'Productive' pioneer

·5 min read

Edna Lenora Perry broke stained-glass ceilings.

And in doing so, she sunk a church floor — at least, that’s what attendees at Edna’s ordination ceremony whispered to one another when the wood flooring gave way at St. John’s Cathedral before she became one of the first female Anglican priests in the country.

“There was some real resentment to having a woman involved,” says Sheldon Perry, Edna’s middle son, who recalls the moment catastrophe forced 300 people to evacuate the Winnipeg place of worship on March 24, 1981.

It was, in fact, a combination of heavy rain, basement construction and high capacity that resulted in pews shifting on temporary floorboards sagging more than a half-metre.

Edna hardly seemed fazed; she, two male deacons and their supporters simply drove to another church to complete the ceremony.

The people who were close to her will say this was no outlier achievement in Edna’s 96 years. When she set her mind to something, she made it happen — sexism be damned.

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In Edna’s obituary, published shortly after she died of old age at Middlechurch Home earlier this year, her life is succinctly described as “productive.”

That is an understatement.

She raised three sons, John, Sheldon and Keith Perry, juggled careers as an educator and priest, and maintained an endless list of volunteer activities that earned her the honour of having a residential street in Transcona named after her: Edna Perry Way.

She even made time to publish an autobiography, with help from her youngest son.

As written in the introduction of A Prairie Girl’s Life: The Story of The Reverend Edna Lenora Perry, “Edna didn’t have to wait until the Dirty ’30s for life to get hard; she was born to it.”

On June 30, 1923, she came into the world and met older siblings Frank, Ethel, Theo and May.

Her parents, George Frank and Ethel Jenny Martens moved from The Pas to the Manitoba capital for a brief period, when Edna was born, before accepting a farmland subsidy from the province that took them to Marchand.

A tight family budget meant she spent much of her childhood making up games. On the farm, she and her sister Mary would drape a large blanket over both sides of their sturdy resident plough horse and play “house” underneath the animal.

Despite the early hardships, Edna looked back on those memories fondly when she reflected on her life, recalls Keith, her youngest son and the co-writer of the book about her life story.

Edna and her youngest child undertook what would become an 11-year-project to compile A Prairie Girl’s Life after the love of her life, Jack Perry died in 2002. “She needed something to fill the void,” Keith says.

Edna and Jack met at a dinner and dance organized for English trainees of the Royal Air Force in Carberry. She was set up with another airman, but as soon as the duo locked eyes, she knew Jack was “the one.” She promptly asked his date if they could swap seats.

In 1944, Jack was recalled to the U.K. for the final big push of the Second World War. But as always, Edna was determined and found a way to England by posing as a war correspondent and hopping on a boat.

A talented pianist, she played wartime songs long after the battle ended. She had married Jack in 1945 in his hometown of Devon, England, and they returned to the Prairies so Jack would have better job prospects.

“One of her favourite expressions was, ‘Let’s have a party.’ She just liked getting together and playing music. She played (piano) by ear, so when she lost her sight, that didn’t affect her playing,” says eldest son John.

Edna played piano during the square dance nights she organized at Transcona East End Community Centre.

While raising three sons, Edna resumed her career as a schoolteacher and climbed the ranks to become a principal. Before she met Jack, she was working in a one-room schoolhouse with a limited teaching permit she received during the war.

Edna was passionate about science and outdoor education, which motivated her to organize camping trips and found the Manitoba Outdoor Education Association. She also lobbied for the creation of kindergarten and eyesight clinics in the Springfield-Transcona School Division.

John recalls his mother being so successful in getting students involved in science fairs that the local association of science teachers took notice. The board asked “E.L. Perry” to join the group, but rescinded the offer once they learned she was a woman.

“She was truly a woman ahead of her time who didn’t let her gender define her life or ambitions,” says Shelley Hart, a family friend.

Earning two degrees — in education and theology — while raising her family and taking in friends who were in need of a loving home were just some of her glass-ceiling-shattering accomplishments, Hart says.

Edna was an Anglican minister at numerous cathedrals, in northeast Winnipeg and in Teulon. She was also chaplain of the Transcona Legion and the Mothers’ Union.

When she suddenly lost her sight in 1989, she conducted funerals and weddings by memory. Jack read the Bible verses aloud and she taped them, so she could replay them repeatedly and write sermons from the audio.

Rev. Brian Ford says Edna was always open-minded and “on the positive side” of history in the Anglican Church.

She welcomed the ordination of women and gay men as priests when there was still debate about the subject, as well as allowing children to take communion without having been confirmed, Ford says.

In the seven years before Edna died, Ford visited her twice every week at Middlechurch Home. He’d take a Thermos of tea and if Edna was lucky, homemade cookies from his wife.

It was during these visits the friends would read together and reflect on Edna’s “productive” life — from her early days on the farm to being a war bride and beyond.

Edna is survived by her three children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

For Keith, her youngest child, “matriarch” is the best word to describe his mother and her legacy.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press