced her,” Blythe remarks with a laugh, but Boyle immediately agreed, and the women started brainstorming ideas for what the kneelers should look like. There were some nonnegotiables: They needed to be a dark color to mask years of use; no piping because it would fray; and, most important, the kneelers had to reflect the rich history and symbolism of St. Paul’s, the second-oldest church building in North Carolina.

Colorful kneelers at the altar of St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Colorful kneelers, with symbols reflecting those in the stained glass behind the altar. photograph by Chris Rogers

The stained-glass window in the chancel, which dates to the 1850s, served as their blueprint. The red circle in the middle with the monogram IHS — the first three letters of Jesus, in Greek — inspired the tops of the kneelers. Each pillow would have a different design: a dove, a shell, a cross and crown, a budded cross, the IHS monogram, the Moseley Cup (a silver chalice used during special eucharistic feasts), and the Chi Rho (another Christogram). The symbols would be centered in a red circle framed by acanthus leaves. The gussets, or sides, would be outlined with fleurs-de-lis and a grouping of three red circles, representing the Trinity.

Armed with a boxful of yarn and canvases designed and hand-painted by Sheilah Anne Oscher in Texas, the group — calling themselves the Kneeler Girls — got to work in March 2021.

Boyle enlisted anyone at St. Paul’s who was interested in helping — whether they could needlepoint or not. “I wanted as many people working on them as possible,” she says, “because it was fun.”

Fran Reynolds and volunteers stitch kneelers at St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Fran Reynolds (foreground) and the other volunteers stitched on canvases designed and hand-painted by a woman in Texas. photograph by Chris Rogers

Each week, the women gathered in the parish hall, laughed, and shared updates on the health of mutual friends as they pulled strands of yarn in and out of a basketweave stitch. “People think that when ladies get together, it’s a gossip fest, and this wasn’t that at all,” Sue Willhauck says. “Every stitch was a prayer.”

In the time that it took for the women to complete the project, the Kneeler Girls lost a member. Annette Wright’s cancer returned, and she died on September 4, 2023. “She was my best …” Boyle says, her voice catching. “My best … you know.” The gussets that Wright had stitched were used in the very first finished kneeler, the one with a dove on top. It was a reminder that, in her absence, God’s peace would mend their heartache. Wright’s kneeler was displayed in the middle of the altar rail during her funeral.

Needle stitched kneeler showing a dove surrounded by a circle

Fran Reynold’s pattern of a dove surrounded by a circle symbolizes the Holy Spirit and the Eternal. photograph by Chris Rogers

By November, all seven kneelers were completed. Their royal blue outlines now serve as a beacon, drawing the eye down across the brick floors of the nave, past the box pews that date to the 1800s, and up to the stained glass that frames the altar. St. Paul’s interim rector, the Rev. Dr. Robert Sawyer, held a private service and dedication for the Kneeler Girls and their ecclesiastical works of art. Fittingly, the first knees to be cradled by the new cushions were those of the women who made them.

A month later, the kneelers were presented to the entire congregation. “The church’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive,” Blythe says. As congregants kneeled before the altar, the stained-glass image of Jesus rising from the dead was a reminder to them that God is victorious over every unfair thing in our lives. Even the sting of death.

• • •

On a recent afternoon, Blythe and Busby stroll through the ancient church, reminiscing on the role that St. Paul’s has played in their lives over the past 40 years. Both of Busby’s children were baptized here. All six of Blythe’s grandkids were, too, and her daughters were married here. Every Sunday, the two women sit together in the pew at the front right corner for the 8 a.m. Rite One — the service that uses traditional language.

When Blythe steps forward to take the Eucharist, her outlook isn’t new even though the kneelers are. The feelings that pulse through her soul are, as always, ones of gratitude.

“[I’m] grateful that the Lord grants us his mercy and forgiveness,” she says with tears in her eyes. Busby nods in agreement: “It gives me peace,” she adds.

And this is the true gift that the kneelers — and the women who pulled them together, stitch by stitch — have given to all who put themselves at the feet of Jesus at St. Paul’s. His grace, as Second Corinthians makes clear, is sufficient. For every day. In every hardship. Even in closing the book on a five-year labor of divine love.

Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church
101 West Gale Street
Edenton, NC 27932
(252) 482-3522

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This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Chloe Klingstedt

Chloe Klingstedt is an assistant editor at Our State magazine, a Texan by birth, and a North Carolinian at heart.