Sister Betty Suther

(Published March 27, 2009)
Sister Betty Suther’s best estimate is that her “quilt count” is somewhere around 300. She doesn’t know the exact number because, while the finished handcrafted quilt is certainly part of what’s important, it’s really the process that Sister Betty focuses on.

She tells of once asking her mother what she thought about during the hours she was embroidering. With the solemn look of someone who thought the answer obvious, her mother said, “Why, I think about the embroidery.”

Sister Betty thinks about the quilting. The beauty of it. The detail. The creativity. The contemplative nature of bringing together small pieces into a greater whole. And the comfortable companionship of quilters.

All of those — as well as the useable works of art that result from the process — explains why for the past dozen years Sister Betty has been leading quilting retreats at the Manna House of Prayer in Concordia. Those also explain why the retreats — up to six a year — are filled to capacity and why some participants return year after year.

Quilters know they will learn more than just better techniques in the weekend retreats. They know they will gain a little bit of Sister Betty’s philosophy; they, too, will “think about the quilting.”

That wasn’t what Sister Betty thought about growing up.

One of seven children, she was born and raised in Blaine, in eastern Kansas. She attended the apostolic high school of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, and after entering the order began a career as a teacher, serving in Chicago, Junction City and Abilene, Kan. She then served in the campus ministry at Kansas State University in Manhattan before returning to Concordia for an eight-year term on the sisters’ Leadership Council.

“When I turned 50, I decided to make a quilt,” she recalls. “It seemed like the appropriate landmark — and it took a year to make.”

When Sister Betty came to Manna House in 1997, serving as administrator and taking charge of the kitchen, she brought her quilt-making talents with her.

Today women come from across Kansas, as well as Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and elsewhere, for the respite of Manna House and two days of quilting with Sister Betty and their friends. And at the end of each retreat, there is a “graduation,” she explains with a laugh. “But that doesn’t mean they’re finished; it just means they’ll probably be back.”

And Sister Betty will probably be working on another quilt. There are relatives who don’t have one yet, plus events to which she will often donate a piece. She also frequently gets requests to create custom quilts — which range in price from $450 up to about $800 — and her work is for sale at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse gift shop.