With each tuck, bend and fold, making works of art from blessed palms is a form of prayer for Sister Pauline Bilbrough.
Sister Pauline learned the art form nearly 60 years ago, as a young novice with the Religious Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Since then, her art of creating woven palms has turned into a Lenten tradition; the finished works of art, most of which measure no more than a few inches, are accompanied by a hand-embellished card and given at Easter to fellow sisters, family and friends.
“It focuses me during Lent, because there’s so much going on that it’s hard to keep the focus,” Sister Pauline said, adding that she also usually partakes in some sort of spiritual reading during the penitential season.
She continued the tradition over the years as she worked in various ministries in several cities, including at a residential program for teen girls, as an administrator for a home for the elderly and caring for elderly religious sisters. Sister Pauline came to St. Louis about 10 years ago and now lives at Mason Pointe Care Center with several other Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
Sister Pauline orders a bundle of palms from Catholic Supply of St. Louis about a week ahead of Palm Sunday. The palms must be as fresh as possible — “green” if you will — because they’re still pliable and easy to work with. Older palms don’t work as well since they’re too brittle.
One year, Sister Pauline became too busy with a new ministry and travel that she didn’t have a chance to make them. After Easter dinner with her fellow religious sisters, someone asked her: “Well, where are they? Where are the palms?” After explaining she didn’t have time, the sister pressed her: “‘You have to, you just have to.’ She went to everybody’s bedroom and took them off the wall and gave me the palms. I sat there after we had our refreshments and braided a new palms for all of their rooms.”
The tradition of palm weaving is an old one. After Palm Sunday Mass, families return home with blessed palms, which are considered a sacramental, and either place them on display, sometimes behind a crucifix on the wall. Others enjoy making them into works of art, such as a simple cross, grapes and leaves, or other more elaborate designs such as a crown of thorns.
Sister Pauline has taught countless others how to make the works of art, whether fellow sisters, friends of people she’s worked with over the years — really, just about anyone who is willing to sit down and learn. “Usually when I am sitting watching the TV in the evening, I will pull (the palms) and start working on them,” she said. “And then the other sisters say, ‘Can I learn?’ or ‘Can I help you?’ They cut the ribbon, or they punch the holes, or the stamp the blessed palm sign on the back” of the cards.
Lent is a time to slow down, look in a different direction and detach from the busyness of life, Sister Pauline noted. “It’s time to pull in a little bit to focus on what it’s all about, and why it still has so much meaning. It helps remind me that this is a preparation for Easter and to never forget the mystery of it.”
Reflecting on Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the beginning what was to be Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, Sister Pauline said that “the story is a wonderful one that brings a lot of consolation, and that life is full of ups and downs. There’s the cross as well as the christening. God was willing to have his Son do this so that the gates of heaven can be opened again for everybody who believes in that and strives to live the Christian life, to walk the way of Jesus.”
Holy week ends with Easter and the resurrection of our Lord, the Good Shepherd. “When we’re down don’t lose sight of the fact that Easter comes — and it will come for everybody.”