Lois Hartsough gently laced through her fingers a long strip of white cloth that she had just untied from the Arlington Street Church fence, overwhelmed by its significance.
Scribbled on the strip was “Boston Strong,” and it was among thousands of ribbons, pieces of cloth, lanyards, and even socks bearing prayers and words of encouragement handwritten by passersby from all over the world and tied to the fence on the Boylston Street side of the church.
Hartsough, a 12-year member of the Unitarian Universalist church, was among about 40 volunteers who gathered Sunday morning to commemorate the six-month anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. She and other volunteers used knitting needles to untie the strips in order not to cut the messages on the prayer-flag memorial. A rainbow-colored sea of multilingual messages, the memorial began with one ribbon two days after the attack.
“It’s emotional,” said Hartsough, 55, a nurse at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where many victims and both bombing suspects were brought.
“I’m thinking of my colleagues who were there in the emergency room. . . . It was important for me to come this morning and do this.”
Located on the corner of Arlington and Boylston streets, just beyond what became a cordoned off 12-block crime scene, the church and its impromptu memorial became one of the first places where people could express their grief and emotions, said Intern Minister Catie Scudera. “Hope you find peace, our love, thought and support from the UK,” read one strip. “Live on. Love on,” read another, while another had “Mexico shares your pain” written in Spanish.
“It’s been an honor to have this fence be a place where people could just tie their grief, their sadness, their connection there, just how [they were] profoundly moved in a nonverbal way,” said church member Connie Scanlon, 60, of Andover. “And so for us to just one, by one, by one just gently untie each knot is meaningful.”
It was Scudera’s idea to dismantle the memorial at the six-month mark, before the coming winter season would strip the ribbons of their messages and color. Some of the strips will be saved and transformed into a memorial quilt to be unveiled at the one-year anniversary next April, while the rest will be ritualistically burned in keeping with the Japanese Shinto tradition of burning prayers written on paper, said the Rev. Kim K. Crawford Harvie.
“It really felt like the most respectful thing to do, to send the prayers up,” said Crawford Harvie, who will burn them in a ceremony this week. “I think people have a lot to say about what happened and have a lot of feelings, and this was an opportunity for them to give voice in a public way, and somewhat anonymously, so that their deepest sadness, their deepest hopes could be, literally, inscribed.”
The ashes will be saved and presented at the church’s annual Day of the Dead service next Sunday, when they will receive a blessing. Scudera said the plan is to take some of the ashes and plant them in the garden behind the fence in the spring.
A quilter and church member for two decades, Holly Hendricks, 61, volunteered to use some of the strips for the memorial quilt. She provided most of the solid-colored strips the church left outside with markers in boxes for passersby. On one side of the quilt will be the messages, while the other will be a multicolored pattern. “In our tradition, Unitarian Universalism, we do honor life transitions,” Hendricks said. “This is a part of that, while it’s still rich in color, to take it down and do something positive and sacred with it. To make it more of a celebration than a loss.”
An hour and a half after all the strips were untied, some were presented at the front of the church inside two baskets during worship service. “We are grateful to these prayer flags that have helped us remember those who have been lost or injured; to heal from our own physical and spiritual wounds and to commit evermore to love and justice,” said lay leader Abigail Clauhs during the service. “These prayers that we have collected today remind us that we are Boston Strong.”