Working from the Heart: The Mask Ladies of Wheeling Island

Debbie Cooey

By Mike Patterson

On an island in the middle of the Ohio River, at the northern tip of West Virginia, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the women of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church have responded to a coronavirus “call to arms” by making protective face masks for hospitals, first-responders and even news reporters.

They are known in their Wheeling, West Virginia community as the “mask ladies” for their ability to churn out hundreds of home-made fabric shields in a makeshift assembly line that courses from house-to-house throughout their city of some 28,000 people.

“We’ve always been a helping church,” said Debbie Cooey, president of St. Luke’s ECW, co-junior warden and life-long member of the small congregation. “We just had a neat opportunity to help the people on the island.”

Founded in 1869, the original church building was rebuilt after a major fire nearly destroyed it in 1985. “We’ve always looked at ourselves as rising from the ashes,” Cooey said in a phone interview as she took a break between sewing masks and washing the 30 windows at her Wheeling home. And like the church itself rising from the ashes, the women have risen to build a community-wide initiative to supply local hospitals, rehabilitation centers and first-responders with masks to help prevent the spread of the dreaded coronavirus.

Although West Virginia was the last state to report a confirmed coronavirus case, the spread of the disease across the country was frightful enough to sound the alarm at St. Luke’s. The effort started in mid-March when Cooey, a retired home economics teacher, got a phone call from Fawn Thomas, a former student. “It was a call to arms,” Cooey said.  “Fawn said we have people on the front lines who don’t have anything to cover their faces.”

They downloaded a pattern off the internet, used a local nurse as a model and marshaled the church women.

Eight showed up at St. Luke’s for their first meeting to cut patterns and sew.  “It was a struggle but we made 15 masks,” Cooey said. They planned to meet a few days later but West Virginia’s governor intervened.  He issued a stay at home order. The women then scattered to their homes and began a “little factory assembly line” of cutters, sewers, folders and pressers.

The first shipment of 400 masks went to Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital. Since then, they’ve made hundreds of masks for Wheeling Hospital, other medical facilities and first-responders.  They also made masks for news reporters who are in the field covering the virus.

Their effort has expanded beyond St. Luke’s and now involves over two dozen women from throughout the community and other denominations. Cooey doesn’t even know the names of all the women involved because they are socially distanced in their homes.

A local fabric store has donated material, plus other women have given left-over fabric from their own sewing projects.  To avoid face-to-face contact, the goods for the assembly line of cutters, sewers and pressers are delivered to homes – some even left in driveways.

Even those who can’t sew want to be involved.  Cooey said one young mother who is busy taking care of her young children bought and folds her own fabric and delivers it for others to manufacture.  “She just wanted to do something to help,” Cooey said.

The fabric comes in “a wide variety” of colors and patterns. One volunteer was concerned that male nurses and first responders wouldn’t care to wear flowering patterns. “She found a pattern with bottle caps instead,” Cooey said. One recipient enjoys bat man, so they made him a mask displaying a bat man pattern.

Cooey said they have plenty of fabric but run into a sewing roadblock when they run short on one-quarter and one-eighth inch elastic for the straps.

Reaction from the community has been great, Cooey said.

“I’ve gotten notes in the mail, thanking us for what we’re doing. I’ve gotten text messages like crazy,” she said.

The Rt. Rev. W. Michie Klusmeyer, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Virginia, said St. Luke’s has a history of opening “its hearts and doors to those people around them.”

Situated in what was once the “land of the affluent, Wheeling Island has become the home of the poorest and most neglected in the community,” he said. Several years ago, “when it was recognized that ‘when schools are closed, the children don’t eat,’ St. Luke’s began a feeding program and refused federal funds so they could give assistance to anyone, regardless of age.”

“With this latest pandemic, the people of St. Luke’s have again stepped into places where even the larger parishes have not walked,” he said. “They have rallied around the call to mission and the call of Jesus to minister to the least of these my children.  They are a small but mighty bunch of people and they will continue to carry the Cross in the name of Jesus.”

“We’re all working from our hearts,” Cooey said. “It’s just meeting a common need. I’m sure we’ll be doing this for quite some time.”

Those interested in donating ¼ and 1/8 inch elastic can send the material to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 200 South Penn St., Wheeling, West Virginia 26003.


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