WOLFVILLE, NS – The little-known story of an unlikely war hero was certainly told leading up to Heritage Day.
Every seat in the 124-seat auditorium at the Irving Centre at Acadia University was occupied Feb. 17 when biographer Andria Hill-Lehr spoke about Mona Parsons, this year’s Heritage Day honoree.
Parsons was born in Middleton in 1901, and at the age of 10, moved to Wolfville. Her life took her around the world - after graduating from Acadia Ladies’ Seminary, Parsons headed off to New York, where she earned her a spot as one of the Ziegfeld Follies.
A few years later, she was introduced to Willem Leonhardt, the Dutch millionaire she would later marry. The couple moved to Holland and, for two years, enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle of parties, vacations and luxury.
On her second wedding anniversary, the Germans invaded Poland, and Parsons stood up for what she believed was right - Parsons and her husband quietly joined the Dutch Resistance, helping allied airman evade capture in a secret closet hiding spot behind Parsons’ shoes.
Parsons was eventually taken into custody and sentenced to death, but her dignity in facing the tribunal curried favour and her life was spared. She was sentenced to life in a labour camp, where she resided for four years, eventually escaping when the labour camp was bombed.
Read more about Mona Parsons:
‘Not willing to compromise’
Provincial culture and heritage minister Leo Glavine explained how Heritage Day is recognizing, honouring and bringing back to life people who made significant contributions to our province, like that of Parsons.
He spoke of Parsons’ “willpower and dedication to making life better for other human beings, for the common good. She was one of those people whose lives can be threatened, but they are not willing to compromise who they are. She could have left (the Netherlands) before WWII started, but she didn’t.”
Glavine paid tribute to Hill-Lehr as well, saying her dogged determination to share the story of Parsons’ heroism is “allowing us to celebrate Mona’s life a lot more.”
He added, “My hope is that this story makes it to the screen,” adding that the recent Maud Lewis film, Maudie, resulted in one of the best years ever at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery.
Kings-Hants MP Scott Brison said that every generation of young women will now know Parsons’ story and it will create a curiosity about what they can do today.
Wolfville Mayor Jeff Cantwell, who had Parsons’ image on his Facebook page for two years, spoke of the new bronze sculpture located on the post office lawn.
“I love how it graces Main Street,” he said.
Master of ceremonies Ramona Jennex watched the faces of those in the auditorium during the biographical talk and said, “I could see the faces going from happy to sorrowful. People were completely mesmerized.”
Earlier in the day, members of the Women of Wolfville, who did fundraising for the sculpture, lay tulips at the statue depicting the newly-liberated Parsons, which was erected last May. Feb. 17 marked what would have been Parsons’ 117th birthday.
The Wolfville Historical Society set up an information booth at the town’ s farmers’ market earlier in the day and interest was keen.
Jennex noted how one young woman read the history panel about Parsons’ wartime exploits and exclaimed, “I need to do something.”
Randall House curator Krystal Tanner said three individuals with real-life connections to Parsons stopped at the booth and generated a good deal of excitement.
Hill-Lehr, who lives in the Valley, organized a staged reading of her play about Parsons the Halifax Central Library on Feb. 18. She said the room was at capacity - standing room only.
A Wolfville reading is slated for the Al Whittle Theatre on March 10. Hill-Lehr hopes that the play can tour the province this coming summer.
Students at Horton High School nominated Mona Parsons as one of the first seven people and places for the province to celebrate for Heritage Day.
Four years later, several Horton students took part in a Halifax symposium on Feb. 15 entitled Untold Stories: Mona Parsons and Women in Nova Scotia History.
This year’s series of Heritage Day events were organized by the Wolfville Historical Society and the provincial Communities, Culture and Heritage department.
Middleton celebrates Mona
In Parsons’ hometown of Middleton, it was standing room only at the Macdonald Museum on Heritage Day as scores of young and old alike crowded the third floor of what used to be the Macdonald Consolidated School that Parsons once attended.
Many had not known of Parsons and others knew the story but wanted to hear Parsons’ biographer Andria Hill-Lehr tell it – which she did.
Hill-Lehr captivated the crowd for more than an hour, rarely pausing for breath in an animated and passionate retelling of Parsons’ life from the classrooms of that old brick school to Wolfville, New York, and to Holland and eventual Nazi occupation.
It was her indomitable spirit that surfaces again and again as she hides downed allied airmen, is tried for treason by the Nazis, and is sentenced to death, and spends years in prison before escaping and walking all the way back to Holland.
While Parsons was recognized in citations by both Britain and the United States, Canada has not acknowledged Parsons, a slight that wasn’t lost on West Nova MP Colin Fraser who suggested, after the celebrations, that it’s something he may look into further.
Glavine said Nova Scotia has such a rich history, and in many ways, we’re just starting to explore it and bring it to light.
“I believe one of the real benefits, of course, is for us to know the richness of our past and our heritage and our history,” said Glavine. “And I believe also it’s going to be part of what I would refer to as the cultural economy. I think we’re going to see, I believe, and an explosion of this in the coming years.”
Glavine said one of the big developments in his department is to bring forward a cultural action plan with six major planks and targets to expose and present that culture in our province.
“We all know it is such a huge part of our identity,” said Glavine, “who we are as Nova Scotians, who we are as a people. So, therefore, on Heritage Day we’ve been encouraging Nova Scotians to celebrate this province and its people, and to share in the sense of pride we feel when we look at the achievements of those who came before us.”
“Our communities are made stronger because of people like Mona who through willpower and dedication made the world a better place for their fellow human beings,” said Glavine. “Mona Parsons has taught us that anyone of us can do remarkable things through the power of conviction. People like Mona Parsons teach us that even under threat we should not compromise who we are. Mona Parsons embodied the very principles of dignity, justice, resiliency, and a common good. By their actions, people like Mona Parsons build our communities, they foster a sense of provincial pride, and pride in our cultural identity, our community, and our history.”
For Middleton’s mayor, Sylvester Atkinson, Feb. 19 was a great day to celebrate Parsons’ life.
“We in Middleton are indeed proud to host this event and want to thank all those who were involved in her selection and in arranging for the program here today,” he said. “I might say that I learned just recently that had I been born a hundred years earlier she would have been my next-door neighbor. We are especially pleased that one of our town’s people has been selected and to have the program happen here in the very school that she attended.”