Category Archives: History

A Utah Massacre Remembered

In an old courthouse in St. George Utah I saw this beautiful quilt hanging on the wall. It is called A Remembrance and Reconciliation quilt.  It tells the story of a horrific incident in Utah history referred to as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. In a New York Times article Sally Denton calls it “the darkest stain” on the history of the Mormon religion. On September 11, 1857 in a meadow in southwest Utah militiamen from the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints attacked a wagon train of Arkansas families on their way to set up new homes in California. They killed 140 men, women and older children, saving only seventeen children under the age of eight. The head of the Mormon militia was a man named John D. Lee  who was the adopted son of Mormon prophet Brigham Young.  The church has labeled Lee a renegade zealot. He felt he needed get rid of infidels who might want to hurt the Mormons or infiltrate their territory. To this day there continues to be a great deal of controversy about exactly what transpired. How much did Mormon church authorities know about the massacre both before and after it happened? Did they try to cover up evidence or unfairly place blame elsewhere, including on a local group of First Nations people?

The quilt I saw in St. George has forty eight squares contributed by descendants of both the militiamen who helped Lee carry out the massacre as well as descendants of the Arkansas settlers whose ancestors were killed.  A similar quilt is on display in Arkansas. It is a way to remember those who died and to express sorrow over what happened as well as provide an avenue for healing. 

Green leaves on the quilt record the names of people killed. Red flowers record the names of the seventeen children who were spared.

I visited the home of Rachel Hamblin which was close to the massacre.The seventeen children whose lives were spared were first taken to Rachel’s house. She writes of that experience saying…“in the darkness of night, two of the children cruelly mangled and most of them with their parents’ blood still wet upon their clothes, and all of them shrieking with terror and grief and anguish” 

The quilt tells a tragic and damning story but I have to give credit to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for having it on display where thousands of visitors can see it. As is the case with so many religious groups who must now confront the atrocities committed by their clergy and membership in the past, there is hopefully a growing realization that only transparency and honesty, admission of guilt and request of forgiveness, can help pave the way to a more peaceful future where no religious group believes it has a corner on the truth so all are accepted with love and are never seen as enemies. 

Both wisdom from Buddhist and Hindu sources are included on the quilt


Filed under History, Religion, Utah

Finding Helena

She was the first Mennonite woman to graduate from a university in Canada and the first Mennonite woman to teach at a university in Canada! Some say she was the first Mennonite baby born in Canada. Who was she?

A few weeks ago we attended a cultural day in Neubergthal, Manitoba and listened to an interesting lecture by Dr. Royden Loewen, Chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.  Although he covered a wide range of interesting topics during his lecture I was most intrigued by a brief description of a woman named Helena Penner Hiebert whose memoirs Dr. Loewen referenced. I wanted to know more!

Helena Penner Hiebert- 1902- Photo from Preservings Magazine

An entry in the Global Anabaptist Encyclopedia Online   and two articles in Preservings magazine one by John Dyck in the June 1997 issue and another by Royden Loewen in a 2012 issue  provided a wealth of information about Helena. 

Helena’s parents Edmann Penner and Mary Eitzen in a photo from Preservings

Helena’s parents Erdman Penner and Maria Eitze immigrated to Canada from the Bergthal colony in Russia in August of 1874 and just a few months later in October Helena was born.  Her father, a wealthy man, came to Manitoba with more than $30,000, and quickly established a  hardware business in Winnipeg. In 1878 the family decided to relocate to Tannenau a small village not far from the present day community of Mitchell and Helena’s father opened up a hardware store there. 

Helena attended elementary school in three Manitoba villages and later went to study in Mountain Lake Minnesota where her grandmother lived. In 1899 Helena graduated as a silver medallist from Wesley College which would become the University of Winnipeg. She was also a member of the faculty there. She organized the Modern Languages Club which later became the University Women’s Club. In her retirement years she wrote her “Granny Stories” in which she describes life in early Manitoba settlements. 

Those stories which John Dyck highlights in his Preservings article provide an intimate look at Helena’s childhood. Helena describes a diptheria epidemic during which she lost three siblings.  She talks about the neighbor girl who was her best friend and a local farmer who froze in a blizzard.  There’s a story about the day her father stopped a turkey from attacking her by cutting off its’ head and the day she burned herself on a hot stove.  She and her siblings learned why their mother had warned them to stay away from the bog near their property when one of the family’s cows nearly drowned in it. Helena describes the many English and German magazines and newspapers her family subscribed to. They may have helped to foster her interest in higher education. 

