When it comes time to remember congregants who played a special role in the history of any church, those in the sanctuary instinctively gaze skyward. In one Northeast Portland church, however, members look down.
Ah, no, not that far down.
Just to the pews.
When Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1624 N.E. Hancock St., opened in 1914, cushions covering the pews were made of heavy brown fabric. By 1980, those cushions were worn, faded and deteriorating.
Four women devised a plan to replace every cushion with beautiful and intricate handmade needlepoint cushions. Only one of the four, however, knew how to needlepoint.
She taught the other three. Word spread, more teachers were brought in and other members joined the enterprise. Eventually, more than 150 women, a few men and some kids, ranging in age from 12 to 92, joined the Needlepoint Pew Cushion Project.
For nearly 30 years, they worked as a team, daughters and granddaughters taking over when older women died or quit because of failing eyesight. Here in the heart of the city was an old barn-raising group effort. People used their money, time and talents serving a greater good.
The 85 cushions in the sanctuary have been replaced. What remains are the cushions for 10 pews in the balcony.
If all goes as planned, the project will be completed this year.
The genesis began 5,000 miles from Portland in Hingham, a small town in England.
Judy Wyss, a Westminster member and Portland resident, spent time each year living in Hingham. She attended the town’s church and was taken by the beautiful kneelers used by parishioners during services. Each kneeler featured a needlepoint cushion depicting church history as well as secular subjects including local pubs, landmarks and buildings.
When Wyss returned to Portland one year in the 1980s, she heard that Westminster members were debating what to do about those old brown pew cushions. Wyss told a fellow member what she’d experienced in Hingham. They agreed needlepoint cushions would be grand in Westminster. Two other women heard about the idea, and the four formed a team to make it happen.
They asked for advice from the owner of a nearby store that sold wool. The store owner came to the church and said a design needed to incorporate the church’s spectacular stained-glass windows, which featured geometric shapes. The team decided each pew cushion would be made up of a series of images, some religious with others secular, each encompassed within a circle or octagon.
More than simple slip covers, the project became part math project – how many individual cushions, each the same size, could fit in a pew when each pew was a different length? They then had to build the ensuing jigsaw puzzle from scratch, scrambling the pieces and putting them back together again.
Church members also raised money to buy the material and fine yarn from a shop in France.
And they got to work.
Pat Allen, now 81, was the only one who knew how to needlepoint on that initial team.
“When we began this,” she said, “I don’t think any of the older members thought they’d see it completed in their lifetimes. One of the original teammates has died and we had other members who were part of this project pass.”
The group had no boss. All were welcome to bring their talent and ideas, certain to find a role.
Two church members created geometric and pictorial designs. Two experimented with shading technique, which became the background for all designs. Stitchery teachers taught weekly classes in the morning and in the evening. One woman ordered all the yarn, cut it and sorted it for each canvas.
Two women coordinated and assigned each canvas and measured each to make sure it fit. Others joined each design and made end pieces to make a cushion. One woman who couldn’t master needlepoint kept all the records, which were later used to create a commemorative book for the church.
“There’s no way to verify this,” Allen said, “but we believe this was the largest all volunteer needlepoint project in the United States.”
The church welcomes visitors who want to explore the sanctuary and see the cushions. Featured in some pews, mixed among church history and religious symbols, are designs featuring landmarks including Union Station, Mount Hood and Haystack Rock.
On pew is dedicated to Beverly Cleary, author of a series of beloved children’s books that have sold millions of copies. Cleary, who grew up in Portland, attended Sunday school at Westminster.
The writer used Northeast Portland in 14 of her stories. One of her most beloved characters, Ramona, was featured playing a sheep in the Christmas pageant in what was described as “the big stone church,” which is Westminster. Cleary’s pew features Ramona in school, the pageant and playing in a puddle. Also in the pew is a design of other Cleary characters — Henry Huggins and his dog, Ribsy.
The cushions are expected to last more than 100 years.
“Even when everyone who worked on this project is gone,” Wyss said, “a part of us will be always in the church.”
–Tom Hallman Jr.
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