Tewksbury rosary company transforms flowers into keepsakes

TEWKSBURY -- The work of Rosaries, Inc., also known as Rosaries from Flowers, is equal parts alchemy and meditation.

Co-owner Melissa Barbieri cannot describe how her business transforms powdered flowers, left over from weddings and funerals, into a soft clay-like substance that is hand-rolled into rosary beads. It is a trade secret that originated from a group of religious sisters in Lawrence. The sisters taught the process to Barbieri's late mother Pauline, who started Rosaries, Inc. out of the kitchen of her Tewksbury home in 1980.

Pauline "always said that the Blessed Mother ran the business," Barbieri recalled. "She was just the hands that the Blessed Mother would work through."

After rolling the beads, Barbieri and her team pin them, cap them, harden them in an oven and hook them together by hand. A single rosary takes two days to make.

"It's so hard to explain," Barbieri said. "It's tedious. It can sometimes be painful on your neck and your shoulders and your back to do this for hours a day. But it's so much comfort, and rewarding to know that you're crafting a keepsake that can help somebody celebrate a milestone in their life or comfort them in a time of sadness."

On Oct. 24, at the Rosaries, Inc. headquarters, located behind a title and escrow office on Main Street in Tewksbury, the walls are lined with drawers containing tools, charms, and saint medals. Like logs of taffy, little lines of bold red flower-putty are placed neatly on boards, where they will be rolled and intricately threaded together. Rosaries, Inc. makes 400 rosaries a month for clients across Massachusetts and the U.S., as well as Canada, Italy, and Ireland.

"A lot of people, when they come in here, are very thankful that we still make rosaries," co-owner Jessica Gannett said. "A lot of people feel that it's a dying form of prayer that most people don't take to anymore, especially the younger generation. I feel that I'm helping to keep that alive."

Rosaries, Inc. emphasizes family above all else. All its 12 employees are relatives or close friends of the owners. Now that they are mothers, Barbieri and Gannett feel a stronger devotion to Mary and a desire to emulate her in their personal and professional lives. They notice that their children are as fascinated by the rosaries as they once were.

"Besides it being our family legacy," Barbieri said, "we've always felt a strong connection to the Blessed Mother, and we feel it's very important to help families pray the rosary and grieve the passing of their loved ones."

Every rosary has a life attached to it. The colors of the flowers are often the favorite colors of the deceased, the colors of their favorite sports teams or colors representing military service. One rosary was made in memory of an Italian grandmother, using the oregano she would put into her beloved red sauce. Another was made out of corn husks, commissioned as a gift for a family of farmers. The rosaries that stick with Barbieri and Gannett the most, however, are the ones commissioned in memory of deceased children.

"We get a lot of people that tell us stories of old people that lived these magnificent lives," Gannett said, "but then we get the tragic stories, too. Sometimes, we don't get a story at all."

"We just get flowers," added Amanda Hazleton, who staffs the front desk at Rosaries, Inc. "We don't really know the story. But we treat them the exact same way."

As they make the rosaries, the women say Hail Marys and pray for the deceased.

"We will often think of that person and pray for that person while we do it," Gannett said, "especially if there are children involved. It can be mentally taxing to hear all these stories, but we really feel that the Blessed Mother gives us the strength to handle all this, mentally and physically."

The women have developed close ties with repeat customers over the years. Hazleton said that Rosaries, Inc.'s slogan is "Enter as strangers, leave as friends."

"We hear life stories, we get pictures, we get updates," she said. "People try to come back. That's top priority for us. We're not just a business. We're here to help them."

As a service to the community, Rosaries, Inc. repairs broken rosaries and replaces lost ones for free. One woman has come to the store once a week over the past few months to get her mother's old rosaries repaired.

"They're so appreciative because they haven't been able to use the rosary for years," Hazleton said.

Since the time Rosaries, Inc. was founded, many religious sisters have stopped making rosaries from flowers. Barbieri explained that, in an increasingly secularized world, her business is the successor to the sisters' mission.

"At the end of the day," she said, "the only way we would be able to spread the rosary in a modern-day society this much is to have it as a business."