Saving Our Heritage

As an identifiable community in the Canadian mosaic, we face what every other community faces, assimilation, integration and a growing loss of our immigrant culture. We’ve held onto our identity for a long time. It’s changed, of course, because to adapt is to survive and prosper. The process is inevitable. As each generation grows old and dies, a new generation more distant from Iceland appears.

However, we are not helpless, hopeless items subject to the forces of time or society. We do have resources. We’ve just got to organize and use them. How well we will maintain our identity depends on us and what we do.

Our ancestors were devout. Religion mattered to them. In an environment where they were subjected to the vagaries of the weather, where their lives could end at any moment from disease because there were no effective medications, where there was virtually no control over their daily lives (they had to be attached to a farm; they could only change jobs once a year), they had to put their faith in the Lord.

I’ve seen how important religion was to them. Space and weight were critical to people emigrating, yet they brought Bibles. Years ago, when I was collecting Icelandic books to keep them from going to the garbage dump at Gimli, I had a box of Bibles. No one wanted them. People couldn’t read them anymore. As well, church attendance had fallen off so there wasn’t any great demand for any Bible, never mind those printed in Icelandic.

The box of black Bibles in my basement was ironic because when Ebenezer Henderson went to Iceland and spent the years 1814-15 there, he was there because Icelanders didn’t have Bibles. He has seen to the printing of Icelandic copies of the Bible and with the help of the British and Foreign Bible Society, he traveled to Iceland. The Icelandic merchants at Copenhagen allowed him to send the Bibles to Iceland without charge. A Westy Petræus, Esq. takes 1183 Bibles and 1668 New Testaments to Iceland as a favour to Henderson.

When Henderson arrives, he is met by a crowd. A man carried Henderson to shore on his shoulders and the crowd called out ‚Peace! Come in peace! The Lord bless you!‘

He, like all other travellers, immediately pays his respects to the Right Rev. the Bishop of Iceland. He then rides to the residence of the very Rev. Marcus Magnusson, the archdeacon of Iceland, and dean of Guldbringé and Kiosar Sysséls.He is told that “the peasants would have paid double the price, if it had only been in their power to obtain them.“

At Tiörnabæ, the farmer buys both a Bible and a New Testament. Henderson has just turned to re-enter his tent when two servant girls came running with money in their  hands to pay for a New Testament each. A number of people collect at the door of his tent and a young man to whom he has given a Bible reads from the third chapter of the Gospel of John. The people sat or knelt on the grass to listen, tears running down their cheeks.

At Kiarné, about two miles south of Aukeryri, there was no service planned for Sunday. However, Henderson heard some singing that came from a cottage. “The inhabitants, consisting of two families, had collected together for the exercise of social worship, and were sending up the melody of praise to the God of salvation. This practice is universal on the island. When there is no public service, the members of each family (or where there are more families they combine, join in singing serveral  hymns, read the gospel and epistle for the day, a prayer or two, and one of Vidalin´s sermons. Where the Bible exists, it is brought forward and several chapters of it are read by the young people in the family.

Today, I see no families so devout that they will ride on horseback or even in a car for miles to purchase a Bible. Nor, do I see families gather together to worship in the absence of a minister. The church, in its social role, held the community together, provided an opportunity to gather, to participate in group behaviour. It provided leardership.

The ministers, in spite of often being poverty stricken, were still important figures. Today, they are in short supply, still paid badly, preach to half-empty churches, are collateral damage to scandal, are no longer the best educated individual in the community, and no longer have the social status they once enjoyed. Society grows more secular by the day and while sects appear whose beliefs and behaviours, while claiming to be Christian, are bizarre.

We can support the religious aspect of our  heritage by going to church. If parishoners want, if there are enough of them of Icelandic background, it can become a centre for the learning of the Icelandic language and history and genealogy. If parishoners want.

We can make an effort, through the church, or through the Icelandic clubs, to actually learn about Iceland‘s church history. The same is true for the church history of religion in the Icelandic population in North America. However, even after all this time, there are still sensitivities over religious conflict from earlier times. The unspoken choice has been to avoid our religious history rather than risk inciting old conflicst. It seems a strange choice given that our problem is that most people don‘t care. When was the last time you had a serious discussion about the importance of the church in daily life in Icleand or New Icleand?

Unfortunately, we‘ve lost the physical evidence of our religous heritage. I grieve the loss of the wooden churches at Gimli, Riverton and Hnausa. Many years ago, I saw the Hnausa church. It was small, beautiful, surely an act of art to God. I saw it after it was vandalized. One would have thought it had been overrun by the bitter enemies of Christianity.No church stands there now. What was lost was not just a place of worship but a symbol of our heritage.

We are fortunate in having the Unitarian church in Gimli preserved. It was built in 1905 and, at least, gives an indication that religion did play an important part in the Icelanders daily life. Here, we need to take a lesson I was taught in the catacombs under Kiev by my Communist guide. We had travelled for a long time along the tunnels, with bodies on every side, then came to caves filled with gold and silver religous items. I was amazed. I said to my guide, “How is it that they are here?“ He replied, “It is not because they are religous. It is because they are our history.“ I think that the members of our Icelandic North American community need to take that lesson to heart. Lutheran, Unitarian, United, Catholic, Agnostic, Heathen, whatever, we need to preserve our history. Support the preservation of our history.

