Sisters of St. John’s have knit over 1,800 Amnesty Teddy Bears for Amnesty

by Stan Jolly, Amnesty Internatonal member

There is a small but amazing group of dedicated Amnesty International fundraisers entrenched within the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD). 

From August 1989 to June 2014, the Sisters have made and sold one thousand, eight hundred and eleven (1,811) knitted and stuffed Teddy Bears!  The Sisters have garnered almost $15,000, which, with the exception of a deduction for the cost of stuffing material, has been entirely given to the work of Amnesty International.

The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine is a contemporary expression of the religious life in the Anglican Church. Founded in Toronto in 1884, they are a prayer and action-oriented monastic community, grounded and rooted in obedience to the Two Great Commandments – to love God and to love one’s neighbour.

The Sisters became interested in the work of Amnesty International in 1989 through the efforts of Joan Francis, one of their Associates.  Joan, known as the Amnesty “Teddy Bear Lady”, was a long-time AI activist, who passed away on September 3, 2014.  Until the age of 97, Joan knit Teddy Bears for Amnesty International and signed Amnesty petitions and postcards for Group 65!

In the 1980s, Joan was sending Urgent Action telegrams on behalf of individuals suffering from persecution and other human rights abuses.  The sale of bears provided Joan with the funds to send the telegrams. Inspired by Joan’s “Teddies for Tellies” project, a number of Sisters decided to use some of their recreation time to make Teddy Bears for Amnesty International. 

At first, the proceeds were given to Joan to help her pay for telegrams.  For a period of time in the 1990s, the money was given to AI Group 3 to help with the cost of postage on behalf of Urgent Actions and Prisoners of Conscience.  After the closure of Group 3, the money was sent directly to Amnesty International in Ottawa.

The SSJD Motherhouse is located in North Toronto, adjacent to St. John’s Rehab Hospital which was founded by the Sisterhood in 1937.

How many children and adults have been introduced to Amnesty International through these soft, cuddly Teddy Bears?

When you walk between the Convent Guest House and the Refectory you will pass numerous bookshelves filled with a tempting array of spiritual books for sale.  There, in the midst, is a special table dedicated solely to the work of Amnesty International.  

Along with pamphlets, postcards and a description of Amnesty’s work, you will usually find 3 or 4 adorable, hand-knitted Teddy Bears for sale.  Attached to the arm of every Teddy Bear is a neatly laminated tag: “My name is Mortimer [or Pumpkin, or Sniffles, or Toby] and I work for AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL”.  How many children and adults have been introduced to Amnesty International through these soft, cuddly Teddy Bears?

The name and sale of every Teddy Bear is carefully documented in a special ledger.  Sister Wilma, the keeper of the Teddy Bear book, loves to tell about the many sisters, associates and friends over the years who contributed to the making of the bears.  

Sister Wilma reports that the wool is almost entirely given to them by Associates and friends from left-overs from their own various projects. In recent years, an Associate of SSJD has donated teddy bears made from her original Girl Guide pattern.  The Sisters have also welcomed a number of smaller bears from a Craft Group at a nearby Church. Sometimes, volunteers will deliver a bundle of knitted “bear skins”. Over time, the Sisters stitch the individual “bear skins” together, stuff them and, with much laughter and delight, add the facial features and select a name. “The most important thing we do, of course, is to pray regularly for the work of Amnesty International which we do most days.”

After the bears are named, they are sold at the Convent, and the proceeds from the bears are sent directly to Amnesty International  Canada’s head office in Ottawa.

Supporters of Amnesty International are aware of the powerful potential of many tiny candles flickering in the darkness. For twenty-five years, thousands of prayers and tiny stitches have had their own immeasurable impact!