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As One: Sister seamstress stitches together prayer & work for community

As One: Sister seamstress stitches together prayer & work for community - (03-01-2022)

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St. Benedict understood the importance of the role of community in religious life and provided his Rule to help imperfect people from different backgrounds live together peacefully. In this new series, we will showcase the various works within the monastery that help the community live together - as one - as St. Benedict instructed.

PHOTO: Benedictine Sister of Perpetual Adoration Marie-Jona Yoo, OSB enjoys sewing aprons, many of her own design, on the congregation’s e-commerce site, MonasteryCreations.com.

In a quiet room tucked away in a corner of the second floor of the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, the only sound is the soft, rhythmic whirring of a sewing machine.

Even on a cloudy afternoon, the room is still bright, thanks to tall windows that let in the late afternoon light. A crucifix adorns one wall, a couple of large tables fill most of the space and a seamstress mannequin stands at attention to one side.

This is the sewing room where Sister Marie-Jona Yoo, OSB spends several hours each day. It has been one of her assigned community tasks for three years and one that keeps her engaged. She leans over the sewing machine, light gray hair tucked neatly into her veil, and carefully guides the material past the needle.

“I make what our Sisters ask for - like habits, veils, dresses and pajamas,” she said then adds, “and aprons and refectory table runners for special occasions, altar cloths and the things that need mended such as old habits, kitchen towels and more.”

It’s a job that’s important to the daily flow of community life. Not much gets thrown away here. Sisters don’t spend much time (or money) shopping in stores, and they are dedicated to repairing and recycling materials to increase their longevity.

Growing up in South Korea, Sister Marie-Jona learned the basics of sewing from her mother. It wasn’t something she envisioned doing for a living until her early 20s. She took classes at a fashion academy to learn about designs and pattern making for women's dresses. Enjoying the work, she dreamed of running her own dress shop.  

Her mother owned a building in a city and let Sister Marie-Jona open a dress shop there. However, she was a little nervous about working in a larger city. So she packed up and moved to a smaller town to open her shop, to ease into the business and learn the ropes first.

Even though it was a small town, there were several opportunities for work, including making women's dresses and hundreds of middle and high school girls' uniforms (which weren’t sold commercially).

“That’s how I gained experience and learned a lot about making dresses,” she said. “There were times, when making school uniforms close to a deadline, I and other employees stayed overnight for several days at a time.” She laughed and added, “But that was OK back then. I was young and didn’t get tired.” 

“By God's providence, I met a young woman in that small town who was going to enter a Benedictine monastery. I heard of the word 'Benedictine' for the first time in my life,” she said. “Years later, I didn't open a new shop in the city. Instead, I joined a Benedictine monastery in South Korea.”

After she entered religious life, God provided her with a good opportunity to share her dress-making experiences. She was assigned to be the manager of the Self-Reliance Center for physically disabled women that was run by the monastery. There were about 10 women at that time, living together and sewing school athletic uniforms for their living. Hiring a tailor and two skilled seamstresses, she worked for them for several years.

“I didn’t do much sewing myself in Korea, usually creating designs and making patterns instead,” she said. “I enjoyed the creative part of it, thinking about what I could make with the fabric when I saw it. Now I am sewing dresses myself and getting more skilled at it.”

Later, Sister Marie-Jona stayed over a year with the Benedictine Sisters at their monastery in Tucson, Arizona. She learned more about making albs by working with Sister Mary Jane Romero, OSB in the Sisters’ liturgical vestments department.

Sister Marie-Jona chuckles at the memory, “But robes aren’t too difficult to sew.” She waves her arms and mimes wearing a big robe. “They are very roomy.”

When she found herself managing the sewing room at the Clyde monastery in 2019, she knew she had more to learn.

“The Sisters may have thought I was more proficient than I really was before I came here,” she laughed.

So where did she turn?

Where many people go for How To help: YouTube.

She often watches videos to learn new techniques or to refresh a skill.

“I don’t make the same thing every day, so sometimes I need a reminder on how to make a collar or a pocket,” she said. “I like to make things look nice.”

Sewing provides Sister Marie-Jona the opportunity to pair a skill with her religious calling of prayer and service for others.

“Sewing is prayerful, manual work,” she said. “I am happy to serve my Sisters through this work.”

And as one who sews knows, it can be frustrating.

“When I sew something wrong, I have to rip it out and do it all over again,” she said. “However, it is a good lesson as well. It reminds me to be patient, not to hurry, to concentrate.”

Another challenge is often finding the right material at a good price in the rural area the monastery calls home.

“Here - in the middle of a cornfield - it’s hard to find good material,” she said. “You can’t feel material when shopping on the internet, and wholesale places in the city are so big without a catalog. It’s hard to find just what you need.”

At the suggestion of a friend, Sister Marie-Jona began making aprons to sell on the Sisters’ e-commerce website, MonasteryCreations.com.

“I thought it would be a nice way to connect with and serve people outside the monastery, and my friend was my first customer,” Sister Marie-Jona said with a smile. “And since then I can barely keep them in stock.”

Because she only makes aprons when she doesn’t have other community projects to complete, they are added to the online store sporadically, two or three aprons at a time.

“I’m amazed at how many people look at our website and order the aprons. They are from all over the United States,” she said. “Whenever a new apron is added to the website, it sells out quickly. I appreciate our customers.”

Creating the aprons and utilizing good material and quality design and stitching are important to Sister Marie-Jona. In many ways, she hasn’t changed from those early days in her dress shop, creating new designs and tweaking old ones. 

“I’m often thinking, ‘How can I make this better? How can I make it more comfortable for people to wear?’” she said.

And it’s that spirit of creativity - paired with a love for helping people inside and outside her community - that makes Sister Marie-Jona’s work so very special.

For more information about Sister Marie-Jona’s aprons, please visit www.MonasteryCreations.com.