Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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A sacred seamstress: Tiffin woman's vestments look just heavenly on priests

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Vi Ardner sews a vestment at her Tiffin home. The General Electric retiree estimates she has stiched about 3,000 of the garments over the years.


TIFFIN - Vi Ardner was a knitter, not a seamstress, when she got the call to be a maker of priests' vestments.

“They needed vestments at the church and the pastor was going to go buy some. A young priest said to the pastor, `Surely there is somebody in this parish that could make them.' He picked me.”

That was more than 25 years ago and Miss Ardner at 81 is still turning out vestments for Catholic priests in the Diocese of Toledo. She estimates she has made around 3,000, earning her high praise from Bishop James Hoffman who says that, thanks to her, his priests are some of the best-dressed in the area.

A retired employee of General Electric, Miss Ardner thinks she was chosen for her service to the church because she happens to live across the street from St. Mary's Parish here and the priests there knew of her knitting abilities.

In fact, she knitted and lined the first vestment. But it was too heavy and too complicated, she said.

“They said, `Make one out of material {fabric].' I didn't know how to sew and so I went out to the Singer store and talked to a lady I knew. I bought a sewing machine. ... She gave me lessons, and she stuck with me till I knew how to do it.”


Miss Ardner hands over the finished product to the Rev. Keith Stripe.


By 1976, Miss Ardner was stitching steadily enough to turn out the vestments for that year's ordination class, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last month at St. Mary's.

Because her duties also include making vestments for priest anniversary observances, she ended up sewing another set for each member of the class of 1976, along with vestments for priests marking their 40th, 50th, and 65th anniversaries.

Miss Ardner also has made vestments for the three priests who were ordained June 9 in Toledo's Rosary Cathedral. In addition, she makes palls, the ritual casket covers for funerals, and copes, mantle-like vestments worn on solemn occasions. And just for fun, she has even made a set of vestments for a doll she calls Father Al.

Using material she buys by the bolt for the vestments, which consist of the tunic-like chasuble and stole, Miss Ardner follows a simple design, enhancing it with tapestry panels or other decorations. Her pattern is based on a vestment that the Rev. Herb Weber, a former associate pastor at St. Mary's, brought with him to Tiffin in 1974 as a newly ordained priest.

“She took it and ran with it and experimented with different types of fabric and ways to decorate,” said Father Weber, who now is pastor of St. Peter's Parish in Mansfield, Ohio.

He estimates he has about 20 “vestments by Vi.” “Every so often, she would make me a new batch. I celebrated my 25th two years ago and she made a vestment at that time for me.”

Miss Ardner said she does most of her sewing in the morning. “I get up and go to Mass and sew for three or four hours. I very seldom sew much in the afternoon.”

For her trouble, she sometimes accepts a nominal payment, said the Rev. Frank Murd, pastor of St. Mary's and a member of the ordination class Miss Ardner outfitted 25 years ago.

“We figure that probably covers the cost of material and then we're not even sure about that. She does not make any money, and she gives so many of them away.”

The cost of new vestments can range from about $200 to $1,600, depending on the degree of ornamentation. “I don't want money, don't need it,” Miss Ardner said. “I worked at GE 34 years and I get a good pension and good Social Security. It's just love I've got. It gives me something to do.”

A few years ago, Father Murd said, some well-meaning parishioners suggested Miss Ardner give up the work because they feared it was getting to be too much for her.

“Her doctor stepped in and said, `No, it's the vestments that keep her going.'”

Father Murd said Miss Ardner's greatest joy is seeing the priests wear her vestments. For the recent anniversary celebration at St. Mary's, she was invited to carry one of the stoles she had made 25 years ago in the offertory procession.

Miss Ardner likes to think there will be both eternal and temporal benefit for her labors on behalf of priests.

“I hope I can go straight up to heaven,” she said.

“We had an Irish priest here once - Father Shanahan. One day he said, `Vi, you've got to work harder - to get your sanctuary full [of priests] for your funeral.'”

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