Photo: Dorthea Calverley
The north, not to coin a phrase, is a land of contrasts. Smack alongside the very modern Alaska Highway near Fort St. John is the little log Chapel of the Holy Cross. It might have been set down in the great forests of the middle Ages. It was, however, built in 1934 by the Honorable Monica Storrs, daughter of the late Dean of Rochester.
We knocked on the heavy door of her nearby log house, once flippantly labeled “The Abbey”. The sound of a scrubbing brush ceased. Miss Storrs opened the door, clad in blue jeans and faded plaid shirt — her customary attire.
“See the Chapel? Of course you may,” and she led the way to the tiny chapel perched on the brow of a canyon overlooking the Peace River. Entering, she stood for a moment, head bowed in prayer. Then with zest she showed us some of her treasures — a glazed plaque brought from Jerusalem, a psalm book printed by hand in 1550, with the old-fashioned square notes.
Outside the chapel we chatted leaning against a pole fence, the tang of bruised sage filling the air. Small and slender, her face was a network of shallow wrinkles. Her gray hair was bobbed for comfort and her very blue eyes lighted up as she spoke of the work of the “Church Messengers”. She had told the story before to a distinguished audience.
“When in England two years ago, I had the honor of being commanded to visit Queen Elizabeth, who wished to hear about the Peace River country. She showed the deepest interest in the people, in the country as a whole, and the work being carried on. It was most gratifying.”
When the invitation arrived, Miss Storrs, like any other woman, “hadn’t a thing to wear”. It was literally true in her case. For her scanty wardrobe holds only clothing necessary to her ascetic life in the north, including the little blue gown and veil she wears when conducting church services. Her relatives insisted on loaning her clothes suitable to the occasion, and she “practiced curtsies for a whole day before leaving for Buckingham Palace.”
Monica Storrs is a contrast in herself. Although she never walked until she was twelve years old, she has ridden hundreds of miles with packhorse through B.C.’s rugged north. Imagine the gentle-born daughter of the Dean of Rochester chopping wood for her own stove, hauling water and cleaning out the stable. Picture that deanery-bred lady whom the Governor of Jaffa once taught to play poker, preaching the Word in highway maintenance camps, cafes, and little log churches.
Stricken by polio, little Monica dedicated her life to the service of others. Unlike most youngsters, she didn’t forget the resolve once she had learned to walk and play. It remained the prevailing motive of her life, for she alone of the six children in that distinguished family stayed with her father the Very Rev. John Storrs, until his death at 83. It was part of her reason for spending years in the Orient with her brother Sir Ronald Storrs, long an outstanding figure in British diplomacy in the Near East. And it was her main reason for choosing a mission in the wilds of Peace River.
From childhood, she had known a fondness for Canada. John Storrs had been born in Nova Scotia. Although educated in England, he retained an affection for the land of his birth. Twenty years ago Monica Storrs left a comfortable existence for a frontier where there were no churches, no ministers and no organized religion. The six Church Messengers with whom she was associated were supported by their own private incomes, and slender funds from the Fellowship of the West. They were not entirely welcome.
“What do they think we are — heathens?” snorted some of the pioneers. “Sending us missionaries, bah.” But the many acts of practical kindness, the utter devotion, finally won all hearts.
Throughout the years, Miss Storrs has given generously of her own funds. One after another in the country can recite deeds of kindness, gifts of clothing or food, seed grain or cash. But of this she refuses to speak. “The right hand need not know what the left hand doeth.” Not only her ardent Christianity but also her habit of meeting needs accounts for a widespread nickname, “The Angel”.
Her Christianity knows no bigotry, her charity no creed. Just previous to the war, she opened her home to two Jewish lads whose families were almost annihilated by the Nazi pogroms. They were not the first lads to stay in her six-roomed log house. As the number of Messengers dwindled to two, the Abbey cared for boys and girls attending school in Fort St. John.
A well-furnished and witty mind and a conviction that character can ennoble any work makes it possible for Miss Storrs to live the way she does. Material things don’t matter very much.
“She can give a wonderful sermon”, sighed an English bride, “It quite lifts you out of yourself.”
In Hudson’s Hope they tell of her first visit there — she walked the entire distance of nearly 70 miles. Another time, in the depth of winter when fording Lynx Creek, her horses plunged through the ice, upset the sleigh and ran away. Miss Storrs, her belongings and bedding were thrown out into shallow water. Drenched and with teeth chattering, she staggered the four miles to the Hope in clothing that froze to her body.
It was not her only experience with runaway horses. Starlight, now 28 years old and her companion on many travels, has often taken her into the upper Halfway Valley, where five families live. To reach the farthest means 100 miles of riding, and three times fording the swift-flowing Halfway River.
“Once we had halted for lunch,” she recounted, “the flies were particularly bad. Suddenly one bit Starlight viciously, and he led the stampede. We trailed those horses fifteen miles on foot before we caught up with them. But they might have gone all the way home.”
Although such places must still be visited on horseback, she finds “Bluebird” — the little blue Austin presented to her in England — a great boon. She and her companion Messenger, Miss Bernice Hunton of Quebec, visit practically everyone, making pastoral calls on families of the Anglican faith. They hold Sunday School for youngsters who have never seen a church, distribute books, pamphlets and pictures to remote settlers. Many a time Miss Storrs has refused the offer of a bed and unrolled her sleeping bag on the floor. Her work takes her to the border of the Yukon Territory and into the side-roads of B. C.
“But it’s time for someone younger, someone with fresh ideas to take over the work,” she says. “The drawback is that there is no salary attached, so that it has to be someone willing to spend and be spent in the work.”
Next year, Miss Storrs intends to return to England, by way of Australia, where she will visit her brother Bishop Storrs, whom she has not seen for fifteen years. She will carry with her every good wish and the affection of a large community which she has served with devotion for the past twenty years.
The Vancouver Sun Magazine Supplement — November 26th, 1949.