Every morning around 7:30 a.m., George and Mary Klassen arrived at the Niverville MCC Thrift Shop, ready to volunteer their time sewing comforters. George would set up the ironing board and begin cutting squares from fabric to iron so that Mary could sew them together to form the comforter tops, which would then be sewn with cotton batting and a single sheet of fabric to form the blanket.
Once finished, some comforters were sold in the thrift shop or donated to families living in remote communities in Manitoba. Most of the comforters were donated to MCC for distribution to people displaced by conflict or disaster around the world.
On March 26, Mary peacefully passed away from complications due to bone cancer. In her last few days while in hospital, she continued to talk about blanket making, the many people who helped her, and those that were helped by the comforters, said long-time friend and shop manager Gerald Loeppky.
That gift was 23 years of diligent, expert sewing that produced more than 15,000 comforters.
“I marveled at her commitment,” said Loeppky. “You’d be hard pressed to find someone more generous in Niverville than George [or] Mary.”
“She expressed so much gratitude for having had that opportunity to serve in such a meaningful way,” said Loeppky. “For her, it was so clear she understood the gifts that God had given her and she used them right to the end.”
Detailed in a red binder filled with yellowing loose-leaf paper are meticulous notes and counts of comforters made by Mary.
Because of Mary, 14,670 comforters have been donated to MCC through the thrift shop in Niverville.
Those comforters have been distributed by MCC to families displaced by conflict or disaster in places like Bosnia, Iraq, Ukraine, and nine other countries around the world.
In that same binder on another page, checkmarks are scattered beside a long list of names. According to Loeppky, Mary used this binder to keep track of the people who’ve helped her sew comforters through the years. Names appear as early as 1984 when a committee of women started making comforters in the basement of the Niverville Mennonite Church, now the Niverville Community Fellowship.
Only in 1996 did Mary start to volunteer at the thrift shop, naturally moving into a leadership role for the blanket making. Among her notes is a reference to the “Mission Sisters”, presumably the group of women she started making comforters with, said Loeppky.
Friend and volunteer Mary Wolfe said it was clear Mary loved sewing comforters because of the difference she was making through MCC.
“For Mary, she loved sewing and this was her doing something enjoyable that is also useful,” said Wolfe, noting the two friends had been sewing beside each other for 12 years and have known each other since the early 1980s.
“You wonder if what you’re doing is making a difference. Mary knew what we were doing, that it’s a need we can fulfill,” she said. “It’s something we enjoyed doing that someone benefits from.”
“I will remember Mary working quietly at her sewing machine, doing her work and doing it faithfully,” said Wolfe. “No matter if she was in pain… she was here. It was quite something to see [her dedication].”
The history of MCC and thrift
More than 40 years ago, the first MCC thrift store opened its doors as a completely grassroots volunteer initiative to do some good for the community and support MCC.
From those humble beginnings in a small shop in Altona, Thrift has grown into a North American network of more than 100 shops, contributing millions of dollars each year to support the relief, development and peacebuilding work of MCC.
In Manitoba, there are 16 shops across the province utilizing more than 1,800 volunteers to help sort, price and assist in general day-to-day, and work on special initiatives like comforter-making or designing store display.
*Cover photo credit Brenda Burkholder, MCC Photo
*Story photo credit Joyce Hildebrand, former Niverville MCC Thrift Shop board member