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DAWE: The importance of Nita Thorne

One outstanding individual from Red Deer, who was to attain national importance, primarily with the United Church of Canada, was Mrs. Nita Dawson Thorne.
Nita Thorne, circa 1945 (Photo by Red Deer Archives)

One outstanding individual from Red Deer, who was to attain national importance, primarily with 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 very talented musically, she played the organ at the local church. In 1901, she then decided to become a schoolteacher. Although she was only 17 years old, she found herself teaching a class of predominately boys, many of whom were only slightly younger than she was.

In 1904, she married Ora Thorne. The following year, they moved up to a homestead 18 miles west of Ponoka. They tried to build their first home in the very brutal winter of 1906-07. Nita went into Ponoka and got a job working in a confectionary to try and earn some cash income.

She also played the organ in the Presbyterian Church in the morning, the Anglican Church in the afternoon and the Methodist Church in the evening. Ponoka has always been a centre for ecumenicalism. 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 where Nita learned to grade grain. In 1911, they moved to Lacombe to run a lumber yard. In 1918, they came to Red Deer to run another lumber yard.

Nita played the organ at the Presbyterian Church and was the assistant organist at Gaetz Church with Alice Youmans Hamilton and then Helen Moore Dawe. Nita also organized a Sunday School Orchestra at Gaetz with her playing the piano and Ora playing the trombone. In 1919, she started the first C.G.I.T. group at Gaetz Church.

In 1923, she and Ora moved to Bowden. Nita became active with the Women’s Association (W.A.). She was pleased that it became the first branch to affiliate with the Women’s Missionary Society (W.M.S.). She served as a delegate to the United Church Presbytery and Conference. In 1933, she became the president of the Lay Association.

In 1936, the Thornes moved back to Red Deer where Ora again managed a lumber yard. Nita worked there as well. Nita was an excellent business person and excelled at estimating. It is often said that she could tell almost the exact amount of lumber and other supplies that a contractor would need for a project. Some contractors thought that they knew better than the woman on the other side of the counter, but they would often be back to get the additional quantity that Nita had initially told them they would need.

Nita became president of the both the W.A. and W.M.S and the secretary of the Board of Stewards. When the Red Deer and Lacombe Presbyteries united, Nita Thorne became the first president of the new organization.

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

During her term, Nita vigorously pushed for a more active role for laity in the management and work of the United Church. She helped set policies for lay visitations as well as for lay interpretations of social issues. She also helped draft the constitution for the new Canadian Council of Churches.

Nita and Ora Thorne never had any family. Nita’s only blood relative was a cousin living in Indiana. Thus, the Church became her family. Her commitment to her co-parishioners was unrivaled.

Ora Thorne passed away in 1954, but Nita continued on with her tireless work for the church until her passing in July, 1967. They are both buried in the Red Deer Cemetery.

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