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Stitches in time: Son's Chapel quilters share legacy of love at bazaar Nov. 13-14

Son’s Chapel quilters share legacy of love by Becca Martin-Brown | November 6, 2021 at 1:01 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK - 5/19/15 - Sondra Thomas (left to right), Desire’ Gashler, Sharon Morgan and Eloise Gusman, quilters and members of the Rural Builders Club, an all-female group, work on baby quilts in the basement of Son's Chapel in Fayetteville before a soup lunch is served Tuesday May 19, 2015. A 75th anniversary of the dedication of the chapel with an open house is planned for May 30.

At Son's Chapel, a landmark rock structure east of Fayetteville on Arkansas 45, God's hand is most often seen with a needle in it, at work on stitches and blocks, embroidery and applique; heard in laughter and conversation; and felt in commitment. He's at work through the hands of a dozen or so women, whose tradition of quilting every Tuesday supports upkeep of the building and a sense of community among the members of the Son's Chapel Rural Builders Association. And that commitment is sent into the community in the baby quilts that are the seamstresses' specialty, quilts that have been wrapping love around little ones since 1979.

On Nov. 13-14, the quilters will throw open the chapel's historic doors for the Holiday Quilt, Yarn & Craft Fair so more people can see what they do -- and hopefully decide to join them.

"Ozark Knitting Co. has partnered with the talented hand-quilters of the Rural Builders Association as well as other local artisans for this holiday fair," says Melissa Caffrey, co-owner of Ozark Knitting Co. in Fayetteville. She promises hand-embroidered quilts, custom knitted and crocheted gifts, yarns galore and local honey, so holiday buyers can buy local and "shop small."

But visitors who want to own a piece of Son's Chapel's history can take a chance on a raffle for a 50-by-62 inch quilt, hand pieced and quilted by the same organization that took on upkeep of the chapel in 1922.

Son's Chapel gets its name not from Christ but from the Son family, who in 1852 sold for $2 "two acres and 117 poles for use of the Methodist Protestant Church ... for the benefit of said church forever," a history published in 1937 reads. On that property was built a log chapel, which the community eventually outgrew.

"Women of the community got together and decided they would form a club to raise money to build a bigger nondenominational chapel and community building," historian Trisha Beland said in a previous story in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "They had pie sales and contracted to provide lunches at cattle sales, made quilts, so it took a long time. As they had the money, they'd do a little bit more. Mostly it was the husbands and a few hired people who actually built the chapel." And that explains the "giving credit to 'God and our husbands' on a plaque at the back of building."

Over the years, the women have continued to be the ones to keep the building -- and the community -- solid. Every Tuesday, rain or shine, as many as two dozen women meet. Their stated purpose is to quilt -- and they do. But "it's the camaraderie and the friendships you form while you're sitting there and visiting over the quilt frame" that keeps many of them, including current chairwoman Rita Zelei, coming back.

"The first quilts were made by Virginia Fletcher in 1978 -- a United States quilt and two baby quilts," Zelei recounts in a history of the quilters. "She donated them for the annual chapel bazaar. They all quickly sold; so, in 1979, four baby quilts were made and sold at the bazaar. Also, for at least eight years, a big quilt was made and donated to the Goshen Fire Department's raffle as their fund-raiser."

As the story goes, after the successful 1979 sale, Fletcher said: "If others would help, more quilts could be made." And since baby quilts sold like the proverbial hotcakes, the tradition of Tuesday quilting was born.

Many of the quilts are embroidered in traditional patterns like "Sunbonnet Sue," "Denim Dan" and the group's signature quilt, "Ring of Animals," Zelei says, but "now, we've updated and added many more creative designs, colors, 'pieced' styles, lap quilts, bed size and special orders." Since 1979, Son's Chapel quilters have made and sold more than 2,100 quilts -- 1,925 baby quilts and 105 big quilts, Zelei says -- and even during the pandemic of 2020, work continued. Four quilters -- Zelei, Laurie Foster, Sharon Morgan and Mary Scott -- made 39 quilts working at home.

"We are a very welcoming group, always looking for new volunteers, quilters -- with experience, or those wanting to learn to quilt -- and embroiderers for the theme-patterned squares or center panels of baby quilts," Zelei says. "Through attrition, death, some retired and moved, and several no longer able to quilt due to health and vision problems, current membership is down to 21 members, with less than a dozen who are active -- and even fewer are quilters.

"Thus, we are recruiting and need new, interested members to perpetuate the skill of hand quilting and the longtime tradition of making quilts," Zelei says, and to shoulder the responsibility for upkeep of Son's Chapel.

"In old photographs and articles in the Fayetteville paper, they said they had crafts fairs every fall [at Son's Chapel] as a way of making money. They probably sold quilts and whatever they had made to get people to stop by and buy stuff," historian Beland says. "Now people zoom down [Arkansas] 45 without even seeing it, except every once in a while someone pulls in on a Tuesday because they see the cars" -- and the "For Sale: Hand-quilted baby quilts" sign posted on the front lawn.

Zelei hopes that the Holiday Quilt, Yarn & Craft Fair will encourage people who have never visited Son's Chapel to come see what's inside -- and perhaps come back to help preserve its history.

"The thing we hear most frequently is 'I've driven past for years and never knew what was inside,'" Mary Scott, one of the quilters, said in a previous story. "We're trying to show them what we do."

NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK - 5/19/15 - Son's Chapel in Fayetteville May 19, 2015. A 75th anniversary of the dedication of the chapel with an open house is planned for May 30.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK - 5/19/15 - Son's Chapel in Fayetteville May 19, 2015. A 75th anniversary of the dedication of the chapel with an open house is planned for May 30.
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Go & Do

Holiday Quilt, Yarn & Craft Fair

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 13 & noon-5 p.m. Nov. 14

Where: Son’s Chapel, 5480 E. Mission Blvd. in Fayetteville

Cost: Admission is free; quilts & other crafts will be for sale

Information: Visit fb.me/e/2t80FMokt on Facebook

Print Headline: Stitches in time

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