[Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Grace United Church "Grace's Chatter - Christmas 2021 Edition." written by Paul Scott. As soon as we learned about this amazing small world story, we asked permission to reprint it for Thousand Islands Life readers. Enjoy!]
Winona Circle Quilt Returned
Much has been written about the sacrifices of the men and women who lost their lives during the Second World War. We remember them each year on November 11th at the Gananoque Cenotaph. Much less is known about the women in Canada who lovingly hand assembled over 400,000 quilts, which were carefully packaged and sent for distribution throughout Britain from 1939 to 1945.
By 1944, women in Ontario alone had hand quilted over 250,000 quilts. This is the story of one such quilt: made by the Winona Circle of Grace Church in Gananoque; shipped to a grateful and caring recipient in Britain; retrieved in 1992 from a pile of blankets destined for Kurdistan; treasured by podcast host Jo Andrews and her mother as they searched for the church in Canada; and finally, returned home to Gananoque on November 11, 2021.
Joanna Dermenjian is a Masters student at Queen’s University, Kingston, who enjoys listening to a podcast called “Haptic and Hue” whose host Jo Andrews, a hand weaver, frequently offers giveaways to listeners. Dermenjian entered via email and included the following note: “Researching Canadian WWII Red Cross Quilts”.
Here is the response that she received to her email: “Your email took my breath away,” wrote Andrews. “In the early 1990’s, my mother and I ran a morning collection point, collecting blankets for Kurdish refugees who were fleeing into the hills of Kurdistan, in bitter weather, away from the death squads of Saddam Hussein’s army. These blankets were to be piled onto a big container truck and driven out to eastern Turkey where it was hoped they might provide some comfort.”
“Someone handed in a patchwork quilt, which was noticed, and we fished it out of the pile and have held onto it ever since,” relates Andrews. “My mother Christine and I spent some time trying to track down the history of this quilt and the community that made it. We discovered that the church where it was made burnt down some years ago and all records were lost. So, the quilt has lived its latter life being cared for in my mother’s house.”
That church was Grace United in Gananoque, which was destroyed by fire in the summer of 1979, rebuilt and reopened in 1981.
Dermenjian had been researching the “Canadian Red Cross Quilts” for two years and had never come across a “war quilt” that had been made so close to her home. Next stop was the Gananoque Public Library and the microfilm records from The Gananoque Reporter. The community newspaper published several articles encouraging women to make and supply quilts and other necessary items. They responded!
“There are thousands of articles in newspapers across the country, like those in The Reporter, saying three quilts shipped this week, or such and such a guild made 17 quilts last month,” said Dermenjian.
The Winona Mission Circle at Grace United Church was an evening auxiliary group of the Women’s Missionary Society (W. M. S.), which was originally formed here in 1886. There was also an afternoon auxiliary. The Winona Circle was formed sometime between 1908 and 1910 and was named after Miss Winona Pitcher, the daughter of Grace United’s minister Rev. Joel Tallman Pitcher.
An email about the quilt was sent to Grace United Church was forwarded to some of the long-standing members, and it piqued the interest of Music Director Paul Harding and Nancy Abrams. As a young girl, Nancy Abrams had heard of the Winona Circle, and she found reference to the Winona Circle in the 100th anniversary booklet written by local pharmacist Clifford Sine and published by Grace United Church in 1936.
Paul Harding remembered that his grandmother, Annie Scott, was a member of the Winona Circle. He was able to put his hand on several letters of thanks she had received from folks in Britain who had received quilts from Grace Church women. He remembered coming across these letters when sorting through some of his mother’s items and he decided to keep them.
One of the letters was written by A. Cornish on September 23, 1945. “The quilt or bedspread has arrived safe in Yorkshire, England with your name on it. A lot of things has (sic) come from Canada … I thought I would drop a line thanking you very much for all you have done.” Mr. Cornish was an “old age pensioner,” who was very grateful for this thoughtful donation. The W.V.S. on the top of the quilt label was a puzzle initially. Why would it not have been W. M. S. (Women’s Missionary Society)?
Joanna Dermenjian discovered that the W. V. S. (Women’s Volunteer Service) appears to have been the distribution agent in Britain for the British Red Cross, and the W.V.S. was likely added to the label prior to distribution. “Originally, I thought all the quilts went to The Canadian Red Cross – that’s why I called them the ‘Red Cross Quilts’ – but I don’t think that anymore. I do know that the Canadian Red Cross shipped the largest number to the British Red Cross and they were then distributed by the W. V. S.,” Dermenjian said.
In Britain the quilts are revered as valuable pieces of history, treasured antiques found in private collections and in museums. However, in Canada, very few people even know about them and almost none exist. Dermenjain said that about 200 war quilts are believed to exist in the UK and she has found nine so far in Canada. Now, one special quilt has made its way home to Gananoque, bringing that total to ten. When one considers that it took close to 50 hours to hand make one quilt, that totals over 200 million women hours of quilt making for the war effort from
During the repatriation ceremony at the Gananoque Library on November 11, 2021, Joanna Dermenjian summed it up beautifully. “Today, as we remember the tragedies of war, and honour those who made sacrifices in support of our democracy, it is fitting to also acknowledge and honour all the women of the war, the wives and mothers, sisters and aunts who were left behind on the ‘home front’. They worked hard to support their homes, their men, the economy, the war needs, and the people in other countries affected by war.”
“For six years during the Second World War, the women of Canada maintained the momentum to make ‘war comforts’ by hand,” she told the gathering at the library. “This quilt is a rare, tangible, object that has survived to tell us this story. It is a gift back to the Gananoque community from Christine and Jo Andrews – a reminder of the patriotism, industry, thought, care, and love of the women of Gananoque to the people of Britain during the Second World War,” she concluded.
Acknowledgements: To Lorraine Payette for her two articles in the Nov. 11 and Nov. 25 issues of The Gananoque Reporter and to researcher Joanna Dermenjian, Masters student in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, On.
By Paul Scott
Paul Scott is the retired publisher of The Gananoque Reporter and a reluctant re-enactor who was very involved in bringing the annual Heritage Days to Gananoque in the 1990’s and was recycled for the Commemoration events of the War of 1812 in 2012. He is a member of the Gananoque Lions Club and has been secretary for 40 years as well as a 60-year member of Grace United Church choir. Paul lives in Gananoque with wife Carolyn; enjoys time with his three grown children, their partners and five grandchildren. He is an avid downhill skier and cyclist, and this editor is pleased that from time-to-time Paul writes the odd article for TI Life!
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