Does anyone here have sewing skills? “I do,” Louise Fester replied upon the conclusion of her widow support group. As Louise was working to discover new paths in life as a single person, she was turned in the direction of what has become the Memorial Bear Program at Our Lady of Peace. She dusted off her 50-year-old Singer sewing machine and got to work as a volunteer, sewing bears for families with only straight stitch and zig-zag capabilities. As one of its founders, Louise has helped grow the program to what it is today.
Louise says the idea came from Mattson Funeral Home in Forest Lake. “They generously shared their pattern, expertise, and volunteers to help us with the first few workshops. We met three times a year and made bears for 8-10 clients, with each one assigned to a sewer.”
When Covid hit and in-person workshops were no longer possible, Louise began constructing bears at home for grieving individuals and families in need of comfort. At the last count, she was at 60 bears, lovingly made from the fabrics worn by loved ones. From paint-stained t-shirts to bike shirts and a cable-knit sweater with a Kleenex tucked into the sleeve, Louise carefully cuts and sews the treasured clothing worn by the person she is honoring. “We must honor and respect the person’s memory in this process,” she says.
Louise asks clients to email her a description of their loved ones, and why they’ve chosen the clothing they did. By doing so, she uncovers the information she needs to write a sentimental message that she prints onto a piece of cloth. She then places it in the custom-designed heart-shaped pocket over the teddy bear’s heart.
Thinking back on her most memorable bears, Louise remembers one she made for a wife and daughter whose husband and father rode Harleys. “The daughter had written so lovingly about her father that I could feel the joy in the bike shirts worn on trips to Sturgis.” The other bear she recalled was made from a dress worn by a mother-of-the-bride at her daughter’s wedding. As she spoke of her mother passing shortly after the wedding, the daughter said, “My mom had the bluest eyes.” From that story, Louise found sparkly blue eyes to sew onto the bear and presented them by saying, “Your mom’s eyes had to be sparkling on your wedding day.”
After several years of making bears, Louise finally made a bear of her own, from the clothing her husband wore on long-distance bike rides they took together. “The bears are the trigger for keeping the happy memories,” she says. Pieces of clothing represent memories, and if you put it on the bear, the happy memories are always in front of you.”
Louise’s old Singer sewing machine is still working and Louise is still volunteering. “Our Lady of Peace took care of my husband for five weeks before he died. The people there treated us with the utmost love, care, and respect for our whole family, and they met all our needs. I can never repay them, but I can pass that love and care onto others.”
Stay tuned to the blog this month for one more Memorial Bear volunteer story!