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Lilian Cornell: Supercentenarian

Doris Lilian Cornell of North Battleford has become a supercentenarian. Supercentenarians are those rare individuals who have passed their 110th birthday.
Sept. 5, members of the Saskatoon City Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae gathered at Villa Pascal to visit supercentenarian Lilian Cornell, a graduate of the class of 1926. Standing, left to right, are Leola Macdonald of North Battleford, Joan Hiebert of Blackstrap, Maxine Beardsworth of North Battleford, Beth Joseph of Meota and Lynne Farrell (president), Carol Olson and Pat Keeler, all of Saskatoon. Seated, left to right, are Pat Thomson of Saskatoon (formerly of Meota), Lilian Cornell and Marg Dragan of Saskatoon. Photo by Jayne Foster

Doris Lilian Cornell of North Battleford has become a supercentenarian. Supercentenarians are those rare individuals who have passed their 110th birthday. The Gerontology Research Group based in the United States has verified only 73 supercentenarians world wide, and it is possible there are only three people in Canada older than Lilian Cornell.

Lilian celebrated her 110th birthday Aug. 21 with family and friends at her grandson Cameron Tait's cottage at Metinota. Aug. 27, she was the guest of honour at a party at Villa Pascal, where she now lives, and this past Friday she was treated to a coffee party by fellow members of the alumnae of Saskatoon City Hospital, where she trained as a nurse. She is the oldest known living graduate of Saskatoon City Hospital School of Nursing.

Probably the oldest resident of Saskatchewan, Doris Lilian Wilson was born to William and Gertrude (Goddard) Wilson in Lincolnshire, England in 1904.

Lilian was seven when, in April of 1912, she and her older sister, Edith, and their mother, Gertrude, boarded a trans-Atlantic steamship for Canada. They were to join her father, William Wilson, who had come to Saskatchewan the year before.

It was two weeks after the Titanic had sunk after colliding with an iceberg, and Lilian remembers they were nervous about the crossing.

A seemingly never-ending train trip finally brought them to Dafoe, near Wynyard, where William had filed for a farmstead. It was a very different life from Lincolnshire, although they attended the local Church of England, the hub of a small group of settlers from Great Britain.

She began attending Foote School in the Copeland district, about two miles from their home on the small farm.

"Her arrival at school, wearing long curls (not braids) and with her lunch carried in something other than a syrup pail, was quite an event for the local students. When she spoke with her broad Lincolnshire accent, she was teased mercilessly," wrote Lilian's daughter Lou wrote in an article for the fall 2009 newsletter of the Saskatchewan Seniors Mechanism.

When Lilian was 12, her mother became ill and was taken to hospital in Saskatoon where she died of a ruptured appendix at the age of 47.

When Edith married a bachelor farmer, Charles Harvey, the new couple shared their home with Lilian and her widowed father, William.

Lilian took Grades 1 through 9 at Foote School, walking two and a half miles to and from school. School commenced in August and was closed during the winter months so the children did not have to attend during the coldest time of the year.

She attended high school at Bedford Road and Nutana Collegiate in Saskatoon, staying at the YWCA to be able to attend classes away from home.

In 1923, she became a student nurse at Saskatoon City Hospital. (Built in 1909, City Hospital served as a teaching hospital from its inception until 1969.)

Pupil nurses were required to attend a two-month probation period without pay, and if accepted into the program, were to sign an agreement to remain at the school for three full years, under the supervision of the lady superintendent, responsible for all things female, including conduct on or off duty.

Saskatoon City Hospital rules and regulations of the day meant living in nurses' residence while training and adhering to a variety of strict policies, which included the wearing of prescribed uniforms.

Lilian's daughter Lou wrote in the Saskatchewan Seniors Mechanism newsletter, "Her white uniform's apron reached the floor and her black boots reached her knees."

Lilian graduated with the class of 1926, along with 15 other nurses.

Much of her nursing was done as a "special" nurse in rural areas, travelling with a doctor to patients' homes. In winter they travelled by horse-drawn cutter. In an installment of North Battleford Notables, published in the News-Optimist as part of the celebration of North Battleford's centennial, Lilian remembers having to place hot bricks on the floor of the cutter so cold toes and feet would be kept warm.

Nurses in those days did more than bedside care. Lilian often did laundry and prepared family meals as well as administering nursing care, staying with patients for up to five days - more if her assistance was required when a mother gave birth.

When she was 22, while serving on a maternity case in Hughton, she was introduced by her patient to the local CNR station agent, Howard Cornell.

Lilian and Howard married in June, 1929 in the Copeland church and settled in Domremy, where they were one of four English-speaking families in a French-speaking town. Their only child, daughter Lou, was born while they lived there.

They were later transferred to Meskanaw, southwest of Melfort, and finally to Meota. It was late August 1939, two weeks before the start of the Second World War.

With the closest doctors in North Battleford, and the highway frequently impassable in winter, patients often turned up on Lilian's doorstep. She would telephone to North Battleford and describe the symptoms presented by her patient.

"Frequently her service would be rewarded by a jar of cream or a chicken left on that same doorstep the next day," wrote Lou.

In 1950, Lou married Bill Tait of Meota, who established Tait Electric in North Battleford the same year. They had six children - five boys (Rick, Cam, Jim, Tom and Bruce) and one girl (Joan).

When Howard retired from the CNR in July 1957, he had been with the railroad for four decades. Originally from Ontario, he had learned the Morse code as a hobby in his boyhood, which may well have been instrumental in his career. In the community history book Footsteps in Time, Lilian wrote, "He came West to Saskatchewan on a holiday and remained in the province for the rest of his life. He started working as a telegrapher for the CNR at Big River, and except for one with the Royal Flying Corps during the World War I, he worked for the CNR for over forty years. He was an ardent reader and interested in journalism, history community theatre, music, gardening and travelling. Jackfish Lake was a pleasure to him; he liked to be ON it (rowing, fishing or sailing) and BESIDE it (at Mile 21, the Metinota cottage.)"

Upon retirement, it was necessary to leave the station residence, so they moved to a new home on 93rd Street in North Battleford, where Lilian continued to reside for more than 50 years.

In 1966, Lou and her family moved to Edmonton where Bill became a vocational instructor. (Bill and Lou retired to Meota in 1988. He passed away in 2008.)

After Howard passed away in 1977, Lilian kept busy with hobbies such as reading, knitting, pottery, embroidery and tatting, always maintaining the tradition of afternoon tea time at 3:30.

For several winters, she spent part of the season in Edmonton with her grandson Bruce's family and in Calgary with grandson Cam's family.

When she was 108, Lilian moved from her house into Villa Pascal.

Oldest Alum

Lilian Cornell is the oldest living member of the Saskatoon City Hospital School of Nursing Alumnae Association, having graduated in 1926. The next oldest is a 1928 graduate, Susie Wooden (Fulton) of Vancouver. B.C.

Association president Lynne Farrell and Friday's birthday party organizer Joan Hiebert say it's hard to know for sure how many living grads there are, however there are 1,057 grads they have addresses for and are in contact with. Over the years, there were 2,210 graduates from the nursing school.

The alumnae association was first formed in 1916, organized by the lady superintendent of that time.

There have been 13 reunions of the alumnae, the first in 1947 and the last in 2014 in Calgary, which Farrell said was attended by 412 people. There is another scheduled for 2019. At that time all graduating classes will have reached their 50th year reunion. The 1969 reunion, held to coincide with the hospital's diamond anniversary, marked the termination of the School of Nursing. The end of an era.