meet along the way: The Ugly Quilt Group

This story was first published in the December 2023 issue of The Best Years as “Ugly Quilt Ministry: Bedrolls help people on streets keep warm throughout winter.”

In the early 2000s, the Ugly Quilt Ministry at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Cape Girardeau made 100 bedrolls out of mismatched fabrics for people who were homeless in South St. Louis. In the spring, they received a letter from an employee at the soup kitchen where the bedrolls were distributed. The letter contained information that shifted the perspective of Pat Edwards, who has been involved with the ministry since.

“He told us in the letter that that was the first year that any of their guys had no loss of digits,” Edwards says. “No lost fingers. No lost toes to frostbite. And I thought, ‘I’m in.’”

The project is a nationwide one that began in 1981 when Flo Wheatley and her family sewed bedrolls she called “ugly quilts” to distribute to people who were homeless in New York. Her efforts were in response to a homeless man’s parting words to her after he had helped her and her young son carry their things on public transit while her son vomited from cancer treatments. “Don’t abandon me,” the man who helped her had said. Since, the project, now called My Brother’s Keeper, has spread to towns and cities across the U.S. and world.

The bedrolls are called “ugly quilts” because they are made from used or no-cost fabric, according to The Sleeping Bag Project’s website. The nature of the mismatched fabrics ensures there is no market value, reducing the likelihood the bedroll will be stolen or sold for money and helping to ensure people who are homeless are the beneficiaries. The name also helps the project seem less intimidating to people who might volunteer their time; anyone can help make an “ugly quilt,” whether they have sewing skills or not.

The project began at St. Vincent De Paul Church in Cape Girardeau in 1996 after the late Therese Pierce and her husband Vic Pierce read about the project in Family Circle and made an ugly quilt. Therese brought the idea to the Women’s Council of St. Vincent’s, and they decided to host a weekend to make the bedrolls. They made a few the first year, but the project really took off during the early 2000s when the group began giving the bedrolls to St. Vincent De Paul Catholic Church in downtown St. Louis, where there is a soup kitchen.

The project continued to grow in Cape Girardeau in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Notre Dame High School moved to their new campus and the grade school expanded, opening up space in what is now known as the De Paul Center at St. Vincent De Paul Church. Volunteers with the project now utilize three rooms in the De Paul Center to construct the bedrolls and work on them every Wednesday. The ministry is a community and ecumenical project; people from outside of the parish also volunteer to help make the bedrolls. Hospitals and hotels donate sheets, fabric and washcloths.

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

Last year, the volunteers made 657 bedrolls, and this year, their goal is to make 650, which they are on track for. In Cape Girardeau, they distribute the bedrolls to the People’s Shelter, the Salvation Army and the Gibson Center, as well as at Project Hope, an event each year that offers employment, hygiene and medical services to people in the Cape Girardeau community who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness.

The project goes beyond Cape Girardeau: The group also distributes bedrolls to shelters, kitchens and ministries in Owensboro, Ky.; Poplar Bluff, Mo.; Sikeston, Mo.; Marble Hill, Mo.; Perryville, Mo.; and St. Louis. In addition, they have taught a group of people from Illinois how to make the bedrolls, and that group has taken the project back to their own community.

Kathy Berkbigler, organizer of St. Vincent’s UglyQuilt Ministry, says she has seen an increase in the need for the bedrolls in 2023.

“Most years, we give 100 [bedrolls out at Project Hope], and there would be some [left over] we’d take down to Salvation Army,” Berkbigler says. “This year, they ran out of 100 early [at Project Hope], came and got 40 more, and still ran out. So, there [are] more homeless [people in Cape Girardeau] than I think people want to admit.”

In each bedroll, the volunteers include a bag of travel-size toiletries, washcloth, hat, gloves and a prayer typed on paper as a gift. Recently, they have begun making mats from plastic grocery bags for people to put under the bedrolls, which helps keep people dry from the ground’s moisture and provides another layer of cushioning. It takes approximately 600 to 700 plastic bags to weave each mat.

To make each bedroll, volunteers measure cloth to be 84 inches by 84 inches, and add more layers of material that are the same size on top of it. A top and a bottom are sewn together, and the layers of material are marked for tacking.

Next, volunteers tack the layers of material together using a needle and crochet thread, cutting the thread and tying the ends together all over the bedroll. Two neckties are sewn onto the bedroll, which will tie the bag together when it’s rolled up. The material is folded at the top and sewn down the side and across the bottom to create a bag that is three and a half feet across, wide enough for most people to be able to sleep inside of.

Finally, the volunteers pray for the person who will use each bedroll before delivering them to the ministries that will distribute them to people who need them. They pin a Miraculous Medal from the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Mo., to the outside of each bedroll as a visible reminder of their prayers asking Mary the mother of Jesus to pray for the person who uses the bedroll, as well as Mary’s and Jesus’ protection of, presence with and love for that person.

Captain Lily Reinier at the Salvation Army in Cape Girardeau says as it gets colder outside, the organization sees more people come into the Salvation Army to eat a meal, take a shower and have a warm place to be. She estimates they give out at least 30 bedrolls each year.

“The need is great; the concrete gets cold, so [the bedroll] kind of gives a little cushion for people to be able to sleep on,” Reiner says. “Having that extra thing that we can hand out does make a big difference to those people.”


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