There is charming story about a blind fiddler who gets everyone dancing when he comes to Helena’s  village. After describing her older sister’s wedding and her family’s home and furniture in great detail Helena tells her readers how her mother faithfully put a candle in her window at night to guide wanderers.  Often people caught in a blizzard or having no where else to go would find shelter for the night in Helena’s parents’ home. Her mother never let them leave in the morning without first serving them a good breakfast. 

Helena’s family home in Gretna. Photo from the Mennonite Heritage Archives

In 1882 Helena’s family moved to Gretna where they built a rather ornate Victorian home and her father began to establish a retail empire that would have him open hardware stores in ten different Manitoba communities.  Helena’s parents arranged for a Mr. H.H. Ewert to tutor her in Gretna and she was taken to Winnipeg for music lessons. Her father was a strong supporter of the Mennnonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna which opened its doors in 1889.   Helena’s growing up years were influenced by a variety of important and influential visitors to her parents’ home and her father’s frequent trips to places like Montreal, Chicago, Russia and New Orleans. 

Helena married Dr. Gerhard Hiebert in Mountain Lake Minnesota in 1902 and her husband became a surgeon at the Winnipeg General Hospital and a teacher at Manitoba’s Medical College.  Helena and Gerhard had three daughters. Gerhard died in 1934.  After living many years in Winnipeg and serving her community as a school trustee Helena moved to Quebec to live with her daughter Catherine Brown and she died there in 1970 at age 95. 

A photo of Helena from the book Gretna, Window on the Northwest

Helena sounds like a fascinating woman.  I’d like to get to know her better. Her “Granny Stories” are at the Mennonite Heritage Center.  Finding them there and reading them might be my next step towards learning even more about Helena. 

Other posts……….

She Persisted

Octogenarian Story Teller Extraordinaire

She Always Found Time For Creativity


Filed under History

The Architect’s Apprentice

Tonight my book club at the West Kildonan Library will be discussing The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.   Shafak, a Turkish author,  says her book was inspired by this image of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent which has an elephant in the background. The print created in 1559, during the same time period as the events in the book, is by a German artist Melchior Lorck and is in the British Museum.

Here are four things I found interesting about the novel The Architect’s Apprentice. 

Cristofano dell'Altissimo portrait of Mihrimah Sultan

Mihrimah Sultan is the protagonist’s love interest in the book.  Here she is portrayed by Italian artist Cristofan dell’Altissimo who lived at the same time as Mihrimah did.

Although the protagonist Jahan is a fictional character author Elif Shafak has populated her novel with other characters who are real.  Jahan is an apprentice to Sinan the renowned architect of the Ottoman Empire. Sinan oversaw the building of some 500 structures and nearly 200 of them are still standing. Jahan’s love interest is the Sultan’s daughter Mihrimah. She is a historical figure as well. So are the three sultans who are in power during the time Jahan serves Sinan the Royal Architect. In one section of the book Jahan and another apprentice go to visit Michelangelo in Italy. 

the architect's apprentice book coverThere are many thought provoking reflections in the book.  Here are a three I really appreciated. 

“If you carry a sword, you obey the sword, not the other way round. Nobody can hold a weapon and keep their hands clear of blood at the same time.”

“……Jahan understood his master’s secret resided ……… in his ability to adapt to change and calamity, and to rebuild himself, again and again, out of the ruins. Sinan was made of flowing water. When anything blocked his course, he would flow under, around, above it, however he could; he found his way through the cracks, and kept flowing forward”

“Stones stay still.  A learner never.” 

another edition cover of the architect's apprenticeJahan’s closest relationship in life is with an elephant named Chota. Jahan arrives in Istanbul as Chota’s keeper and immediately sets about saving Chota’s life.  I am not necessarily a big animal lover and will admit that I’ve never understood the deep love some people have for their pets, but I was quite taken with the way Jahan and Chota care for one another, know each other so well, come to one another’s defense, respect each other and provide each other with solace and comfort at crucial times. 

posing at the taj mahalAnd finally at the end of the book Jahan travels to Agra India to help design and build the dome for the Taj Mahal.  I have been to the Taj Mahal and my husband made me pose for this photo where I am appearing to hold up the magnificent structure by the top of the dome. 

Other posts……..

The Taj Mahal At Dawn

Do Buildings Have Souls?

