Photo Courtesy of Ryan James O'Sullivan
When 351 exhausted Icelanders arrived near Kinmount in 1874 they were unprepared for the hardships ahead. Due to economic troubles in their homeland, they boarded the SS St Patrick in Akureyri and Saudarkrokur, Iceland in July. They set foot in Quebec City, then travelled on to the Toronto immigration sheds, arriving September 25.
During the winter, poorly ventilated and overcrowded housing in log shanties, bad sanitation and poor nutrition took many lives, especially among the young. Within six weeks, twelve children and a teenaged girl succumbed to illness and by the spring the death told had doubled.
For those who survived the harsh conditions, they were soon out of a job when the railway that brought them there in the first place, went broke in the spring of 1875. After trying to find work in the area, some headed to Nova Scotia, but most of the settlers moved on to found the community of Gimli, Manitoba.
Today, Gimli is the world’s largest Icelandic settlement outside of Iceland.
AN ACT OF REMEMBRANCE
By Rev. Desmond Howard
When the worship committee of the Kinmount United Church began to plan for an open-air worship in their park, little did they know what the impact was to be on so many lives in and beyond their community. The service was to be held in the park by the Burnt River, beside the old water driven saw mill. They soon fastened upon a theme which would recall the early settlers and the struggles they knew. This included an important chapter which focused on the Icelandic immigrants who arrived at Coboconk in the cold winter of 1874, when conditions were so harsh, 25 children died and were buried in unmarked graves.
Not far from the park, Scandanavian sculptor Gudrun Girgis created a memorial called “In the Presence of a Soul.” So it was decided to conclude the service with a walk down the now disused railway track to this Icelandic landmark. Permission was granted to conclude the remembrance service gathered around the memorial stone, where prayers were offered and a pitcher of rainwater was poured over the statue by a teenager. The top of the sculpture is shaped like the head of a caring mother cradling her child. Much to the surprise of everybody, the water ran down as if tears of sorrow were being shed. This unexpected image added immeasurably to the power of the moment.
By holding an Open Air Service of Worship in the park, the Kinmount United Church congregation demonstrated a reaching out and sharing with peoples of all faiths. In offering that remembrance prayer at the Icelandic memorial, they enlivened the stone. By recalling a sad past which continues to inform our stance on immigrants today, all are challenged afresh as we hear the words of Jesus:"...insofar as you do this to the least of my children, you do this to me."
Later that afternoon, the village of Kinmount took part in a national adjudication of “Communities in Bloom” where attention is paid to the physical attractions of the village with its appealing street-scapes and parks.
In the remembrance service, attention is paid to the roots from which we come and the achievements of the early settlers and their history to which we are indebted.
They shall not be forgotten.