A Certainty of Honour, Stefania Sigurdsson
By Rev. Stefan M. Jonasson
A sermon delivered by Rev. Stefan M. Jonasson for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg on Sunday, March 13, 2022.
Stefania Sigurdsson was a longtime member of this congregation and a force of nature. She was the epitome of humourist Garrison Keillor’s tagline about Lake Wobegon – “where all the women are strong” – but she was more than just strong. She was tough and tenacious, yet kind and generous. And she was honourable. Stefania – or Bunny, as her closest friends called her – always reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt and, at her memorial service, Lois Whyte read a passage from Adlai Stevenson’s eulogy for the former First Lady that ended by describing her as “a certainty of honour.” Church history too often focuses on the tenure of ministers while ignoring the critical leadership of laypersons. Today, we will look for inspiration in the life of an everyday congregant.
On International Women’s Day at the beginning of the past week – this very long week – several people I know paused to celebrate the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the great women of the 20th century. A few mentioned the influence that Roosevelt had had on their mothers and I began to recall the many women I’ve known who came of age when she was the First Lady of the United States and counted her as one of the major inspirations in their own lives. I lost count. And although she died before I reached the age of three, she had an influence on me. I first heard about her from my Grade One teacher, who also introduced us to Helen Keller and Edith Cavell, and all three women have influenced my life and thought. The role models we are introduced to as children can have a lifelong impact on us, and so it’s important that we find wholesome leaders to follow in our earliest years, for they can chart the course of our lives. My fascination with Eleanor Roosevelt has never ebbed and rarely a month goes by when I don’t turn to something she wrote or said for inspiration.
So, I consider it something of a blessing that I came to know someone she had influenced in my own youth – Stefania Sigurdsson – someone who reminded me of film clips I’d seen of Roosevelt. A longtime member of this congregation, Stefania was a force of nature and a force to be reckoned with. She was the epitome of humourist Garrison Keillor’s tagline about Lake Wobegon – “where all the women are strong” – but she was more than just strong. She was tough and tenacious, yet kind and generous. And she was honourable. Stefania – or Bunny, as her closest friends called her – reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt from the moment I first met her. Indeed, she bore a striking physical resemblance to the former First Lady and ambassador, and she carried herself with a similar demeanour. In her company, I could easily imagine that I was actually sitting with Eleanor Roosevelt. It was almost as though Stefania channeled her here in Manitoba. At her memorial service, Lois Whyte read a passage from Adlai Stevenson’s eulogy for the former First Lady that ended by describing her as “a certainty of honour.” It fits them both.
When I was first approached with the suggestion that I speak to you about Stefania today – you see, the idea wasn’t mine – my first instinct was to say no. I was concerned that it might seem too parochial – too local, too Icelandic, too familiar, too pedestrian – or turn out to be a eulogy rather than a sermon. But I beat around the bush in trying to respond, while I worked my way to no, which gave me an opportunity to ponder the significant influence Stefania had on me and the inspiration that her memory could have for others. So, to my surprise, I said yes. Church history too often focuses on the tenure of ministers and the erection of buildings while ignoring the critical leadership of significant laypersons.
Yet, ministers come and go, and buildings are built and outgrown, while the values and virtues of congregations are found in the lived experiences of their members, their collective efforts to realize a shared mission in the world. As the apostle Paul wisely observed, “there are varieties of gifts … and there are varieties of services,” but a singular spirit that gives life to a spiritual community, and we need to honour that diversity of gifts as essential to the wellbeing of the community and its members. An individual’s contribution to the shared ministry of a congregation may involve welcoming visitors or serving refreshments, tending the yard or caring for the building, singing in the choir or caring for those in need, teaching or preaching or any one of a number of other activities. If you’re going to soar, the ground crew is as important as the flight crew.
Like those of you who may remember her, I knew Stefania primarily from church, but I also knew her through our mutual involvement in the Icelandic community and my forays into the Manitoba Interlake. Our paths even crossed politically from time to time, for while I leaned farther left than she did, we were both pragmatic centrists when it came to getting things done. And we shared a common respect for the rules of the game, any game, whether we found ourselves on the winning side or the losing side of a contest. Despite the wide difference in our ages – nearly 60 years – I can say we were more than just acquaintances, we were friends.
