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Yukon Territories

DAWE: The importance of Nita Thorne

A prominent Red Deer figure who was to achieve national prominence, particularly within the United Church of Canada, was Mrs. Nita Dawson Thorne.

Nita Dawson was born on August 8, 1883 in Andrews, Indiana, on the banks of the Wabash River. Her mother died when she was 11 and she moved to Roanoke, Indiana to live with an aunt and uncle.

Being musically gifted, she played the organ in the local church. In 1901 she decided to become a teacher. Although she was only 17, she taught a class of mostly boys, many only slightly younger than her.

In 1904 she married Ora Thorne. The following year they moved to a homestead 18 miles west of Ponoka. They attempted to build their first home in the very harsh winter of 1906-07. Nita went to Ponoka and got a job at a pastry shop to try and make some money.

She also played the organ at the Presbyterian Church in the mornings, the Anglican Church in the afternoons and the Methodist Church in the evenings. Ponoka has always been a center of ecumenism. In 1916 it had one of the first mergers into a United Church.

Nita and Ora moved to Camrose, where Ora ran a grain elevator and Nita learned to sort grain. In 1911 they moved to Lacombe to operate a lumberyard. In 1918 they joined Red Deer to run another lumberyard.

Nita played the organ at the Presbyterian Church and was auxiliary organ at the Gaetz Church with Alice Youman’s Hamilton and then with Helen Moore Dawe. Nita also organized a Sunday school orchestra in Gaetz, in which she played the piano and Ora played the trombone. In 1919 she founded the first CGIT group in the Gaetz Church.

In 1923 she and Ora moved to Bowden. Nita became active in the Women’s Association (WA). She was pleased that it was the first branch to join the Women’s Missionary Society (WMS). She served as a delegate to the United Church Presbytery and Conference. In 1933 she became president of the lay association.

In 1936 the Thornes moved back to Red Deer, where Ora again managed a lumberyard. Nita also worked there. Nita was an excellent businesswoman and an excellent appraiser. It is often said that she could tell almost the exact amount of lumber and other materials a contractor would need for a project. Some contractors thought they knew better than the woman across the counter, but they often came back for the extra batch Nita originally told them they would need.

Nita became President of WA and WMS and Secretary to the Board of Stewards. When Red Deer and Lacombe Presbyteries merged, Nita Thorne became the first president of the new organization.

In 1943, Nita made history by being elected the first female president of the Alberta Lay Association of the United Church. In 1944 she was elected the first female president of the National Lay Advisory Council. As President, she became the first female member of the National Council of the United Church of Canada.

During her tenure, Nita pushed vigorously for a more active role for lay people in the management and work of the United Church. She helped establish guidelines for lay visitation as well as lay interpretation of social issues. She also helped draft the constitution for the new Canadian Council of Churches.

Nita and Ora Thorne never had a family. Nita’s only blood relative was a cousin who lived in Indiana. So the church became her family. Her commitment to her fellow parishioners was unrivaled.

Ora Thorne died in 1954, but Nita continued her tireless work for the Church until her death in July 1967. They are both buried in Red Deer Cemetery.

Michael Dawe is a Red Deer historian. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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