A Short History of Hnausa Unitarian Centre

Camp Hnausa lakeIn 2020 we were all ready to celebrate our 10th summer hosting the UU Summer Camp weekend at Hnausa Unitarian Centre on the shores Lake Winnipeg just north of Gimli. For the past nine years, we have had between 40 – 80 people of all ages coming to camp for the weekend or do a day trip on Saturday. The weekend family camp is open to everyone in our Church and a wonderful opportunity to meet people in a relaxed atmosphere, share good times and good food, and just enjoy hanging out. The structure is very low-key—we all pitch in for food and clean up. There is a wonderful little beach, lots of picnic tables, and a fire pit for evenings. We talk, sing, play cards and games, swim, roast marshmallows, do crafts, eat-eat-eat, host a coffee house /talent show, and do simple worship services. We have lots of fun and build community together. AND it is great to feel connected to our Unitarian Icelandic roots by being at Hnausa. Here is a little more information on the rich history of hosting a Unitarian summer camp event.

Established in 1937

The Unitarian Fresh Air Camp was established in 1937, under the auspices of the Western Canada Alliance of Unitarian Women, originally to provide outdoor vacations for needy children from the Icelandic community in Winnipeg. The camp was the natural outgrowth of an initiative undertaken by the Alliance in 1932, when it began arranging billets on Interlake farms for children from the city whose parents did not have the means to give them summer vacations away from home.

Although literally hundreds of Unitarian women were involved in the organization, construction, and maintenance of the Fresh Air Camp, it is María Björnson who stands out as its leading inspiration and organizational genius. She and her husband, Dr. Sveinn Björnson of Arborg, donated the funds that enabled the Alliance to purchase in 1936 three acres of land on the shore of Lake Winnipeg, immediately south of where the provincial campground now stands.

Margret Petursson wrote:

“Here, in this secluded spot, in its natural woodland setting of spruce and pine and poplar, and open to the vast expanse of the waters of Lake Winnipeg, a building was erected which in the years to come was to house hundreds of children and to create for them a healthy and happy environment in which to grow and play.”

The camp buildings, which included a central dormitory and dining hall along with detached bunkhouses, were constructed in 1937 under the supervision of Rev. Eyjólfur J. Melan, who was minister of the Lake Winnipeg circuit of Unitarian churches. Melan had been a carpenter in Iceland before studying for the ministry and he put his woodworking gifts to good use during his pastorate, which lasted for nearly a quarter-century between the two separate periods he served here.

As a “fresh air camp,” it flourished for a decade before the need it had been created to address became less pressing. The fresh air program came to an end when governmental regulations required the Alliance to upgrade the sanitary facilities and hire a registered nurse, both of which were beyond the meager resources of this volunteer group.

Hnausa Institute

The camp then became home to the Hnausa Institute, a summer conference for young Unitarians from across the region. Typical of the summer programs of the Hnausa Institute was that offered in the summer of 1942, which was led by Rev. Edward Redman, of Virginia, Minnesota, and Rev. Richard Kuch, then continental president of the Young People’s Religious Union. The young people received training in program development, worship, and social action, in addition to viewing several documentary films and enjoying the recreational facilities of the camp. The program was rounded out with a series of lectures on “Liberalism In Religion” in Rev. Philip M. Petursson, minister of the Unitarian Church in Winnipeg. Participants came from the Icelandic Unitarian churches across Manitoba and Saskatchewan, both Icelandic and “English” congregations in Winnipeg, and churches from northern Minnesota. The registration fee of the four-day conference was $4 plus transportation!

Noteworthy visitors and families

During the 1940s, the camp attracted many noteworthy figures from the continental Unitarian association as program leaders: Rev. Stephen H. Fritchman, Rev. Richard Kuch, Dr. Ernest Kuebler (who later officiated at the marriage of former U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife Kitty), and Rev. Kenneth L. Patton, an outstanding humanist and poet who received international attention for his provocative sermons. But whatever the prominence of these visiting camp leaders, none surpasses the influence of Rev. Philip M. Petursson, who inspired hundreds of young people who came through the camp over the years.

Family groups began using the camp in the late 1940s, a practice that has continued until the present time. The Hnausa Camp continued to be used for church activities, from picnics to conferences, well into the 1960s, when such use diminished. As part of its mission to help others without regard to their religious affiliation, the Alliance made the camp available free of charge to a variety of worthwhile groups, including the Association of Retarded Children and other agencies caring for persons with disabilities, the Girl Guides, and the Red Cross.

Arnes Unitarian Church moved to Hnausa in 1967

In 1967, the Arnes Unitarian Church (built in 1925) was moved to the Hnausa Camp to serve as a chapel. Magnus Eliason and Philip Petursson had secured permission from the few remaining Unitarians at Arnes to move the building to the camp, 10 kilometres north, to mark the centennial of Canadian confederation. The church was repaired and rededicated at a special service on August 20, 1967.

Preservation and restoration

camp hnuasa cabinIn 1977, when it seemed likely that the camp would be sold, a “Save the Camp Committee” was established by concerned members of the churches in Arborg, Gimli, and Riverton. The committee leased the camp for the Alliance for an initial period of five years, devoting its resources of time and money to rehabilitate the facility and preserve it from further deterioration. While the committee’s actions succeeded in keeping the camp in Unitarian hands, it was increasingly used for private enjoyment rather than religious or community purposes. The Arborg Unitarian Church assumed ownership of the camp in 1990, when the Western Canada Alliance of Unitarian Women decided to disband.

Inspired by the rich heritage of the camp, church leaders undertook a complete renovation of the facility in the aftermath of the Hnausa community’s millennial reunion. Under the leadership of Larry Kristjanson and Sandra Johnson, along with valuable support from public funding agencies and a band of dedicated volunteers, the camp has been restored to its original splendour. Indeed, the camp is more beautiful and serviceable today than it has ever been. The changes underway have made the camp a viable site for community events, day camps, reunions, weddings, and similar activities. While preserving much of its original feel, the camp has been enhanced with modern comforts and conveniences.

In keeping with its rekindled sense of mission, the Hnausa Unitarian Camp seeks to continue in the historical tradition of Lake Winnipeg camps—promoting our liberal religious heritage by providing this site for children, families and community groups to meet.