When Stefania was six or seven years old – around the same age I was when I discovered Eleanor Roosevelt – her mother organized Sigurvon, or Hope of Victory, also known as the Gimli Suffrage Association, and, as a youngster, she worked alongside her mother until victory was achieved and women won the vote when she was 15, putting her in the first generation of women who came of age with the full rights of citizenship. Looking back on this in 1989, she said: “The Icelandic women were in the forefront of the suffrage movement because they were very independent by nature. They were the first into the fray and I think they inspired others who later won the vote for Manitoba women.” Stefania considered it a hard-won birthright and she was an active citizen to the end of her days.
She was also her family’s scholar and had a promising career ahead of her in academia. This is something even many of those who knew her well had no idea. She didn’t flaunt it. She graduated from the University of Manitoba with a bachelor of arts degree in 1925 and a bachelor science degree the following year before proceeding to Columbia University where she earned a master of education degree. She began work on her doctorate but interrupted her studies for “family reasons,” as she told the Free Press many years later. She returned home to Manitoba and care for her mother and younger sister, who were not dealing well with her father’s death, and to look after the affairs of her late father’s business. She later went to Stanford University to do graduate work but returned home once again to work in the family’s general store in Arborg. Her older brother Larus told me that all three universities offered her teaching positions and it’s tempting to imagine what heights she might have soared to if she had remained in academia. I don’t know if she would have changes science or literature, but I do know that we would have been reading about her.
More than once, I asked her if she regretted not pursuing an academic career, but she always brushed the question aside, simply saying that sometimes we just have to do what we have to do. Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “We all create the person we become by our choices as we go through life. In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made.” Stefania was clear about her values and that made her choices obvious, even if they weren’t always easy.
During the Second World War, she volunteered as the unit secretary for the sale of Victory Bonds in the communities along the west side of Lake Winnipeg, leading the seven districts under her guidance to exceed their quota by 26 percent. When Stefania asked you to do something, you rarely said no.
As a merchant, she was known as Bunny, and I somehow suspect the nickname stemmed from both her appearance and her pace. During her time at the store, there were three distinct phases that she recalled to me. During the Great Depression, business was often done by barter, trading in forest and farm products. With the coming of the war, the company had to contend with rationing, merchandise shortages, and wage and price controls. Yet the business expanded, even though the store charged higher prices than its competitors. Stefania was proud to charge a higher price and to pay a higher wage. When I asked her why – how they even survived on this business strategy – she smiled and said, “Because we didn’t hold our thumbs on the scale when we weighed the flour.” Integrity was good for business, even if it was sometimes shrouded by appearances.
When her father’s old partnership was finally dissolved in 1951 – some 27 years after his death – she finally gave up any hope of picking up her studies again and instead devoted herself fully to the Sigurdsson Store in Arborg, which she operated with her brother until his death and then a few years longer until it was sold to the Coop in 1967. Then she retired.
Stefania was best known in this congregation as a member of the Ladies Aid Society, but that fact obscures as much as it reveals, for it may evoke stereotypes about that organization and its work. I have to say that there was a time when many people in the congregation looked down on the Ladies Aid as an antiquated institution, failing to appreciate its efforts.
Organized as Kvennfélags Únitara, the Unitarian Women’s Society, in 1904, with suffrage leader Margrét J. Benedictsson as its first president, it was a feminist organization that engaged in social service work. As it won its battles over the years, its focus shifted increasingly towards service projects and it adopted the English name Ladies Aid, which was common for similar organizations among the Lutherans and the United Church. In the aftermath of our denomination’s Women and Religion resolutions the 1970s, and the emergence of new women’s groups in our congregations, the Ladies Aid came to be viewed as an old-fashioned group of older women. We forgot the leadership they had provided in winning the vote for women, advocating for immigrants, supporting advanced education, and serving as the local ground crew for the Unitarian Service Committee. In its later years, when some outspoken members wanted to wind it up, Stefania opposed them to the end, but it did not long survive her death. The group’s last project was the commemorative plate featuring the “Harp Window” for the congregation’s centennial.
The Ladies Aid was also the organization where women – especially younger women, at one time – honed their leadership skills and exercised their influence in the congregation. Stefania knew Roberts Rules of Order backwards and forwards – and it was she who taught me how to chair a meeting effectively. She was committed to leadership development in organizations before the idea was fashionable.
During a conflict in the congregation some forty years ago, the Ladies Aid met with the minister at the time, Rev. John Gilbert, and during their conversation, Stefania said, “We’re not worried about the church, Reverend Gilbert. It’s you who we are worried about.” Her words caught John by surprise, but they reflected both her forthrightness and her ability to get to the point. John valued her candour and trusted her goodwill, even when she told him things he didn’t necessarily want to hear.
