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Growing the village one peg doll at a time

Emilie Ng  |  08 August 2019

A Brisbane-based Catholic ministry is helping to connect young Australian families through a creative painting project.

Carrie McCormack points to a wooden doll with a thick beard, black cassock and a large crucifix, and poses one question to her youngest daughter.

‘Imogen, who’s that?’ Carrie beckons. ‘That’s Xavier’, the three-year-old answers without hesitation.

Xavier, or the great Jesuit St Francis Xavier, is standing next to another 30-odd peg dolls – there’s St Rose of Lima, Pope John Paul the Great, and a pregnant St Elizabeth, to name a few.

While the dolls have provided hours of faith-filled fun for Imogen and her four siblings, they have also brought together dozens of mums around Australia in the name of community.


The Mother Effect Peg Doll Exchange is the brainchild of Brisbane mum Melissa Haworth, who craved a creative outlet to balance the all-consuming job of motherhood.

‘I was a new mum and I wasn’t really able to get out much and I really wanted a creative outlet’, Melissa says.

Inspired by numerous peg doll exchanges organised in America, she invited four other mums in her local community to paint miniature saint peg dolls.

Each mum would paint 12 of the same saints and once they completed their dolls, they would have an exchange to have one of each saint in the home. It would offer the mums a short respite from their maternal duties, and at the end of the project, they would have a set of Catholic resources to introduce to their families. Then came the idea to make it national and bring other people in.


Carrie, who founded Brisbane ministry Mother Effect to support mums and families, says Melissa’s peg doll exchange idea was the perfect antidote to the maternal isolation felt by so many mothers.

‘What we’re realising is a lot of mums are feeling isolated’, Carrie says. ‘You’ve got to be everything for your child at the very beginning. It’s a massive change from being a woman, a wife, to being a mother, and you can’t turn back from that – it’s an eternal fix.’

Within weeks of promoting the project on social media last year, more than 30 mums from around Australia, including regional areas, registered to receive their own handcrafted wooden peg doll to paint.

It soon became a favourite family activity in the McCormack’s home.

‘I’d sit up painting in the lounge room with the kids’, Carrie says. ‘It was a good stimulus for our whole family, to have such a beautiful and engaging activity to do which they were going to enjoy in the future.’


The dolls are now the star of a regular family game, where the five children get scored on how well they know the names of each peg doll saints. Even Carrie’s 14-year-old daughter joins in the fun.

‘There’s not one resource that will work for all children, so any way that builds up that community around an experience in the home is a powerful tool that I want to engage with – I want to build that, I want to create that, and I want to share that’, Carrie says.

While parents are the target group for the project, the focus is on equipping all faith educators, from catechists to teachers, to grow the body of Christ in the home, or ‘the domestic church’.

‘Mother Effect was so passionate about this project because of the enriching nature of families as first educators of the children’, Carrie says.

The project has also connected families in a national ‘village’ where they can share their struggles ‘as a generation’.

‘The village would be a support network for a family and help them with all areas of their life including enough income, because it is a struggle to survive on a single income and it’s a reality we can’t avoid unfortunately’, Carrie says.


‘They’re very real pressures we’re facing, but it’s an even more important reason to build a village because we have to struggle through that together as a generation.’

One mum who is grateful for the gift of this village is Esther McKinlay, who lives in Emerald, central Queensland, with her 14-month-old daughter and husband, Simon.

They are one of a handful of Catholic families in the town, which has a population of around 13,500 people.

For Esther, the peg doll exchange was an opportunity to connect with other mums in the hope of growing the presence of young families in her parish.

‘There’s not a lot of us out here’, she says.

The peg dolls she painted last year also have a practical role during Sunday Mass.

‘We have a few in my bag at Mass to keep my daughter quiet’, Esther says, laughing. ‘She actually loves them the most out of all her toys.’

Esther has already signed up to participate in this year’s peg doll exchange, which will focus on painting figures from the Bible.


Around six mums have signed up to do the project with Esther in Emerald, joining others in Victoria, Western Australia, Canberra, and Brisbane.

Melissa said she was encouraged by the registrations from regional mums.

‘I like the fact people who don’t have that community around them are able to participate in our community and we’ve got a Facebook group where anyone can post up a picture and say how they’re going’, she says.

‘I find it really nice to share that journey, and break down those barriers of isolation.’

Melissa is now preparing to send out two boxes worth of raw wooden peg dolls, ready to be transformed into beautiful Bible characters by the end of the year.

‘Just in this house here I have over 1000 raw peg dolls floating around, ready to dispatch’, Melissa says. 

Find out more about the Mother Effect community at


Topic tags: womensspirituality, healthycommunitylife, catholicsocialteaching

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