In the 1920’s, author Virginia Woolf lectured and wrote to advance the cause of women’s freedom. In her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” she states, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” I propose the same to be true If a woman is to sew.

b1As I rode from Guatemala City to Nueva Concepcion, where my sewing mission was to continue for another six weeks, my heart was as full as the pick-up truck that carried us. My heart was loaded with anticipation. The truck was loaded with my sewing supplies: 3 sewing machines, many bolts of fabric, boxes of sundry notions, and my treasure — the ecclesiastical patterns I had drafted and honed for over 40 years. The three women who had traveled to the city to attend my class, Eulalia, Romelia, and Presvytera Reina, would again join me for the next phase, vestment construction.

Fr. Andres was out of town when we arrived in Nueva Concepcion, but the 18 boys in residence gave us a warm welcome. When they led me to the place that was designated for my sewing workshop, my happy heart sank. The room was in a long, low building, comprised of a series of 5 rooms, each with a door opening to an outdoor corridor. The first two rooms had been remodeled into sleeping quarters. The third room was used for corn storage. The fifth room was where Charlie, the handyman/security guard stayed. The fourth room, filled with junk and copious evidence of rodent visitation, was to be mine. My face must have evidenced my shock and disappointment. The boys immediately set about emptying the room and sweeping it clean.

Fr. John and I wasted no time in ordering tables from a local carpenter. The carpentry shop was a dismal, dirt-floor shanty, but nonetheless, equipped with power tools. The barefoot, shirtless craftsmen toiled at sawing wood and welding metal framework without the aid of protective gear. We ordered one large table for cutting fabric and three smaller ones for the sewing machines. As we tried to establish a delivery date for the order, the carpenters quickly pulled shiny cell phones from their tattered pockets. Anachronisms are not unusual here.

Next on our rushed agenda was to hire a contractor to bring the sewing room up to my standards of cleanliness and functionality. There were a few basic needs such as, a water-tight roof, a ceiling, lighting, electrical outlets, glass windows with screening, ventilator fans, shelving, painting, and a door. Call me a spoiled Gringa, but those were my demands. Jairo, the contractor, claimed he could get the job done in one week. I thought that projection to be overly optimistic, but we paid him half of the $3000 estimate to get started. Although the work began, weeks passed, a month passed and my room was still not finished.

If not for the patience and tolerance of Fr. Andres, my time here would have been wasted. When my tables arrived, (one week later than the promised date) Fr. Andres allowed me to set up my workshop in the living room of his home and invited my students to come. He tolerated our scattered threads and fabric scraps, our dropped needles and pins, and the incessant whirring of our machines. Being in such a central area of the home, we often attracted a circle of curious onlookers, including the household dogs, cats, and an occasional chicken. When Dona Simona, the cook, took her break from the heat of the kitchen, she heated up the atmosphere in the living room by turning on the TV to her favorite telenovela (soap opera), “Mujeres Locas No Van al Cielo” (Crazy Women Don’t Go to Heaven).

Two of the boys, Jorge and Jose, expressed a serious interest in learning to sew. I set them to work making Communion cloths and chalice covers. Because this is a community of men, I also taught them to hem pants, a necessary skill here. Through his diligence, Jorge actually advanced to sewing a vestment. In all, my students completed 7 sets of vestments, including matching chalice cover sets. I am so proud of them!


b3At last, on Friday, August 24, four days before my departure, Jairo put the finishing touch on the sewing room. I finally had a room of my own! While my own usage of the room will be short-lived, it will remain here to give opportunity to others. The “room” that Virginia Woolf spoke of was not only physical, but metaphorical as well. Certainly, a woman needs a space in which to sit and write, but she also must be allowed the personal liberty and freedom from social constraints to explore her talents and create art. To illustrate her point, Woolf created a fictional character, Judith Shakespeare, the equally talented sister of William. Denied an education because she was female, Judith was forced into a marriage and died a tragic death, never having brought her creativity to light. I’m sorry to say that in rural Guatemalan villages, there are women who are still denied an education, and pressured, at an early age, into conjugal relationships, often without the benefit of marriage. Multiple pregnancies and large families further restrict a woman’s life. It is also not unusual for a man to move into another relationship, leaving the woman and her children destitute. Opportunities for women to explore their talents, earn a living, and take control of their own lives need to be created.

Thanks to the generous donations of those who supported my mission, I have been able to provide a well-supplied sewing room which might give someone the space she needs to change her life. This is the beginning of a small industry. My students will teach others and now, they have a room of their own.

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