For several years, in the 1950s, she was the regional director of the Alliance of Unitarian Women, the continental association of Unitarian women’s groups. In this role, she attended denominational meetings in Boston and toured Western Canada speaking to women’s groups. And she helped to lay the groundwork for those Woman and Religion resolutions that shifted the focus away from the older women’s societies in congregations across the continent.
She was active in the Liberal Party, serving in various leadership and organizing positions at every level. She was very active in the Liberal women’s federation. In fact, she was president of the Manitoba Federation of Liberal Progressive Women when the party held power both in Ottawa and on Broadway. She had the ear of prime ministers, premiers, and presidents, and she corresponded with several.
In 1970, she introduced Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau when he spoke at the Centennial Concert Hall in March of that year. And as you might have guessed, she was compared to Eleanor Roosevelt when it was over. When she accomplished something important, and even when she did something she wished she hadn’t, she would sometimes smile and say, “Good for me!” When the lights of the concert hall dimmed that night, that’s what I imagine she must have said to herself.
My own love for the history of Unitarianism in Manitoba was partly driven into me by Stefania. She was passionate about preserving both the Icelandic and Unitarian heritage in this province, and she was adamant about getting the facts right. She was an engaging storyteller, but she clearly differentiated between fact and fiction, myth and history. While she conceded that history was open to differing interpretations, she had no patience for those who made things up or skewed the story to bolster their own interests. It was from her that I first heard the notion, we’re entitled to our own opinions, but we’re not entitled to our own facts.
Stefania was an activist and, while she never shied away from a good debate, she was more drawn towards service than discussion. She preferred being useful to being reflective, although she was adept at both. She was a founding member of the Arborg Hospital Ladies Auxiliary, serving on its board and helping to organize its activities, from blood donor clinics to home nursing, and from securing a home for the local doctor to establishing a meals-on-wheels program. She was active in the drive to establish a community library. She served on the board of the regional development district and devoted considerable time to organizing leadership training programs for adults.
If she was impatient about anything, it was with people who didn’t pull their own weight – especially those who whined or complained instead of contributing and finding solutions. Along with poet Marge Piercy, she would have declared, “I want to be with people who are submerged in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who stand in the line and haul in their places, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out.”
That’s not to say that she didn’t have a strong inner life, characterized by deep reflection and thought. I recall visiting her at her home on Dominion Street one evening when she and her brother, Larus, discussed the relative merits of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” and Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” A physician who knew at the time that he was dying, Larus approved of Tennyson’s gentle nautical metaphor, but Stefania would have none of it. She held out for “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” That was her spirit and while, when the time came, she slipped away gently, it was never her intention to do so.
Whether we realize it or not, we are surrounded by ordinary people with extraordinary capacities. While fame may sometimes attach itself to individuals when the circumstances of life bring them to the public’s attention and acclaim, there is no direct correlation between greatness and celebrity, between usefulness and office. And many of the most important leaders in our congregations and communities don’t necessary hold offices that indicate the extent of their influence. Stefania Sigurdsson was one of these powerful leaders and influencers.
She knew what she valued, so she made the sacrifices her values called for. She focused on the things that interested her and did so with all her heart, unconcerned by who was watching or murmuring about it. When she failed, as she sometimes did, she tried harder the next time.
Her philosophy of life was expressed in the choices she made and the meaning of her life flowed from those choices. She took responsibility for her choices. She was the sum total of them – both the ones I’ve spoken about and the ones I had to leave out. I like to think that she looked on them and said, with a twinkling eye and sound of delight, “Good for me!” And three decades after she left us, but as her influence is still felt, we can all echo, good for her!
Reading: “Maturity and the Choices We Make” by Eleanor Roosevelt
To be mature you have to realize what you value most. It is extraordinary to discover that comparatively few people reach this level of maturity. They seem never to have paused to consider what has value for them. They spend great effort and sometimes make great sacrifices for values that, fundamentally, meet no real needs of their own. … Not to arrive at a clear understanding of one’s own values is a tragic waste. You have missed the whole point of what life is for.
Do the things that interest you and do them with all your heart. Don’t be concerned about whether people are watching you or criticizing you. The chances are that they aren’t paying any attention to you. It’s your attention to yourself that is so stultifying. … If you fail the first time then you’ll just have to try harder the second time.
One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes. In stopping to think through the meaning of what I have learned, there is much that I believe intensely, much I am unsure of. In the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And, the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
We all create the person we become by our choices as we go through life. In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made.