South Church creates strings of prayer beads to represent New Hampshire residents who died from COVID

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  • The beads and attachments that Alison Nyhan put together to honor the people of New Hampshire that died from the COVID-19 pandemic. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Rev. Sean Dunker-Bendigo (left) and South Congregational Church education director Alison Nyhan look at the bead collection that Nyhan assembled to honor the COVID-19 deaths in New Hampshire inside the downtown church on Monday, March15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • South Congregational Church director of Christian education Alison Nyhan gets ready for the virtual service on Sunday, March 14, 2021 in front of the bead memorial. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Alison Nyhan holds a small wrench she attached to the beads to represent some of the people who died from COVID-19 from N.H.

  • South Congregational Church director of Christian education Alison Nyhan looks over the bead collection she assembled to honor the people who died from the COVID-19 pandemic. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • South Congreational Church director of Christian education Alison Nyhan gets ready for services on Sunday. Parishioners sent in photos that were made into posters to put in the seats of the empty church during virtual services. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Alison Nyhan holds a heart attached to some of the beads. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Published: 3/18/2021 5:16:06 PM

Memorializing people can happen in many ways. For Alison Nyhan, director of education at South Congregational Church in Concord, it meant eternalizing New Hampshire’s victims of COVID-19 by making prayer beads to represent each and every one of them.

“I don’t know their names, their families or anything about their lives,” she said at a virtual service Sunday. “Yet I felt compelled to respond.”

The idea, Nyhan said, started when she was reflecting around the new year on the time and connectivity that was lost to COVID. She said she was “trying to find meaningful ways for people to connect and things that they could do at home that still connected to the church, because we haven’t been in church for a year.”

With COVID being the dominant factor in everyone’s lives, Nyhan decided that honoring those who died from the disease in New Hampshire was the way to connect her community and respond to COVID itself. Nyhan chose prayer beads.

She and her family used her personal collection of beads and art supplies to put together kits to create the strands, each containing 10 strings with a bell on the end. Each bag with beads had a letter for the volunteers.

“Art is a huge part of my life and who I am,” she said. “I felt this would be a great way for children, teens and adults to participate without too much trouble.”

The volunteers were encouraged to pray for the victims as they assembled the beads, and pray for their families and the medical professionals involved. Once completed, the volunteers dropped off the beads – or mailed them, in the case of a Girl Scout troop in Colorado and a few individuals in Maine.

“I was overwhelmed by the quick, loving response both near and far,” Nyhan said.

The original plan was to have all of the strings end in bells, “but the numbers grew and we ran out of bells,” she said. So she and the volunteers made charms to go on the ends of the strings – charms that would represent the individual the prayer bead was designated for. Although the strands are all different lengths, each has 12 beads to represent the 12 months of “the full year that we all experienced,” Nyhan said.

The prayer beads are displayed on a tapestry frame and suspended with chicken wire. Currently, there are 1,199 prayer beads, one for each individual who died of COVID and 10 strings bordering the tapestry to represent the state’s counties.

“We have spent many hours putting the beads on the tapestry, allowing us to enjoy, reflect and pray for each victim,” Nyhan said at the service.

Nyhan said the project serves as a way to help people process the enormity of the pandemic’s cost. She said that when they started, the numbers were at 750 deaths in the state. “And we’re like ‘Yeah, that’s manageable.’ And then we’re now almost at 1,200,” she said.

By Thursday, the number was up to 1,207.

The Rev. Sean Dunker-Bendigo said the use of the charms was also important to him, he said, because “no two beads are the same and no two strands,” emphasizing the personal impact of each COVID death.

“Each one represents the uniqueness of those that passed away, and the tragedy of that,” he said. “And the beauty of each life that’s been lost to the pandemic.”

As intended, it turned out to be a community effort.

“These prayer beads reflect the individual and ourselves as we lift up our prayers and remember these individuals,” Nyhan said at the service. “The pandemic has changed our lives, it has changed our day-to-day living, but it hasn’t changed who we are and those we love.”

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