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Helen Gormley: From the seaside to prairie kindness

Helen Gormley has grown used to Saskatchewan winters in the last 57 years. It was the first winter in 1960, after emigrating to the Battlefords from Ireland with her husband Dr. Michael Gormley and two young children, that came as a surprise.
Helen Gormley: From the seaside to prairie kindness_0
Helen Gormley sits at home with her former show dog, Tucker. Gormley started and ran the Battlefords' Canadian Kennel Club-recognized Chautauqua Canine Club for over forty years. Photo by Shannon Kovalsky

Helen Gormley has grown used to Saskatchewan winters in the last 57 years. It was the first winter in 1960, after emigrating to the Battlefords from Ireland with her husband Dr. Michael Gormley and two young children, that came as a surprise.

She’d grown up in small towns in Australia before her family finally settled in a suburb of Melbourne. The experience was far different than small town life in Canada. “I can only remember once seeing a frozen puddle on the way to school,"  as she recalled.

On one of the colder winter days in her new Canadian home she had spoken to her father back in Melbourne about the weather. After placing a thermometer in the freezer, he concluded she must be joking.

“Somebody had come [to Canada] at the same time as us and said they’d looked up the weather [before they moved],” said Gormley, laughing, “I thought ‘Oh! We’re idiots. We never looked up the weather before.’”

The path to Canada first began for Gormley while working as a nurse at Prince Henry Hospital in Melbourne. After graduating from nursing school in 1948, she was hired on at the hospital. During a night shift, while talking to the shift supervisor, the topic of future plans came up.

“She said, ‘You know, I was in the air force and I enjoyed every minute of it. Have you ever given it any thought’ and I said, ‘no.’

“She said they were recruiting for the army and she wrote the name of someone and the phone number,” Gormley recalled.

“I went for the interview and had a medical and next thing I knew I was moving to another country.”

She joined the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps with the rank of lieutenant and was stationed in Kamunting, Malaysia, at a British army hospital. While working in Kamunting she met her future husband, Dr. Michael Gormley. They were married in the summer of 1956.

They then moved to Singapore where Dr. Gormley had been stationed and their first child, John, was born. With a young, growing family, the Gormleys decided to leave the army. Two years after settling in Singapore, the family set off to England, where Gormley gave birth to a daughter, Anne.

Before long they were once again on the move, this time to Dr. Gormley’s native Ireland. Fresh out of the army, he began to look for a job.

“We saw this one advertised in a British medical journal for a physician to come to Canada to work in a practice with two other Irishmen.”

After several letters and a phone interview, the job was his. As Gormley recalls, the process was quick, but she did have one quibble before agreeing to move.

“I said to [my husband], when the letters were going back and forth, that I’d always lived within walking distance of the sea and I looked it up on an atlas and said, 'I can’t see a sea,'" Gormley recalled, laughing.

“[Dr. Good, one of the practice doctors based in North Battleford] sent a letter back saying there’s a very nice lake about 25 minutes away where he has a cottage and others do, too, where you can take your wife and children out for the summer.”

Before the whole family moved countries it was agreed Dr. Gormley would go ahead to make the arrangements.

“He came ahead of me then and got the papers in order and phoned me up and said ‘yes, this is where we’re going to live.’”

Gormley and her two young children travelled with her sister-in-law from Dublin to Liverpool by night ferry. In Liverpool, they reached the ship that was to be their home for the next six days as they sailed over the Atlantic. As luck would have it, there was a dockworkers' strike. Passengers were informed they could bring only what they could carry. With Gormley’s hands full with two little ones, that turned out to be only what her sister-in-law could carry.

From Liverpool they docked in Montreal before flying to Saskatoon.

The experience was a whirlwind, with Gormley noting she has no idea how she got from the dockside to the airport or through immigration, but it was an experience that reinforced her faith in deciding to move.

“People were so kind to us,” she said, recalling that first year getting settled.

Forced, under the circumstances, to do without many of their own things for six months before they could be shipped to Canada, the community of doctors and their families banded together to make the new arrivals comfortable.

“All of the other doctors’ wives were very good to us,” Gormley acknowledged. “They just phoned up their friends and got sheets, blankets, cutlery, everything. By the time our stuff arrived I didn’t know where I had to give it back to.”

Starting life over in a new country is never easy, but even with the disparity in climates, Gormley never second guessed the decision and instead remembers the kindness that was shown to them in those early days.

Their youngest daughter, Siobhan, was born that fall and the Gormleys settled in to life in Canada, with summers spent at the cottage on Jackfish Lake.

A stay-at-home mother after leaving the army, Gormley admitted that at first she did miss nursing, but ultimately decided not to return to the profession. Life carried on, the kids got older and, one day, Anne, knowing she wouldn’t be allowed a pony, asked for an Irish wolfhound for a pet.

It so happened that back in Ireland, a daughter of a neighbour of the Gormleys bred wolfhounds for show. A puppy was chosen that they named Cooey.

Around this time, Gormley began to take an interest in dog shows. With her kids growing older and finding herself with more spare time, Gormley decided, along with Doris Gardiner, to start the Battlefords’ first canine club.

Chautauqua Canine Club’s first Canadian Kennel Club-recognized dog show in the Battlefords was held in 1972 with around 300 dogs taking part. It was important to Gormley that their shows be the highest quality and often the judges were flown in from Ontario. Eventually, word got out about the Battlefords dog show due to Gormley and Gardiner’s commitment to the highest standard.

“People were coming from Saskatchewan and Alberta and, once we were known and people knew we got good judges, people started coming from the States too,” noted Gormley.

At Chautauqua Canine Club’s dog show peak, “the hotels were always full” of handlers and owners.

The events were a labour of love, with only around seven regular members, the families and friends and “anyone who showed any interest at all was dragged in” to help out, including Gormley’s then teenaged daughters, who helped in the kitchen pouring coffee and other tasks. Dr. Gormley was often designated as the chauffeur to fetch judges at the airport. An enterprising spirit became the key to the annual weekend event.

With such a hectic three-day schedule year after year, Gormley didn’t consider giving it up. What made everything worth doing was the sense of community and friendship found in the club and at the show.

At the height of popularity for dog shows in Saskatchewan there were events in Weyburn, Swift Current, Yorkton, Saskatoon and Regina as well as the Battlefords. In recent years, the popularity has waned. After more than 40 years of operation, Chautauqua Canine Club disbanded in 2015, with the remaining four members deciding there simply weren’t enough people to keep it going. After Chautauqua Canine Club closed their account the remaining money was donated to the SPCA for their new facility fundraising efforts.

Gormley steps away from the club with no regrets, having created a community she loved and belonged to more than 40 years in her adopted hometown.