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The Way of Hope: The Vonin Ladies' Aid Society1

by Dorothy Murray

Page 1  | 

Markerville Lutheran Church, c. 1907.On 26 November 1891, a group of Icelandic women who had recently moved to Calgary from Iceland, via North Dakota, established a ladies’ aid society which they named Vonin (Icelandic for “hope”). While their husbands were scouting territory near present-day Markerville, they formulated the guidelines for their new society: to foster and strive to educate young people in the Christian faith; to help the poverty-stricken and those suffering illness and hardship; and to support the Christian Church, especially the Lutheran Church. By 1896, these women and their families had moved to homesteads in the Markerville area, and Vonin continued there.

Vonin members met regularly in each others homes to discuss the needs of the day and to plan fundraising events. The members were integral to providing the physical, spiritual, and social foundation for the early pioneer community around Markerville. Until 1975, membership in Vonin was restricted to women of Icelandic descent, but that year it was decided to extend membership to all women who wanted the association to continue. Amazingly, the minutes were recorded in Icelandic until February 1977. Thanks to translation by Dr. Sveinn Thordarson of Red Deer and Ninna Campbell of Edmonton, on the occasion of our centenary in 1991, we now know what our predecessors accomplished.

Neighbourrs who had lost their homes to fire or new immigrants to the area were helped with cash donations, food hampers clothing hampers, and other necessities. In 1914, Vonin’s members even loaned $50 to an area resident, which was repaid with interest a few months later. Christmas gladdenings have been a significant part of Vonin’s service throughout the years. Members have made a special effort to share gifts with friends at Christmas time, particularly families in need, widows, orphans and seniors. They delivered treats such as grocery hampers, candy, boxes of oranges and home baking. During both World Wars, they made up Christmas boxes to send to our soldiers overseas. Vonin’s members were quick to respond to community needs, and with their deeds of kindness they spread hope.

They often brought flowers, chocolates, plants or personal items, such as nightgowns or slippers, to women who were suffering illness or unfortunate circumstances. There is also documentation in the minutes that they offered to pay for room and board for a homeless woman in their area. Attending to the needs of other women in the community, Vonin members developed strong bonds of friendship with each other.

Markerville Picnic, c. 1920: Vonin's presence at Icelandic celebrations near Tindastoll.Vonin members and their families were instrumental in building Fensala Hall in 1903 and Markerville Lutheran Church in 1907, and have helped with their upkeep ever since. Vonin funds have also been used to purchase major items for the church as required, such as the organ, chairs, the cabinet for the hymnals, the lectern for the Bible, the church nameplate, new steps and paint. Vonin made regular donations to the church and to the Sunday School there over the years, and the members met regularly in the church with the specific purpose of cleaning and beautifying it. Vonin ladies and their families also tended the Tindastoll cemetery grounds. They scheduled annual cemetery clean-ups, and spent the day trimming, raking, weeding and planting. In addition to their hours of labour, they bought shrubs, trees and grass to plant there, and fencing, too. Some of our current members still have vivid memories of smearing themselves in citronella cream to fend off voracious mosquitos on cemetery clean-up days!

Over the last 100 years, Vonin has designated other donations for a variety of causes: a WWI monument fund; seniors' Homes in Gimli, Vancouver, and Innisfail; the Innisfail Hospital; an Icelandic academy in Manitoba; the Red Cross; the Golden Circle in Red Deer; the Westman Islands (Iceland) Relief Fund (after a volcanic eruption there in 1973); the Icelandic weekly newspaper, Logberg-Heimskringla; as well as community projects such as installation of power at the picnic grounds in Markerville. Membership fees have been minimal over the years. New members pay 50 cents to join, and continuing members pay 25 cents annually. Obviously the funds to cover these projects came from sources other than member’s dues.

They often donated their own funds and initiated community drives to finance projects such as the construction of a new gate for the Tindastoll cemetery and a community skating rink. Socials of various types were an important source of revenue for Vonin. Often a social was planned for a specific cause, for example, to raise money for a family whose home had recently burned down, or for a newly arrived immigrant family. They charged admission to the events that they planned, and also sold some of their handmade creations, such as aprons and tablecloths. Library socials, box socials, tie socials, calico socials, apron and bow socials, shadow socials, cake cutting contests, cake weighing contests, poetry readings, dances and concerts were regular events organized by the Vonin’s Ladies’ Aid. They hired orchestras such as the Markerville Brass Band, the Moonlight Rangers and Smokey Nut, and made arrangements for dance directors and door guards. A special kind of social called a Tombola was held annually, usually in the fall. At the Tombola, guests purchased numbered tickets and won the prize with the corresponding number. Sometimes admission to the social included a tombola raffle ticket. The prizes were usually items that had been donated by the Vonin members - embroidered pillowcases, knitted stockings, aprons, crocheted tablecloths or even farm animals such as ponies or geese. Usually they donated the food, too, with members each bringing sandwiches, pies and cakes. In the 1940s and 1950s, they often hosted tea parties and sold dozens of aprons that they had collectively sewn. The ladies also catered for farm auctions, and hosted special events such as showers, wedding anniversaries, and welcomes and farewells for nearby neighbours.

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