A Story Board in a Painting




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Filed under Books, History, India

The Perfect Novel For Me

madonnas of leningradMy friend Marilyn recommended The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean and it was the perfect novel for me.  I am an art gallery tour guide and so is Marina, the main character in the book.

trucks leave the hermitage in 1941

Trucks filled with artwork leave the Hermitage in 1941

Marina is a docent at the Hermitage Museum.  During the siege of Leningrad in 1941 all the canvases in the galleries are taken down, and shipped away to the Ural Mountains to be hidden from the approaching German army. The Hermitage walls hold only the paintings’ frames. Most of the museum staff have left their homes and taken refuge in the basement of the museum.

hermitage hall during seige

One of the gallery halls during the siege

In order to preserve her sanity Marina begins walking through the galleries and looking at the empty frames.  She remembers the paintings that once hung there and begins to describe them in detail, making the artworks come alive even though they are gone.  

The museum housed many, many paintings of the Madonna and it becomes especially important to Marina to remember how these art pieces look once she realizes she is pregnant. Her fiancée is on the battlefront and she doesn’t know if she will ever see him again. Near the end of the novel she is describing one of these Madonna paintings by Raphael to a group of young boys.  Even though the painting isn’t there she makes it real for them. 

the holy family by raphael hermitage

The Holy Family by Raphael – Hermitage Museum

“This is a wonderous painting because Raphael took these mythical characters, the Virgin Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child and he reimagined them as real people in an actual family. It is a rather melancholy painting. On one side we have Mary. She is beautiful but very distant and unaware. And quite apart from her is Joseph. He is much older than Mary and leans on his walking stick and looks almost frail. Between them standing on the mother’s lap is the Christ Child. He’s a mama’s boy. He is eyeing Joseph fearfully and his arms are reaching out to his mother. Joseph has an expression of resigned disappointment, a father whose child rejects him for the mother. One doesn’t notice the halos at first but they are there fine as piano wires. It’s almost as though Raphael was saying that what sets them apart from any other family is almost invisible. They might be us.” pg. 221 and 222 of The Madonnas of Leningrad.

What an eye and a way with words Marina has!  She is an inspiration to all guides as we try to make art come alive for the people we take on our tours.  

Other posts………….

A Book Takes Me Back to Rome

Thinking About Mothers at the Met

The Family of Jesus Portrayed in a Controversial Way

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Filed under Art, Books, History

The Great Statue Debate

I am a regular columnist for The Carillon newspaper based in Steinbach.  Here is last week’s column. 

Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art. Have you ever noticed there are no statues of people in Steinbach?  I commented on that in a column I wrote in 2006. I had just spent a week in Savannah, Georgia a city full of statues of famous folks.  

anna shilstra

Anna Schilstra was Steinbach’s first female doctor in the early 1900s.

I came up with a list of people who had lived in Steinbach and might be good subjects for a statue- everyone from Anna Schilstra one of the first female doctors in Canada to Miriam Toews the celebrated author.   

Reading about the controversy regarding the recent removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue from the front steps of Victoria’s City Hall I’ve rethought my suggestion that Steinbach should have statues of people. Probably the city has saved itself from lots of controversy that way.  


The legacy of Sir John A. MacDonald is a complicated one.

The conflict over the removal of Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue is intense.  In Saturday’s Free Press, columnist Niigaan Sinclair voiced support for the statue’s removal and received over a hundred online comments. Most responders disagreed vehemently with Sinclair and made angry statements, some fairly racist in my opinion.

There are many Canadians who stand in solidarity with Victoria’s mayor Lisa Helps who after lengthy consultation with British Columbia indigenous leaders decided our first prime minister’s role as an architect of the residential school system was grounds for having his statue removed from such a prominent spot.  Other Canadians were livid about the statue’s removal and agreed with Toronto Star columnist Gwyn Dwyer who wrote a 2015 piece suggesting the country of Canada wouldn’t even exist without Sir John A. MacDonald. Dwyer admits our first prime minister had faults and made many errors but believes his enormous contributions need to be recognized.  

I am sure the controversy about statues of Sir John A. MacDonald will be an ongoing subject for debate as his role in Canada’s history continues to be re-examined. 

louis riel st. boniface statue_1024

The original statue of Louis Riel caused lots of controversy

Statues can cause lots of headaches. When it was finally decided in 1970 that a statue of Louis Riel should grace the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature an expensive artwork was commissioned.  It showed Louis Riel with his face contorted in anguish. His body was naked and twisted.  Artist Marcien Lemay who created the statue said he wanted to show Riel as a martyr who had suffered for his people.

