The Way of Hope: The Vonin Ladies' Aid Society
by Dorothy Murray
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.
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.
In addition to bringing in essential revenue for the community, these functions were the hub of social activity in the early years. The annual Icelandic picnic celebration in Markerville has always been an important occasion for Vonin. In the 1920s, special badges with photographs of prominent Icelandic residents were sold by Vonin, with all profits given to the Innisfail Hospital. Vonin ladies took care of the booth at the picnics; sales of refreshments and baked treats brought in significant profits.
In 1967, Canada’s centennial year, Vonin ladies participated in the Folk Festival in Red Deer, and began another aspect of community involvement. In subsequent years, Vonin has promoted Icelandic treats such as vinarterta (a multi-layered prune-filled cake) , ponnukokur (thin crepes sprinkled with sugar and rolled up), kleinur (twisted sour cream doughnuts), and rosettes (small pastry shells fried in hot oil), or by appearing in national dress and explaining our heritage. Now we have many co-operative projects with the Stephan G. Stephansson Society and the staff at Stephansson House Historic Site. In 1987, with the help of the Stephansson Society, Vonin arranged for the sewing of the Fjallkona “Maid of the Mountains” costume and the purchase of a crown from Iceland for our local Fjallkona to wear. Since 1990, our Vonin members have mended, cleaned and pressed the historic costumes worn by the interpretive staff at Stephansson House. We prepare some of the Icelandic sweets for the Kaffistofa (coffee shop in the historic Markerville Creamery), and still provide the coffee, cream and sugar for the Icelandic picnic, now called the Islandingamot. At events like the Tombola at Stephansson House, Cream Day at the Creamery, and the annual Julestue (Scandinavian Christmas Bazaar) in Innisfail, Vonin members assist with baking and encourage awareness of Icelandic culture and traditions.
December finds us all delivering our tins of Scandinavian cookies and visiting with seniors on our Christmas list. The Markerville area now has a complicated web of organizations that provide for the needs of its residents, but Vonin is still a significant strand in supporting structure. It is a blessing to continue the traditions that were initiated over 100 years ago by the handful of Icelandic women of faith. We are thankful for their example.
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord
as long as I live,
I will sing praises to my God
while I have my being.
Put not your trust in rulers
nor in any child of earth,
for there is no help in them.
When they breathe their last,
they return to earth,
and in that day their thoughts perish.
Happy are they who
have the God of Jacob for their help,
whose hope is in the Lord
who made heaven and earth, the seas,
and all that is in them;
who keeps his promise forever;
who gives justice to those
who are oppressed,
and food to those who hunger.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind;
the Lord lifts up those
who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous;
the Lord cares for the stranger;
he sustains the orphan and the widow,
but frustrates the way of the wicked.
The Lord shall reign forever,
your God, O Zion,
throughout all generations.
Lofa_u Drottin, sala min!
Eg vil lofa Drottin me_an lifi
lofsyngja Gu_I minum, me_an eg er til
manni, sem enga hjalp getur veitt;
andi hans li_ur burt, hann ver_ur aftur a_jor_u,
a_eim degi ver_a aform hans a_engu.
Sall er sa a Jakobs Gu_ser til hjalpar,
sem setur von sina a Drottin, Gu_sinn,
hann sem skapa_hefir himin og jor_,
hafi_og alt, sem I _eim er,
hann sem var_veitir trufesti sina a_eilifu,
sem rekur rettar kuga_ra,
Drottinn leysir hina bundnu,
Drottinn opnar augu blindra.
Drottinn reisir upp ni_urbeyg_a,
Drottinn elskar rettlata.
Drottinn var_veitir utlendingana,
hann annast ekkjur og fo_urlausa,
en ogu_lega latur hann fara villa vegar.
Drottinn er konungor a_eilifu,
Gu_ _inn, Zion, fra kyni til kyns.