In 1983 Sister Anne Brooks, an osteopathic physician and a nun with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, started a small medical practice in Tutwiler, Mississippi, in Tallahatchie County. With help from the Catholic Church Extension Society, an organization dedicated to supporting Catholic missionary work in the United States, she established the Tutwiler Clinic to provide health care to this underserved community in one of the poorest counties in the Mississippi Delta where more than a quarter of the population lives below the poverty level.
Sister Maureen Delaney moved to Tutwiler from California in 1987 to help Brooks and to create outreach programs for the clinic. Working to discover the needs and concerns of area residents, Delaney soon began to learn about the African American community’s strong quilting tradition. She paid a visit to a local woman, Mary Sue Robertson, who sewed quilt tops by hand in her home. Delaney immediately recognized the wonderful quality of Robertson’s creations and believed that they could be sold. Delaney found other women in the community who could finish the pieces into a quilt, and Tutwiler Quilters was born.
Tutwiler Quilters started with women who could sew, women who could quilt, and a few women with little or no experience at all. Skills were tested and skills were taught as new interest arose in a generations-old tradition. At first the quilts were small and the orders few, but the enterprise took off. The group originally worked with scraps of material culled from various sources but now works with new materials, most of them donated by supporters. Eighty percent of the money from each sale goes to the item’s creator, while the remainder goes to materials, and their product line, which features geometric designs, not only includes quilts but has expanded to include table runners, placemats, potholders, and handbags.
Not long after Tutwiler Quilters was established, the Tutwiler Community Education Center was opened. The center and the quilting program have grown in tandem, and the group has begun to receive national recognition and exposure. Tutwiler Quilters is a member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, which preserves and promotes excellence in traditional craft throughout the state.
Mary Sue Robertson died in 1989, but her spirit and vision have lived on to inspire subsequent generations of quilters. One of her creations hangs in the quilting room at the Tutwiler Community Education Center, serving as a reminder of how a traditional art can serve the heart, the soul, and a community in the Mississippi Delta.
- Tutwiler Quilters website, www.tutwilerquilters.org