A long road to recognition for this war hero

“My life was very much quieter after I moved back to Wolfville. I didn’t talk about what happened during the war, except to those who knew me. I found that when I mentioned it to strangers, particularly young people, they seemed to think I was a demented old bird.”

After 1976, when Mona Parsons died, her story lay as if buried in the archives of Acadia University. Andria Hill Lehr unearthed it in the 90s and the story haunted her until she wrote a play.
Andria was a theatre major, so drama was the natural route for her storytelling. It is a dramatic tale. Collecting more of that wartime history, she decided to write a biography.
My dad, Robbins Elliott, grew up on Linden Avenue and had known Mona who lived around the corner on Acadia Street as a boy. Then, as a young officer in war-torn Europe, in April 1945, he heard that Mona had been found nearby on the border of The Netherlands.
Captain R. Elliott
He wrote his father back in Wolfville: “You probably will be very surprised to know that Mona Parsons Leonhardt is living three doors down with Canadian nurses. After undergoing terrible experiences for harboring Allied airmen in their house near Hilversum, she and her husband were given life sentences by the Germans. Mona was sent to a work camp in a mill near Krefeld. Our bombing forced the Huns to move her camp near Osnabruck, and about three weeks ago she managed to escape during bombardment… In this German town she is at last among friends. She was looking the worse for her spell of imprisonment, but will soon recover.”
Easy for a 24-year-old to say, but Dad felt strongly enough in his late 70s that he decided to travel to the Netherlands with Andria to help conduct further research. He believed that the book, the play and a documentary film would eventually provide Mona with recognition long overdue.
The book came out in 2000 and made a bit of a splash.
Mona’s name and that of Wolfville’s first female town councilor, Laura Haliburton Moore, were suggested to the local historical committee as possible new street names. No response was ever received regarding that request.
In time Moore was accepted, but Mona’s name was somehow besmirched. Apparently in the minds of some of the town’s old boys club, she had a drinking problem. Later the registered nurse who’d made regular VON calls at her home had no qualms about saying liquor wasn’t Mona’s problem, PTSD was.
Andria Hill Lehr with nurse's donation

Six years after the biography was published, the Women of Wolfville (WOW) took up Mona’s story, and a variety of other female voices, in another play, Matriarchives. The script resonated with many locally.
The next attempt to tangibly recognize her was a request to name the library at Wolfville School for Mona. After all the school was built on the site of the Parsons home. ‘We don’t do that kind of thing,’ WOW members were informed by the school board.
In 2011-12 a petition was started by WOW to rename Clock Park for Mona. About 300 names were added. The all-male town council of the day voted against the notion.
Before the vote, an honours history student at Acadia made a passionate speech in favour of the name change. Sarah Story suggested that the naming of public spaces should not be a top-down decision made by council.
“Generally in the past, financial contributions and political favouritism has trumped and/or negated community input into the naming of public spaces and facilities,” she stated, citing the Irvings, Rockefellers and Carnegies of the world.
Story noted that most women, not only in Wolfville, but the larger society, “recognize that our contributions have been often overlooked in the past and/or trumped by the contributions of men and business. We feel that our values, identities, and histories are not adequately reflected in public places - this is why the debate over naming the park has gotten heated at times.”
“It is time women - half of the population of this community - have a space of their own where they can see their gender, values, identities, and contributions be publicly and formally acknowledged and memorialized for women today, and women tomorrow.”
Naming a park costs a town virtually nothing, but commissioning a statue is a costly exercise. That was, however, about the only route left to explore for public recognition of the war heroine who was virtually unacknowledged in Canada.
In September of 2012 a little band of ‘statue raisers’ reached out to Dutch-born sculptor Nistal Prem de Boer, who has a gift for depicting the human body. When he saw the portrait of Mona at 19 that everyone adores, he wrote me, “she is already in my dreams.”
By February he was estimating the sculpture in his imagination might cost $25,000 or $30,000. Fund raising began in earnest. In November Nistal was ready to begin the scale model maquette.
In 2014 Laurie Dalton at the Acadia Art Gallery allowed us to have an unveiling of that little bronze maquette. Fund raising continued with help from the Wolfville Historical Society and the province kicked in $8,000. (Thanks Ramona Jennex!) Elisabeth Kosters, another Dutch native, took on the complex application for federal Legacy funds.
She has said her motivation came from the fact that Mona “did what my aunt and my mom did: she hid Allied pilots. And for that act of resistance she was sentenced to death and later to life in prison. She spent four years in a concentration camp and I have no doubt that she was severely traumatized the rest of her life without anyone recognizing that.”
Kosters found Nistal’s design for the memorial “utterly moving: it shows her in rags on old wooden shoes, dancing wildly – because she is free. The image conveys the very idea of freedom, something we take for granted too easily.”
For Elisabeth the sculpture pays “tribute to all those forgotten and unknown women who – in their own way – resisted injustice, dictatorship and terror.”
Placing a sculpture in a prominent place, she said, “we would recognize that Canadian liberators also benefited from those who worked in the background, in the hidden folds of the war: women who didn't question risking their lives for justice and against terror.”
Dr. Allen Eaves, a Vancouver resident with Valley roots, jumped on board readily as a major donor, but due to CBC coverage small gifts came in from all across the country. The federal funds were approved late in 2016, so we sent a willing Nistal off to China to supervise the casting.
From that juncture copious details flowed – I even learned how to hire an international customs broker (thanks Randy Penney!). MP Scott Brison’s staff negotiated space at the post office. Town staff aided, making the installation under the old oak tree on the lawn go smoothly. On May 5, 2017 Mona was unveiled, finally a tangible memorial.
Songs were sung and all the right speeches were made at that celebration, but what I remember are the children picking yellow dandelions and carefully laying them at Mona’s feet. I find myself repeatedly taking photos of people dancing with Mona on the grass. That's because my aunt remembered gratefully how a glamorous young Mona came home from New York City and gave a couple of Wolfville girls dancing lessons.
Now, thanks to some long graduated students from Horton High School in 2014, Mona is about to become the fourth honoree for Nova Scotia’s initial series of February Heritage Day holidays. The line-up of events for the next 10 days feels like icing on a cake of remembrance. Andria’s biography is in its third edition.
Years ago had there been a street named or a park designated, we wouldn’t be as excited as we are now. It would have been far easier, but having inherited some of the Mona determination (Thanks Dad!) I am super glad to share her story as the only Canadian civilian woman imprisoned by the Nazis. Hers and other untold stories about brave Nova Scotia women will be highlighted this coming week. Thanks to culture and heritage for remembering.


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