The statue caused a great deal of controversy when it was unveiled. Some people thought it was ridiculous to spend so much money on a statue of someone who had been mentally unstable and had been responsible for the murder of Thomas Scott. Many other people however found the rather grotesque statue an insult to both Louis Riel and the Metis people. They said Riel had been a great statesman, the founder of Manitoba and his statue should reflect that.

legislative building louis riel statue

A traditional sculpture of Louis Riel now graces the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature.

In 1994 the offensive statue was moved to the grounds of St. Boniface College and a new more traditional statue of Riel erected on the river front side of the legislature grounds.

Artwork can invite honest dialogue and inspire important conversations about values and perspectives but it seems statues of people are often the cause of ugly conflict. Perhaps Steinbach has saved itself lots of headaches by having different kinds of public art. 

love for learning sculpture steinbach

Love of Learning Sculpture- Steinbach Cultural Arts Center

There’s a colourful sculpture at the Cultural Arts Centre about an idea.  It is called Love of Learning.  And then there is the sculpture of that giant car which pays tribute to one of the city’s bedrock businesses. As far as I know they haven’t caused any controversy. Steinbach just might have it right when it comes to public art.  

Other posts……..

Agnes MacDonald’s Railroad Adventure

A Century is Only a Spoke

Time to Stop Honoring People With Statues? 

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Filed under Art, History

Things Are Changing

sent to residential school

Part of the heritage mural at the Upper Fort Garry Park in downtown Winnipeg that shows indigenous children being taken away from their parents to residential school.

Just over a decade ago I was teaching grade ten and eleven English at the Steinbach Regional Secondary School.  For one reading assignment I gave my students some memoirs written by residential school survivors.  For most of them this was their first introduction to this shameful part of Canadian history. Many of my students were shocked.  “Did this really happen?”  they asked me in disbelief. 

insurgence:resurgenceI led tours for more than a hundred teens during the recent seven months long Insurgence Resurgence exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.  It featured indigenous artists from across Canada.  The nature of some of the art pieces on display led me to ask the junior and senior high students if they had heard of residential schools.  Without exception they all had, and most could tell me about their devastating legacy.  The young people on my tours knew far more about indigenous history and culture then I ever would have growing up in Canada in the 1950s and 60s and far more than teens knew even a decade ago.  

I realize we have a long way to go to achieve real truth and reconciliation but things are changing.

Other posts………..

Bold and Beautiful

Another Shameful Chapter in Canadian History

So Disappointed


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Filed under Art, Canada, History, Winnipeg

She Persisted

she persistedI’ve just added She Persisted Around the World to our church library.  The book written by Chelsea Clinton and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger tells the stories of thirteen women from around the world who persisted despite all kinds of barriers placed in their way.  marie curieSome of the women are familiar like Marie Curie twice awarded the Noble Prize for her discovery of two new scientific elements. She persisted despite the fact she had to leave her home country to study.  j.k. rowlingAnother familiar woman is English author J.K. Rowling who persisted in writing her award winning series of Harry Potter books despite being rejected by dozens of publishers.  caroline hershelOther women featured in the book are not so familiar like Caroline Hershel an astronomer who discovered two planets.  She persisted in studying astronomy even though her parents thought she should try to get a job as a servant.  Sissi lima do amorAnother woman I hadn’t heard about before was Sissi Luna do Amor one of the first women to play soccer professionally in Brazil.  She persisted even though she got in trouble for wanting to play because she was a girl.  viola desmondThere is even a section in the book about Canada’s own Viola Desmond who persisted in retaining her seat in the “white” section of a movie theater even though she was black. 

Elizabeth_Warren_2016“She Persisted”  is the famous phrase directed at American Senator Elizabeth Warren when she insisted on reading a letter from Coretta Scott King to the Senate as a way to defend her objection to the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sessions had an abysmal record on civil rights which had previously prevented him from being appointed as a federal court judge.  The Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell called for a vote to silence Senator Warren. He said he had no choice because she wouldn’t listen to him. “She persisted” he said and kept reading the letter. The phrase “she persisted” has quickly come to refer to women’s persistence in breaking barriers despite being silenced or ignored. 

kate sheppard

Kate Sheppard who persisted in getting the vote for women in New Zealand.

There are so many interesting women profiled in She Persisted Around the World and they come from every continent and every area of endeavor.  I think the book will be an inspiration for everyone who reads it and not just children, but adult as well.

Other posts……….. 


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Filed under Books, Childhood, History