Chicago Parish’s St. Martha’s Guild Restores Intricate Liturgical Needlework

The self-taught women create and restore the fabrics of liturgy for St. John Cantius parish.

The intricate work is a group effort for St. Martha's Guild at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.
The intricate work is a group effort for St. Martha's Guild at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago. (photo: Courtesy of St. Martha's Guild)

When you walk into the sewing room at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, any number of things might catch your eye. 

It might be the antique apparatuses that hold massive, half-finished embroidered altar cloths. It might be an ornate gold cope that could belong in a museum. For a while there was even a headless, footless, handless female figure lying on the table, surrounded with gold-embroidered fuchsia-colored fabric.

This room belongs to the parish’s sewing group, St. Martha’s Guild. It’s a group of parish women who mend, create and restore the vestments and altar cloths used in the liturgies. St. John Cantius is a traditional parish with its own order of priests, the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius, whose charism is “restoring the sacred.” St. Martha’s Guild helps in this mission by “restoring the art of liturgical needlework.”

“The things that used to be made for Mass took an enormous amount of effort to make, and all of the people that know all of those skills for goldwork embroidery and fine linen and lace making — all the things that show up at the altar in any kind of way — they’re all 95 years old, and they’re cloistered nuns,” said art director Julie Streeter, who runs the guild. “[When the priest asked me to do it,] he was almost in tears because all of that knowledge, it’s going to go away. He was panic stricken that we’re losing this information.”

When she was offered the position as art director two years ago, Streeter was initially reluctant to take on the role. She was still raising and home-schooling the youngest of her seven children while also working as a freelance artist.

She prayed about it and opened her Bible randomly. It fell open to the chapters in Exodus in which God commands the Israelites to build the Ark of the Covenant in the desert. She understood the directive: If they could build a beautiful house for God in the middle of the desert, then she could make time to care for the Church’s earthly beauty in the midst of her hectic life. 

Streeter has a degree in illustration and did “big-shot” commercial art for more than a decade. She said that working for big brands “was fun, but not nearly as fun as working for Cantius.”

She now oversees the parish’s old and new design initiatives, which involve everything from building and maintaining several websites to making new bows for the Christmas wreaths. 

Streeter’s background isn’t in textile artistry, so she and the women who help her with St. Martha’s Guild are largely self-taught by the internet as well as centuries-old needlework manuals. They learned from an 18th-century book the proper way to use a certain embroidery tool so that the fabric wouldn’t pop out and hurt someone.

“We would YouTube,” she explained. “There are some Russian people who know how to do this, and you can’t understand a word they’re saying, but you can watch what they’re doing.”

The guild is open to anyone who wants to learn the craft, no experience required. Streeter will usually start people off by teaching them to embroider scapulars, which she says often creates appetite for larger projects. Otherwise, she teaches the skills each project demands on the fly.

“The two kinds of people we love to see come in are the ones who can draw and understand color and can make a beautiful picture out of any kind of medium, and then the others are the people who like to clean,” Streeter said. “They’re very meticulous about making sure the threads are straight and that the stitches are evenly spaced and that everything is neat.”

The guild spent months working on a frontal for a Marian altar. It was a big project that involved hand stitching a conjoined AM (initials for “Auspice Maria,” or “under the protection of Mary), with fleur-de-lis and edged with handmade silver lace. They mostly relied on one simple stitch to fill in the design, which allowed lots of people to contribute to the finished project.

“We had many hands working on it, and every week you’d go there and you’d see it just progress,” said Mia Lee, a high schooler who helps with the guild. “Then we got to the finish point, and it was just really incredible.”

Lee is just one of many young women who help with the guild. Streeter said that girls as young as age 12 are valuable contributors and that one young teenager figured out how to make better lace than she could. Lee chose to work for the guild as her fine-arts credit for her home-schooling curriculum.

“I’m learning stuff that people did hundreds of years ago. And, you know, sometimes we don’t exactly know what we’re doing,” Lee said. “But I feel very lucky and blessed that I’m able to do this for God and make something beautiful for him, because he deserves nothing less.”

Streeter has reached out to restoration experts at the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University Chicago for advice on restoring vestments, but they could only help her so much. Museum curators are trained to restore garments for display, while the St. Martha’s Guild wants the items to be fully functional for use in liturgy. 

One piece that posed a challenge was saved from the garbage. It was a gold-cloth cope (a liturgical vestment comprising a long mantle or cloak, open in front and fastened at the breast with a band or clasp) embroidered with images of the Holy Trinity on the back and Mary and Joseph on the front, made in Belgium between 1850 and 1870. Due to its age and poor condition, it was consigned to the trash by another Chicago parish. St. John Cantius’ priests sometimes get calls asking if they would like to look at other parish’s rejected vestments, as they’re known for favoring older and more ornate styles, which was how this cope came to the guild.

Lisa Bergman is a guild member who helped restore the cope. She said they had to get creative in figuring out how to restore it. Copes are heavy and prone to tears along the seams, especially after more than a century.

“Part of the reason they threw it away is because, from being probably 120 to 130 years old, it was falling apart,” Bergman said. “There’s a lot of gold embellishments all over it, and the stitches that were holding it down have disintegrated.”

They needed something very fine and nearly invisible to help weave together the disintegrated gold threads. The solution? Human hair, pulled from their own heads.

Perhaps the most interesting piece they restored was a simulacrum of St. Lucy. The simulacrum, which is a wax figure of a saint displayed alongside a first-class relic, was made around 1740 and depicts the third-century martyr at the moment of her death. Lucy’s head, hand and feet were sent to professional art restorers, which left the guild to mend her camel-hair-stuffed body and her gold-embroidered fuchsia top and skirt. 

They ended up creating entirely new underclothes and restoring her belt. Streeter recalled that, during the restoration, the body on the table would startle law students who would come for the Latin classes the church offers. The restored depiction of St. Lucy now rests in a place of honor in the church.

“You get to see people go up to it, and just look and pray,” said Beth Lee, Mia’s mom and another member of the guild. “You just feel so honored to have been a part of making her look good and allow people to feel that connection to her.”

When they’re not restoring antiques or creating something spectacular, there are more mundane tasks that demand attention. There are always ripped cassocks to mend, as well as maintaining the hundreds of linens used daily in the parish. The women said that it’s these repairs that feel like the heart of their ministry.

“With every stitch that I’m putting into it, I’m loving that priest who is loving Christ,” Bergman said. “It’s really like I get to be St. Martha and St. Mary, who were ministering to Christ when he came to them in Bethany, and I get to sit at his feet for those hours and say, ‘Talk to me.’”

The sewing room is a place where they can step away from the world and focus on giving something tangible back to God. 

“I want to say it’s almost like protesting against the madness of the world,” Bergman said. “Everything just sort of slows down, and we become almost like those nuns sitting in that convent sewing. It’s such a beautiful thing — it’s so peaceful.”

Streeter, who can spend up to nine hours a day working on guild projects, clearly delights in her work.

“There’s such a focus here on giving God his due. It needs to be excellent because it’s God,” Streeter said. “You don’t give him your halfway-done projects: You give him the very best that you can possibly pull off. And so it needs to be exquisite, and it needs to be dignified, and it needs to be worthy of the altar.”