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Sewing Christ’s Love

A 99-year-old tailor makes dresses for African toddlers

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As I minister to the spiritual lives of women in Burkina Faso, their physical needs are never far from my mind. Since infants and toddlers are always close to their mothers, I can see that when the children are undernourished and poorly dressed, the moms suffer from low self-esteem.

Imagine my joy when I began receiving boxes of toddler dresses from the United States to use in my various ministry settings in Burkina Faso. Even more surprising was the creator of the clothing: Joseph Dopsovich, a 99-year-old resident of Chapel Pointe Retirement Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Joe, an expert tailor, moved to Chapel Pointe, a support ministry of The Alliance, with his wife, Theresa, in 2010; his industrial-sized sewing machine has been busy ever since. Due to failing eyesight, Joe keeps bright lights trained on the machine, where he creates beautiful little smocks that are the delight of many West African girls.

Joe got the pattern for these frocks, called “pillowcase dresses,” from a friend. They are sewn from two pieces of colorful fabric and fastened with a ribbon around the top. At Chapel Pointe, Joe learned of our ministry and thought, I bet they could use the dresses. Michelle Shaffer, in the activity department, helped to provide material and ribbons—as well as encouragement. Soon my sister, Deborah Cowles, who lives in Carlisle, was being given boxes of Joe’s multicolored creations for transport to Africa, which she sent with anyone traveling our way.

Joe was born in 1915, the second of 10 children. His formal education ended with the ninth grade in 1929, when he started working in a shirt factory. Six months later he was the assistant to the forewoman. From there he took other sewing jobs in Indiana and eastern Pennsylvania.

He married Theresa in 1941, and the couple settled in Penn Argyle, Pennsylvania, where they reared three children. Although raised a Roman Catholic, Joe became an Episcopalian after meeting Theresa and was active in the church throughout his life.

Eventually he became co-owner of a factory in eastern Pennsylvania. During World War II, the company made thousands of Army field jackets for soldiers, and Joe received a citation for developing a cost-saving pocket on the garments. Joe sold his ownership in the company but continued working in the industry until the late 1970s.

After his retirement, Joe took up woodworking, producing fine cabinets, clocks and tables. Joe and Theresa moved to Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, in 2009 to be near their son Thomas. A year later, Thomas, a decorated Vietnam veteran, died suddenly. Joe and Theresa then moved to Chapel Pointe in Carlisle, where their daughter lived. Theresa passed away in May 2011, after nearly 70 years of marriage to Joe.

Despite these staggering losses, Joe delighted in his remaining children, Connie and Richard. Connie often took him to the fabric store to buy material and also accompanied him to church on Sundays. Richard called frequently and visited, as did his eight grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.

Then a third tragedy occurred when Connie died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer. Joe, by age 98, had buried his wife and two of his children. Most people would have given up, but Joe did not understand that concept.

It was a great privilege for me to meet Joe in person earlier this year when I was in Carlisle. His ready laugh, keen intellect and strong faith were inspiring.

Around Bobo-Dioulasso, many small girls are wearing Joe’s creations, a testimony to a faithful man who uses his talents to give to others instead of taking what everyone would consider a well-deserved rest.

No one—including Joe—thought to keep track of how many dresses he has made. The best we can estimate is around 500—a running count, since Joe is still sewing.

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