This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Virginia relief sale a labor of love for 50 years

MOUNT CRAWFORD, Va. — There’s something distinctive about the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. Or maybe it’s actually a lot like the dozens of other Mennonite relief sales across North America — but made unique by the people who love it as their own.

The 50th anniversary commemorative wall hanging, quilted by Charlotte Swope, left, and pieced by Carolyn Bontrager, went for $5,100 Oct. 1 at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. — Jim Bishop for MWR
The 50th anniversary commemorative wall hanging, quilted by Charlotte Swope, left, and pieced by Carolyn Bontrager, went for $5,100 Oct. 1 at the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. — Jim Bishop for MWR

The sale marked its 50th year with a commissioned auction piece and commemorative book.

The commissioned piece, a handcrafted wall hanging, was auctioned for $5,100. Carolyn S. Bontrager of Harrisonburg pieced the wall hanging, and Charlotte O. Swope of Linville did the quilting.

Bontrager and Swope collaborated nearly two years on the project, which used 50 cotton fabrics reminiscent of the Civil War period and 325 yards of thread in constructing the 40 6-inch blocks that comprise the piece.

Bontrager credits her love for quilting to her aunts, (the late) Anna, Laura and Mary Showalter of Waynesboro, who made the top-selling quilt at the sale for many years.

“I love the process of putting together something beautiful and hope that the buyer will appreciate the result,” she said.

Swope added: “I’m not an up-front person. Quilt-making is something I can enjoy doing behind the scenes. It’s the Lord’s work.”

Kathy N. Zendt of Staunton has worked with other volunteers in handling the quilts, comforters and wall hangings for about 20 years. Her husband, Glenn, works with the donated woodworking items.

“It’s simply beautiful to see people from so many different Valley area churches taking hold of their responsibilities to make the relief sale happen,” Kathy Zendt said.

The celebration also saw the release of For the Least of These: 50 Years of the Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale: A Photographic History, 1967-2016. The 81-page softcover book features some 350 pictures chronicling the sale’s beginnings and rapid growth, along with stories, sale milestones, major volunteers, statistics and other historical data.

Karen Gon­zol of Martinsburg, W.Va., relief sale representative from Stephens City Mennonite Church, volunteered to compile the book. She started by combing the archives at Eastern Mennonite University and connecting with people who knew others with information, stories and photos.

“Soon I became intrigued with what I was finding,” Gon­zol said. “I wanted to get as much of the story of the sale as I could find.”

The book is available for $15 at Gift & Thrift at the Park View Shopping Center plaza or by email at

Momentum still going

Attendance was estimated between 3,000 and 4,000 people at the first sale, held Sept. 30, 1967, on the Paul Wenger farm south of Waynesboro, with net proceeds of $6,393 sent to MCC.

The sale moved to Augusta Expoland, Fishersville, in 1974 and, with the need for larger facilities, to the Rockingham County Fairgrounds in 1999. It has raised more than $6.5 million over 49 years.

Phil N. Helmuth of Harrisonburg, sale chair in 1998-99 and again from 2008 to 2010, oversaw the move from Expoland to the Rockingham Fair site and was auction co-chair this year.

“I don’t know of any other organization that involves such a diverse group of people in a cause beyond themselves,” Helmuth said. “[The fact] that the Virginia relief sale has this kind of momentum after 50 years speaks volumes.”

50th-year receipts add up

The Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale celebrated its 50th birthday Sept. 30-Oct. 1 at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds with near record-setting fundraising.

Preliminary figures indicate the sale raised about $338,300 for Mennonite Central Committee. Last year’s effort raised $264,021; the highest amount ever raised was $372,901 in 2014.

“Once all expense reports are finalized, we expect to come close to breaking the record sales total,” said Dave Rush of Harrisonburg, relief sale chair.

The auction of handmade quilts, wall hangings, knotted comforters and afghans, artwork and wooden handcrafted items accounted for $141,124. Nineteen quilts went for $1,000 or more.

A 92-inch-diameter braided wool rug crafted by the late Stella Brunk Shank of Broadway took the top auction bid of $6,000.

An eight-star baby quilt made from feed sacks from the 1930s and 1940s by Carmen Wyse of Harrisonburg and Mac MacArthur-Fox of Blacksburg, Va., and a white-on-white quilt made by Anna Mary Burkholder of Augusta County, each went for $5,000.

Total funds raised included $22,185 from the “My Coins Count” (formerly “Penny Power”) project. The funds will help support Rafael and Solange Tartari, Virginia Mission Board workers in Lezhe, Albania, and assist uprooted people in Ethiopia, Honduras and other places.

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