Rosemary Vuono, known best as Ro, laughs a lot. She speaks at a quick clip. And if asked about her life, she will say she doesn’t do anything small.
As she utters the words she stands in her Holly Springs home, where at least 10 vases have freshly cut flowers and glass jars hold green plants that are propagating. About six cookie sheets, already covered with parchment paper, are stacked on the kitchen island, ready for a baking project she’s planned for later in the day. And then there’s the rolling garment rack. It sits just outside her sewing room. Colorful dresses and shorts are situated on hangers.
The clothes are her creations. And they’re handmade for children.
To date she’s sewn more than 8,000 dresses and pairs of shorts. Through non-profits she’s connected to and people she’s met at places such as airports and doctors’ offices, the clothes have been delivered to children in Haiti, Africa, Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Panama. In the United States, they have been delivered to parts of Appalachia.
It’s part of a ministry, named Sewing for Hope, at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Apex. But its roots go back decades ago to New England and a time when Ro’s do-it-big philosophy merged with her love for a saint nicknamed “the little flower.”
Ro learned about St. Therese when she taught faith formation, or C.C.D. as it was known then, at her parish in Rhode Island. A recurring lesson she shared with students was that the saints were in Heaven praying for people and helping when asked. “St. Therese was a humble young nun who wanted to help … that stuck with me my entire life,” said Ro. “I have such a devotion to her.”
In 2010 Ro felt called to pray to St. Therese and ask for guidance on a way she could help others. She asked the saint for something she could do in her home, and with her hands.
“It was a simple, heartfelt prayer said with expectant faith. I knew she would answer,” Ro said. “I was excited to see what she would do. I didn’t have to wait long. About three days later I had gotten the mail and was going to throw out the junk catalogs when an insert fell out. I picked it up, turned it over, and there was a picture of a little girl wearing dirty rags with the question, ‘Will you spend an hour and make me a dress?’”
First, she got goosebumps. Then she got to work. Ro was sewing, something she’d never done before but was determined to do. “I knew St. T answered my prayer,” she said.
She started with what she calls pillowcase dresses – a simple pattern using about a yard of fabric and sometimes embellished with pockets or trim. She bought colored pillowcases and bias, a stretchy and flexible tape used in sewing. With one machine, she taught herself to sew.
Later there’d be a second sewing machine and a four-thread serger machine to create better edges, gathers and details. She taught herself to make sleeves and make shorts with lining.
She took “St. T” on the journey then, just as she does now.
In Ro’s sewing room there are depictions of the saint and a CD – Praying the Rosary with St. Therese of Lisieux – that plays. Ro estimates that she prays about 20 rosaries a day as she takes the fabric and turns it into clothing. The rosary, she said, puts her in a contemplative place where she can concentrate on the rosary while her hands work and her faith settles in her heart.
“I don’t know the situation the children are in, but Mary does,” said Ro, a retired hairdresser whose sewing room was blessed by a priest who is also a close family friend.
A bookshelf that runs the length of a sewing room wall houses her iron, thread, patterns and trim, such as rick rack. Baskets and bins keep things tidy. She has four mannequins, in kids’ sizes from 2 to 14, that help her with the crafting. On the opposite wall – a cutting table. By the light-filled windows, her matching desks are home to her sewing machines, which buzz along as she talks.
On the walls, Ro has coastal photos of New England for when she gets homesick. She and her husband, Nick, moved to North Carolina in 2020 to be closer to their adult daughter, who lives here, and their adult son and his family in Texas. The ministry moved with them.
To help keep her ministry moving now that they are in the Diocese of Raleigh, Ro often searches for the most well-priced, colorful cotton fabric. And when she finds it, she buys hundreds of yards at a time. The main qualifications, she said, are that it has to be new and fun, something the children would like to wear. If it looks like a pattern on a couch or curtains, that’s not the fabric she wants to work with.
When they lived in Rhode Island, she and Nick took a trip to Maine to a surplus chain store with a fabric department. They found 1,000 yards of colorful children's print fabric for $1,000. One dollar a yard, she said, is a good deal.
Ro shops for T-shirts, too, that can serve as the tops of dresses. Her goal for those is $1 each. “If I find a sale on girls fitted tees or tank tops in small sizes, I purchase them and trim a bit of length off and add a fabric skirt. It is fun to sew different styles,” she said.
She likes the bright shirts. She also enjoys shirts with messages about positivity or making the world colorful. If they’re in English, those are saved for a box that will go to a location in the United States.
Her goal is to mail one box each month. She’s fueled by one cup of coffee each day and, she proclaimed with a smile, “God keeps me young.” Throughout the ministry’s history, she’s been helped by teens she taught to sew and people at her parishes who also like to sew. Ro sometimes receives items, such as handmade doilies, that she incorporates into her designs. She noted, though, that people don’t have to know how to sew to be part of the ministry.
Ro is mindful of all the materials, especially the scraps. “I don’t waste anything,” she said, adding that she uses scraps to make quilts for a charity.
“I love seeing my dresses and shorts on children, making a small difference in their lives,” said Ro. “It has strengthened my faith and increased my love and joy. The little ones are God’s precious diamonds, and I can bring them a bit of joy wearing something made for them. I know God asks a lot of me. I know he does. So I have to live up to it … I know that even if I can’t explain it.”
To learn more about Sewing for Hope, visit saintandrew.org and search the word Sewing. There you can find five different patterns, items needed and ways to help. Contact Rosemary (Ro) at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions.