(This article first appeared in the April issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Mary McDonald, 96, is a veritable “knitting machine. Really. She knits continuously. She never stops.”
Every day, McDonald’s clicking needles turn out thick, warm mittens and hats for London, Ont.’s, homeless. Each year, she donates boxes and boxes of finely wrought winter wear for people ages two to 92 to the Hospitality/Out of the Cold program at London’s St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church.
“Mary used to be part of the cooking team for our hospitality meals,” says Margaret Nelson, a St. John’s parishioner and retired staff member. And when the church started a clothing cupboard, she began knitting for that. “Mary does the most marvellous work. She’s warmed the hearts and hands of many,” Nelson says.
McDonald comes honestly by her knitter’s skill and speed-she was putting needles to yarn before age five. Born Mary Roberts in 1918, one of 15 children, she grew up on a sheep farm in rural New Brunswick, near the village of Hampton. Early on she began to knit clothing for her siblings. “I was child number nine, and I had seven brothers and seven sisters,” says McDonald, who still lives in her own apartment.
She recalls her father shearing the family’s flock of black and white sheep. “Two of my sisters and I, who were big strong girls, would wash the fleece and hang it up to dry on the trees in the little apple orchard outside our kitchen door,” she says. “Mother would card the wool with a brush, sort of like the kind you use to groom a dog, to get rid of bits of hay, and then she’d spin the yarn on her wheel.”
Nowadays, McDonald purls and plain-stitches in a broad palette of bright colours, which she finds easier to work with visually than dark ones. She likes grey for men’s gloves. “But back then, the wool was either black or white-like our sheep,” she recalls with a chuckle. When finally a business opened up that would dye wool red or blue, the Roberts family could knit in all the colours of the beloved Union Jack.
McDonald began making clothing for London’s needy more than a decade ago. “A lady from Out of the Cold approached me and said how she would often want to pay a homeless man she met on the street to shovel her walk, but he couldn’t because he had no mittens,” she says. So mittens became her priority, but when the woman who was knitting the hats developed arthritis in her thumbs, McDonald took over making those as well. “My daughter Katherine knits the scarves to match,” she says.
McDonald herself raised nine children and was widowed at age 38, when her youngest was just 11 months old. “Mom went out and cleaned houses to support us, and when the older kids got married and moved out, she took in boarders,” recalls Willar. “She cooked, she cleaned and she knit tremendously for all us kids growing up. Every day, we appreciate all she did for us.”
Eventually remarrying, McDonald moved to London in 1970 with her second husband, a railway employee who was transferred there. She is now a parishioner at St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Crumlin.
“She’s a super, wonderful, pleasant lady,” says fellow parishioner Edith Grant.
If knitting is a synonym for unification and healing, then McDonald is its Christian embodiment. “Her ministry of warmth is felt by many all around the city,” says Nelson. McDonald shrugs off such praise. “I’m in my 97th year, so I can’t do much anymore,” she says. “But I can do this, so this is what I do.”
Diana Swift is a regular contributor to the Anglican Journal.