In Rome in October 2002, while waiting with Catholics from around the world for a papal Mass to begin, Roy and Roberta Wilson believed they saw the Blessed Mother’s hand at work.
As the couple passed time by making knotted cord rosaries, nearby pilgrims showed interest. Members of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City, the Wilsons tried to teach rosary making to the Catholics, many of whom didn’t speak English.
“Amazingly, they learned the quickest of any group we’d ever taught,” Roberta said. Then, she learned why.
“A man three or four rows behind us said, ‘Praise to Our Lady of the Rosary!’ It was her feast day. So we had some help from her.”
The Wilsons believe Mary has guided them throughout the 14 years they’ve been making and donating knotted cord rosaries, which Roy said have gone to Catholics on six continents. The couple makes 1,200 to 1,300 of the devotional aids each year, and several Catholics who learned the art from the husband and wife also make and donate rosaries.
The ministry has spread further than the Wilsons imagined it would when Roy took up the craft in 1997.
That year he was on a retreat at which a fellow participant, who was often seen carrying cords, piqued his curiosity. “I had to ask, ‘What are you doing?’” The man showed Roy a rosary and asked, “Would you like to learn to make these?”
Roy, who works as a tile setter, learned. “When I got home, I had to make the rosaries; I didn’t know why. I think Our Lady was whacking me around a bit.”
As he continued crafting them, requests poured in from friends, family and fellow parishioners. Seeing he needed help fulfilling those requests, Roberta started making rosaries, too.
Since then rosaries have gone to hospitals, rest homes, mourners at funerals, residents of several foreign countries and, with the help of St. Wenceslaus’ Knights of Columbus, to U.S. troops overseas. The cord rosaries are hard to break, so they’re well suited for children and soldiers, said Roberta, a school teacher.
The most challenging request for rosaries came in 2008 from a Slovakian seminarian who met a friend of the Wilsons while in the United States. The seminarian, now Father Jan Dolny, asked for 600 rosaries for everyone who would attend his ordination Mass — just two months away. Friends and family of the Wilsons ended up helping the couple make 850 rosaries — while praying for each future recipient.
The agnostic boyfriend of one such recipient later went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Roberta said. “He was overwhelmed by the idea that someone in a different country was praying for him.”
Brother Erik Ross, a Dominican friar native to Wisconsin, also was moved by gifts of rosaries that the Wilsons sent his community in Poland in 2008. Many of the rosaries went to people whom missionary priests minister to in various countries, Br. Ross e-mailed the Wilsons. “Your generosity, and the generosity of your whole network of rosary-makers, is just astonishing… you are an example and witness to all of us,” he wrote.
Hearing such examples of how rosaries and prayers have touched people keeps the Wilsons going, Roberta said.
Roy agreed. “Realizing I can help promote the faith and bring people closer to God is my reward.”
Monica Hemingway feels similar benefits. She said that after taking a rosary-making class from the Wilsons about three years ago as she prepared for confirmation, she fell in love with the craft. “I like knowing my handiwork will be used by other people and they’ll be able to enjoy it,” said the 16-year-old member of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City. She has helped the Wilsons with rosary-making workshops at the Davenport Diocese’s youth rallies and given rosaries to family members, dinner guests and others. “It makes me feel closer to God and other people.”
At Our Lady of the River Parish in LeClaire, the rosary ministry has snowballed since the Wilsons taught a class there a couple years ago at parishioner Jennifer Hildebrand’s invitation, she said. Prayer partners for Catholics preparing for first Communion or confirmation pray with the knotted cord rosaries, then give the devotional aids to the parishioners when they receive the sacraments. Hildebrand estimates about 300 rosaries also have gone to residents of Grand Bois, Haiti, home to Our Lady of the River’s “sister parish” and where LeClaire parishioners have made mission trips.
For St. Wenceslaus parishioner Jan Dostal, knotted cord rosaries offer a way to reach out to an ill or injured Catholic. She takes them and Communion to patients at University of Iowa Hospitals. Lapsed Catholics there decline the Eucharist but seem happy to receive a rosary, she said.
She and her husband, Bill, have made the rosaries for at least a decade since taking a class from Roy. “As much as we try to pay him for his cord, he absolutely refuses,” Bill said. “He and Roberta are just so devoted to this. It‘s a wonderful cause.”
Printed with permission from The Catholic Messenger, newspaper for the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa.