Now & Then

by Petra Wall

Erwin Thompson

Erwin Thompson smiled as he greeted the writer at the door with an enthusiastic “please come in.” Boots and coat were removed and a quick tour of his abode followed. It is clear that a very organized person lives here. Not all of us establish an optimum strategy for where, if and how things should be stored but Erwin has mastered this art. Wood for the fire is neatly stored in the back porch. A computer desk conveniently shares the front room; the kitchen is spotless and several bedrooms are ready for visiting family. Memorabilia decorate shelves and walls. “I have lived here for 13 years, have been retired for three years, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to make this place comfortable.”

Many of those working years were spent helping others as pastor of four Western Manitoulin United Churches in Mills Township, Meldrum Bay, Elizabeth Bay and Silver Water starting in July 1988. After his marriage broke up in the mid-1980s, Erwin went through troubling times. In an October 1998 Manitoulin West Recorder, an article notes that Erwin was given the ‘People Helping People Award’ for being a vital link to bringing mental health services to the West End of the Island. In the article, Erwin thanked Network North, shared some of his own personal experiences and added, “Mental heath needs to be talked about; it has the same effects on people as any physical ailment.”

A few months later, in March 1999, in a letter to the editor of The Manitoulin Expositor, Reverend Richard White of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Little Current wrote a correlating article.  “…My hat’s off to Pastor Thompson. His remarks were amazingly candid and self-disclosing. I dare say some men might have been uncomfortable reading what he said. There are many who say that one should bear one’s own troubles and ‘take it like a man’ in silence. But sometimes that’s a cop-out response from those afraid of looking at themselves and their troubles too closely. I am grateful Erwin took a different route. He sought professional help, listened and learned. By so doing, he became twice the man he would have been if he hadn’t sought help…” 

A youthful Erwin in a school photo

In 2003, Pastor Thompson won the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal, recognizing his contribution to his community and to Canada along with 13 other Manitoulin residents. Morley, Stella and Denise Campbell were involved with that ceremony. Ten years later, he was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal. It is rare that one person receives both medals.

Erwin Henry was born to Roland Davidson Thompson and Pearl Kathleen Wood in Prince Edward Island, on May 29, 1946.  He was named after his grandfather, Henry. A revealing invoice at his birth of $50.40 remains, breaking down the total costs for all the doctor visits and the hospital birth. In due course, Roger, Beverley and Joy, were added to the family.

“My father Roland Davidson Thompson, born in 1915, was the 14th child of 15. They had run out of names so he was named after local Reverend Davidson who baptized him.” Roland’s mother died of cancer when he was five; his father died when he was 10. He was needed on the farm so attended school for just three months a year and he finished Grade 8 at age 18. As an adult, Roland continued with farm work and he helped fox ranchers as well.

Pearl, born in 1924, had already lost a brother and a sister to rheumatic fever, one week apart. Her father was a blacksmith who owned horses and cows and did mixed farming. “When I was about four, I remember leaving my wagon on the kitchen floor,” Erwin recalls. “My mother came in carrying a lot of glass jars and she didn’t see the wagon. She fell and cut herself on the broken glass. I ran next door for help. She was alright but it had frightened me.” It seems young Erwin discovered glass jars on the porch another time, and they were filled with bees. “I opened all the jars and let the bees out.”

Spending Summer in PEI with his pet calf circa 1956

In May of 1950, Roland moved to Levack, Ontario. He arrived in a 1937 Dodge also carrying his brother and sister-in-law and their four children. Belongings straddled the roof of the car, and 12 flat tires slowed the trip. After Roland found accommodation for his family, Pearl arrived by train with Erwin, four, Roger, two and Beverley, four months in August that year.

“My memory of that trip was my brother’s unrestrained pushing of the button for the porter; The busy porter had dark skin and I had never seen black skin before. He undoubtedly endured my staring and the repeated calls to our compartment. ‘Did you ring madam?’ was his repeated lament. Erwin remembered gold (brass) handrails and a nurse who helped them in Montreal.”

The family settled in Levack. Each year they would visit family in PEI for two weeks, but not during July and August because Roland could not get time off in the summer. “I missed school but that was alright. School was not my thing. Each summer, in PEI, Erwin helped with the farm work, stooking hay and holding the reins for the horse. I also remember playing hide and seek in the hayloft; that was a lot of fun. I was there for my 13th birthday, the same day a calf was born. I named him Domino. I tried hard, without success, to convince my parents to let me bring him home.”

The Levack Public School was a six-room facility, with Grades 1 to 13. In Grade 2, my teacher told me I would fail if I didn’t learn my phonetics. I was doomed. Later, I failed Grade 9 and 10 compulsory French. I couldn’t spell. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had dyslexia, a learning disability. It seems teachers were not familiar with that condition in the ‘50s and ‘60s”.

The new high school was built in a gravel pit. “It had 114 steps which I climbed twice a day because I went home for lunch.” The reluctant student wasn’t fond of English and science, but he liked math, geography, history and drama, participating in several plays. “I was the major in ‘The Mouse Trap’ by Agatha Christie. I had to smoke a pipe and a cigar. Unfortunately, this created an urge to smoke for six months following the end of the play’s run before I had the sense to quit.”

Erwin took business and commerce in Grade 12. In 1966, after graduating from high school the same year as his brother Roger, the young Levack man found accounting work at the local TD bank for $2,900 a year. He had to train staff for 12 hours a day. When he was transferred to Gananoque TD bank, the staff loved him but a supervisor gave him grief. The breaking point came when they were short-staffed yet again and he had to do two jobs, being a teller and doing payroll. He was forced to do both at the counter.

His supervisor said, “you will not do payroll at the counter where you are serving clients.” After several reprimands, Erwin declared, “who’s going to make me you one-eyed bastard?” The staff cheered and Erwin found new work at INCO back in the Sudbury area. He worked in the lumberyard and subsequently as production clerk in the office.

Engagement photo Sept 1970

During his time at INCO, Erwin found a partner, Margaret (Marg) Sorenson, who was attending Laurentian University. They met when Marg brought her boyfriend Henry home as Erwin was helping Marg’s father put up some shelving in his front porch. Marg’s dad stopped to introduce Erwin to his daughter and her boyfriend. Erwin smiled and promptly dropped his hammer on Henry’s foot. A tense moment stilled with comic relief.

Erwin soon found favour with Marg and they began to date. They were married by two ministers close to the family on October 9, 1971. Thanksgiving colours for the wedding mimicked the world around them: golds, green and reds.” The honeymoon took them to Ottawa, the Thousand Islands and Devil’s Glen in southern Ontario.

In 1973, after being laid off by INCO, Erwin became loan officer at the Credit Union in Levack. Daughter Sarah was born in the mid 1970s. “I recall being denied health benefits at the Credit Union.” Erwin was not happy and decided to leave this job. “I now had three good months to share with my new daughter before going back to a new job.”

The Thompson Family

Erwin headed back to INCO for eight years in production in the crushing plant until 1982. Son Christopher was born while the company was on strike and, this time, the new father had nine months off. His next assignment was setting up a state-of-the art maple syrup bush at Fox Lake Lodge, 50 miles north of Sudbury. “The bush was the most northern in North America at the time. A system of plastic pipes supported by tripods brought the syrup from the trees to a gravity-fed central depot where the sap could be boiled to syrup and pumped into canister trucks. Erwin then bought a three-car taxi business operating in Levack and Onaping Falls.

In the mid-70s Erwin was stopped at a red light when a Lincoln Mark IV plowed into him at an estimated 100 km an hour. “My head hit the rear-view mirror and pushed it right through the windshield. The driver blew 1.8 on the breathalyser. The car in front, carrying a couple and three kids, had their seats come right off. I wound up with severe whiplash and other abrasions and an inability to lift more than 10 pounds, which necessitated 13 months off work.” Remarkably, a bottle of 12-year-old Haig Scotch purchased for his father-in-law had remained intact in Erwin’s smashed trunk.

Reverend Fred and Sheila Sorensen, Reverend Dr. Len and Isabel Keightly as well as Reverend Dr. Norman and Dorothy McKenzie helped inspire the change to a new career for Erwin as a minister with the United Church. “From Grade 5 on I wanted to be a missionary. It was an inner calling that I kept to himself in my early years but now I could realize that dream.”

Marg was less enthusiastic about the new direction. Erwin wanted to go back to school to learn missionary work. This meant that he would be away a lot, just as Marg’s father had been. She recorded all the ‘World’s Living Religions’ for him, but their marriage ended soon after. When Marg left in 1986, Erwin was devastated.

Erwin with his son and daughter

After the divorce, and despite getting joint custody of the kids, his life went into a tailspin. Dealing with loss and depression, he was admitted to the psychiatric hospital in Sudbury for two weeks and then was committed for another six weeks. In his lowest moment, he attempted suicide, but with competent and substantive help, he made it back out of that tunnel of despair and became a stronger man.

“After being released from the hospital, I took my parents and the kids and travelled to PEI. It was a healing trip. I met with relatives and recharged my batteries. When I got back home, it was back to my training,” He had to get his English competency through Laurentian and it took two tries to achieve that most difficult goal. Huntington College (the United Church of Canada’s affiliated college at Laurentian) offered the other courses he sought.

Erwin arrived to Silver Water as an Intended Candidate for Ministry. “I couldn’t continue my training and pay child support, so I asked for and got three years of ‘on the job’ training with the United Church of Canada.” The Pastoral Institute of Northern Ontario offered a 10-week mental health counselling course which became very valuable. Maxine McVey, who he knew from Levack, later became the United Church minister in Gore Bay. She had also been a lay delegate in the ministry at the same time as Erwin. Scouting remained a vital part of Erwin’s life. He had started as a cub and worked up to Assistant District Commissioner, putting in 28 years in all.

