Björn, Jennie, and the First Icelandic Unitarian Society: A Love Story
Early in 1886, Björn Pétursson, a 59-year-old Icelandic immigrant who had been in North America for about a decade, read an advertisement for the Post Office Mission, an early Unitarian outreach effort. He sent away for materials and received a reply from Jennie McCaine, who was the general secretary of the mission in St. Paul, Minnesota.Over the course of the summer and early autumn, Björn devoured the materials Jennie had sent him and, in mid-October, he wrote to her, saying,
“I am fully satisfied that I belong to your church, heart and soul. … I recognize in the Unitarian movement the reformation I have long hoped for and expected and should be glad to get a chance to promote the same among my countrymen …”
A former member of the Althing (Iceland’s parliament) and the son of a minister, Björn had been expelled from the theological school in Reykjavík for leading a student rebellion. After more than twenty years as a farmer in the east of Iceland, he joined the westward migration of Icelanders to Manitoba, accompanied by his first wife and their children. They claimed land at Sandy Bar, near Riverton, and later moved to Dakota Territory, where he was a founding member of the Icelandic Cultural Society, an association of freethinkers, patterned on the Ethical Culture movement of Felix Adler. Björn was well liked by those who knew him, although he did not shy away from controversy.
Towards the end of 1886, Jennie set out to secure funding to establish a mission among the Icelandic immigrants. She also arranged for Björn to attend the annual meeting of the Minnesota Unitarian Conference that year, when it was held in St. Cloud, and she made his acquaintance there. By then a widower, he was evidently much more charming, trustworthy, and inspiring than she had even imagined. In time, religion led to romance and the two of them were married in Winnipeg on March 11, 1890 – the same month that Björn began conducting Unitarian services in the city.
If Björn was the natural spokesperson, it was Jennie who was the organizational genius behind the mission. Together, they organized the First Icelandic Unitarian Society of Winnipeg on February 1, 1891 with 60 charter members. Björn was the reluctant minister of the new congregation, for he had hoped to recruit the noteworthy Icelandic minister and poet Matthías Jochumsson to serve instead, but this dream was not to be.
Soon, construction of a chapel to house the young congregation was underway on the northeast corner of Sherbrook Street and Pacific Avenue. By the beginning of December in 1892, the building was fully enclosed and the congregation was furnishing the interior. The first service was held on Christmas, which fell on a Sunday that year. It was a small chapel: a wooden building, twenty-eight feet by fifty-four feet, along with a 300 square foot annex to serve as an auxiliary meeting room. It was plainly furnished and could seat 250 people. An appeal to American Unitarian churches raised $1,284, just $16 short of the mortgage, which was settled before the congregation occupied the building.
The new church was christened “Unity Hall” and it was Björn’s and Jennie’s vision that it would be a community centre and not simply a place of worship. It was anticipated that the church would be used for a wide variety of purposes, both sacred and secular. So it was: the Winnipeg Secular Association met regularly at Unity Hall and Jennie often spoke before this group of freethinkers.
Looking back on the early years, we would now say that Björn and Jennie shared the ministry, although it was Björn who could speak directly to this immigrant congregation. However, Jennie preached increasingly for Björn as his health deteriorated during the last year of his life. Björn died a little more than two and a half years after the congregation was founded, but Jennie continued the ministry (assisted by translators) until the middle of 1894, when Magnús J. Skaptason arrived in Winnipeg to assume the leadership of the fledgling congregation.
Confident that the Unitarianism had been firmly planted among the Icelanders of Winnipeg, Jennie departed for St. Paul and, from there, she eventually made her way back to New England, where she died in 1918 at the age of 80. She kept in touch with former congregants and Björn’s family through faithful and regular correspondence, continuing to advocate for the Icelandic mission for the remainder of her days.