The same is true for the Vikur Lutheran church in Mountain. Our ancestors, only nine years after the settlement in New Iceland, thought having a church was so important that they built this church. Now, it needs a new roof. The cost shouldn‘t fall only on the local people. Or only the Americans. It is our history. It is our heritage.

Thank goodness the people of Markerville have preserved the Markerville Lutheran Church.

Today, we get DPT shots. Mothers and fathers don‘t have to pray to God that their children don‘t die in their arms from diptheria. Read Wasteland with Words to find out what that was like when they had nothing but prayer. But just because we now have science to ask for help, doesn‘t mean that understanding and preserving our religious past can‘t help preserve our heritage. If we don‘t, we‘ll never understand who we are or why we are the way we are.

Our Hockey Dreams

Photo: the Gimli PeeWees. They were champs. Their dream was to play as Bantams, then Midgets, then as a member of the Gimli Wolves. There were dreams of being like our local heroes. That’s me in the goalie pads. That’s where they put you when you can’t skate, stick handle or shoot. You just  need to get in the way of the puck. If anyone has a picture from the 50s of the Gimli Wolves in action, and  you send it to me, I’ll add it to this post.
How can you separate out growing up in an Icelandic Canadian town like Gimli and growing up in a small town in rural Manitoba?
Take, for instance, hockey.
Hockey for Icelandic Canadians, particularly for Icelandic Winnipegers, was big for a while because of the Falcons winning the first Olympic competition but then it died down. By the end of the forties and beginning of the fifties, no one talked about the Falcons. 
According to Red Magnusson–one of the best, if not the best and most dedicated of the hockey playes to come out of Gimli–the Gimli team was just called the Seniors until 1951 when they became the Gimli Wolves. 
What I heard about were the Gimli Wolves, the Teulon Tigers, the Riverton Lions. Our hot players were local boys, not the hired help and they were local heroes. We knew how many goals they scored, who was the best stick handler, whose slap shot would rip your head off.
The games were often noisy with a lot of yelling and screaming and pounding on the boards. We’d be on the North side of the rink where there was only room to stand. At the far end on this side, snow scraped off the ice reached as high as the top of the boards that edged the ice like a fence. You could stand up there for a great view but risked being hit by a wild shot on goal. 
We hungered for broken hockey sticks. When they were thrown over the boards, we scrambled for them, kept them as treasures. They were, to us, like broken gladiator swords, wielded by our heroes of the moment.
The noise of players hitting the boards, of hockey sticks clashing, of the fans yelling, of our pounding the broken sticks flat onto the boards, made a tremendous amount of noise because of the echo in the cavernous space. As we yelled and pounded, strings of frost dropped from the rafters.
The games were fast, the action moving back and forth, first around one goal and then, in seconds, around the other goal. Our triumph turned to fear in moments. The goalies guarded their creases with ferocity. 
Breakaways were often greeted with a moment’s stunned silence, then waves of yelling.
When a period was over, we streamed into the narrow, enclosed front of the rink to get warm and if we had twenty five cents, we got a hot dog plus a coke. To get an order taken, we had to cram into the crowd in front of the concession stand. There was no orderly line. We were an excited mob. The couple behind the counter were pulling wieners out of a pot of boiling water as fast as they could, slapping them on buns. We slathered mustard and green relish on them. Wolfed them down.
When the break was over, we went back to the north side of the rink. Only wimps stayed in the heated enclosed room that extended across the entire front of the rink. There was no real view there. The windows were covered with a thick wire mesh. These spectators were at the east end of the rink and couldn’t see the action at the far end. They were always craning their necks to try to see what was happening further down the ice. Somebody was always saying “What happened, what happened?” when the action was on the other side of the blue line.
On the south side of the rink there were wooden bleachers. People who sat there brought cushions to sit on and blankets to cover their laps and legs.  Grownups sat there in rows, their heads moving as if on a single string as the action moved up and down the ice. When there was a scramble in front of the net, people stood up, yelling and waving their arms.
We stood along the boards on the other side of the rink. There were no seats here. We were ready to jump back if a stick was swung high or a player was boarded in front of us. We kept warm by constantly moving up and down the alleyway made by the boards and the arched outside wall.
Here, also, we could crowd close to the team boxes and the penalty box.
Our players were lumpy heroes. Under their team stockings were leg pads, then their padded pants, their gloves, the jersey over their shoulder pads. No one wore a helmet.
When they stopped, their skates threw up waves of spray. When they dug in, their skates left holes in the ice.
Sometimes, when games were close, the RCMP had to be called to escort the visiting players to their vehicles. Sometimes it did no good and players and spectators mixed it up on the ice.
Nearly everyone worked for themselves in those days and businessmen could shut down the butcher shop or grocery store or barber shop and form a cavalcade to whatever out-of-town game was playing that night. Local farmers milked their cows early so they could get to the games.
There was no hockey in Iceland. Hockey was a Canadian game played by kids with Icelandic names but it was played all over the prairies, in towns like Winnipeg Beach and Petersfield and Clandeboye. And, yet, for me, those days and nights at the local rink are inextricably linked with Gimli and Icelandic, as much part of the mosaic created by Icelandic coffee made in a poki or by celebrating Islingdingadagurin.