“I got involved in local issues in Western Manitoulin and tried to help.” The pastor recalls having lunch with the couple that was subsequently murdered more than 20 years ago and with the man accused of their murder, and eventually convicted, at the same table. “Looking back to that occasion afterwards was stressful but now I was better equipped to handle it.” Erwin counselled people affected by the victim and by the perpetrator.

There was time for fun, too. “One year in the July 1 parade, I was ‘the devil with the blue dress on’ in another, I was a clown.” A third time found the brave minister sitting on the wooden throne of an outhouse, pants appropriately around his ankles. “That was in remembrance of another minister, who did his best thinking on the stinker.”

Another noteworthy occasion was the wedding of Brent St. Denis in Elizabeth Bay. It was kept secret from the public and only family and close friends attended the ceremony officiated by Pastor Thompson. As a special thank you, Brent sent Erwin a commemorative water colour of the church, for the congregation. It was later displayed at the Elizabeth Bay United Church.

“I have been Chaplin for the Legion in Gore Bay for 23 years. I saw the old Silver Water church torn down to be replaced with a new version. I was proud to serve in all three churches on the West End of the Island.” On his designation as a Lay Pastoral Minister, Erwin was recognized with the fine gift of a stunning deerskin cape fashioned by Virginia Matheson of Sheshegwaning. “It was her first leather work and I just love it. Feel how soft the leather is.” He was displaying the exquisite bead and leather work. The medicine wheel with the four directions was made for him too. He is very proud of these possessions.

Minister Erwin Thompson Lay Pastoral Minister, in his beloved deerskin cape

There were three retirement parties for Erwin in 2013, the first at Burpee Mills Complex for the township and the Elizabeth Bay United Church. In Silver Water, the Pastoral Charge roasted him. “I deserved that,” Erwin offers, “it was well done, with a lot of humour.” Erwin proudly displays the eagle feather he was given. The last party was at Science North with family and friends on July 1 of that year.

“The most important events in my life were the births of my two children,” Erwin shares. “My daughter was born at the General Hospital while I sat in the waiting room, even after a fire in the laundry room compelled us to meet at the nursing station. Fathers were not part of the process then. For my son, I was supposed to be in the birthing room. The original physician couldn’t make it so I had to wait for the new doctor. My son was born before I was able to enter the room.”

Daughter Sarah teaches Grade 1 Special Education in Mississauga. Her husband Trevor works at a Marketing Company called Christies. Their daughter Lauren is in Grade 5 French immersion in Burlington. Erwin’s son Christopher works in IT at the Children’s Treatment Centre in Sudbury. Daughter-in-law Amy is a marine biologist at Science North. “My mother Pearl is 92 now. She spent 38 years in Gore Bay before moving to Meadowbrook in Lively.”

“My life is more settled these days. I am healthy, apart from a few allergies. I’ve had prostate surgery. Dr. McRae continues to take good care of me. In October 2009, I had a heart attack while on the hospital treadmill. I had 100 percent blockage in one artery and close to that in two others. I had triple bypass surgery. A week later my dad died. He was almost 94. He had retired to Gore Bay in July 1978 and had spent many good years there. One of his favourite people to share fox-raising stories with was George Purvis.”

“I enjoyed tremendously a trip to Israel, because it brought the scriptures alive for me. I could see the actual sites of where biblical events took place and I walked in the steps of Jesus. Now when I hear  the hymn, ‘Be Thou My Vision’ I am taken back to that visit.” A trip to Russia made the Lay Minister proud he was a Canadian. “I was there three or four years after the fall of the government and I saw seniors begging for food and shelter.”

Strengths include openness, listening, compassion and empathy; honourable traits for a man of the cloth. He doesn’t fear much, apart from heights. “I developed that inclination when I helped my uncle nail shakes on a barn roof. A diploma in gerontology would have been helpful,” he adds. “I enjoy my home, spending time on my computer, despite being challenged electronically. I would love to learn more about computers. My children and their spouses gave me a tablet for Christmas and I can take photos with it and play lots of games, like word search, euchre and Battleship.”

“I also love to step-dance. The music draws me in. Television is another pastime. When I was younger it was the Lone Ranger, and later the Waltons. Now, I like mysteries. I collected clocks over the years but arthritis makes it harder to fix them so I have only 23 left. I am lucky to have two wonderful children, a granddaughter Lauren and a granddog, Rory.”

“Manitoulin is a place to live. It is so much like my native PEI; also an island. I love the friendliness, the openness and how people accept one another. After all, they put up with me as a lay minister for 25 years. They must be gluttons for punishment.” There isn’t anything he would change if he could go back in time. “Life is a learning experience, you grow to be a better person and help others along the way,” he concludes, “take each day at a time and accept people for who they are and cover them with love in this beautiful place we share.”