St. Marys Journal Argus
Past members, as well as family members of past members, will gather Sunday, Sept. 14 at the Royal Canadian Legion in St. Marys for the 100th anniversary of what is surely the town’s longest-active service group, the McConnell Club of St. Marys.
“I’m not aware of any other club in the country that’s quite like this one,” offered Past President Bernice Coulson, when asked last week what gives the club its longevity. Coulson noted the McConnells are entirely independent — a one-off, singular Stonetown success story — with all decision-making made here and no dues paid to provincial or national organizations.
“And it’s also a great bunch of ladies,” Coulson added. “It’s a social club, as well as being a service club.”
The group’s predecessor first came together a few months before September of 1914 — before the global conflict, the First World War, that eventually served as the catalyst for the club’s transformation — as an offshoot of what was known as the Patriotic Women’s League. It was a youth club, mainly for young women but also for young men, and “Bill” McConnell, the club’s eventual namesake, was one of the few male members.
William John McConnell had been born in Kincardine, but came to St. Marys to apprentice as a barber. Perhaps he was also drawn to the Stonetown by the promise of participation in high-level athletics, including the renowned Alerts lacrosse team, given that he was known as a very athletic person. Or perhaps he was drawn here by the attractive young ladies of the town, given that he reportedly also had a reputation for romance.
After war was declared, continuation of the group was in peril due to the loss of many young men to the front. But a young woman named Tena Constable ensured that it remained active. And when news arrived in September of 1916 that McConnell had been killed in Belgium 11 days earlier, Constable appealed to the Patriotic Women’s League to have the youth club renamed in his honour.
“For many years, his mother (in Kincardine) gave a donation to the club,” explained Coulson, who first became active with the group in the mid-1980s.
A portrait of McConnell was donated by the Club to the Legion, where it still hangs today. And every Remembrance Day, members of the McConnell Club of St. Marys place a wreath at the Town Hall cenotaph in honour of their organization’s namesake.
Coulson credits another of the group’s original members, Polly Bain, with having “the foresight” to reform the McConnell Club after the post-War demise of the Women’s Patriotic League. By then, Constable had married and moved to Toronto, but Bain, who was identified in a February, 1924 article in the Journal Argus as President of “a newly organized McConnell Club.” And it was because of the way Bain set up the group, the current Past President notes, that today’s organization remains strong and independent.
“I’ve always done a lot of volunteering in the community,” Coulson said. “And I really value the McConnell Club because everything we raise in our fundraisers goes right into the community.”
Coulson, who has been working with several others on the committee organizing next Sunday’s centenary celebration, said the club is planning “a classic do . . . We’re getting so excited about this.”
Approximately 150 people are expected to attend a luncheon at the Legion. Among them will be a great-nephew of Bill McConnell, now a successful triathlon coach and business operator in Ottawa. Others of his extended family from Alberta may also make the trip.
“I felt like I was doing a family history for the McConnells,” said Coulson, who did the work of contacting the distant relatives and inviting them to the 100th anniversary. “But it was so interesting. I’m so glad I was able to contact these people.”
The Town of St. Marys officially proclaimed Sept. 14, 2014 as “William McConnell Day” in the town. And, following the lunch, the public is invited to join in the celebration as the doors to the Legion swing wide at 2:30 p.m. for an Open House.