Blog Articles

The Vigil, Blaine, Washington, U.S.A.

-By Rob Olason 

The Vigil sculpture was dedicated on October 14, 2006. Located in the heart of Blaine, Washington at the intersection of H Street and Peace Portal, the sculpture is the focal point of the city. The Vigil overlooks Drayton Harbor and casts a steady gaze to the West, to the waters of Georgia Strait, where much of the economic livelihood of the settlement was derived.

 The $175,000 bronze sculpture stands just under six feet in height and weighs 850 pounds.  The local community rallied to raise most of the funds for the sculpture created by noted artist, Bob McDermott, who donated his time and creative energy to see the project complete.

 Local Icelandic descendant, Jan Hrutfiord, was the model for the two women figures. The sculpture consists of four fivigil closeupgures, a grandmother, mother and her young son, who is holding a small dog. This family group waits at the shoreline hoping to catch the first glimpse of the fishing fleet returning to harbor, and anxiously awaiting the safe return of the men in their family.

Jan Hrutfiord recalled her own family living out the story of the Vigil, as her mother would bring her to the harbor when news reached them that her father’s fishing boat was returning from sea. Later, as an adult, Jan would continue this ritual as her own sons worked as fishermen.

The Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society Finds a Home on the Shores of the Strait of Georgia

-By Rob Olason

 In February 2007, Diane Palmason, Coordinator of the Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society (BIHS), described the formation of the group.

“It began in a very Icelandic way,” she said, “as a modest desire to give hospitality to visiting travelers.”

Diane Palmason said the organization was born in 2004 when local Icelandic descendants, Jerry Gay and Jana Peterson, called together all interested Icelandic descendants to form a welcoming group for a contingent of Icelandic visitors touring the North American Icelandic settlement areas. An informal group was gathered and the visitors were warmly greeted.

Sixty years earlier, in 1944, Blaine had another visitor from Iceland, the Bishop of Iceland, Sigurgeir Sigurðsson. The Bishop found a vibrant Icelandic settlement, with its eight Icelandic organizations ranging from the reading club, Jón Trausti, to Youth and Women’s groups from the Lutheran Church and Unitarian Church. A month after the Bishop’s visit, Blaine Icelander’s decided they needed to add a ninth group. They called it Aldan, “the Wave.” This new organization would focus on the Icelandic cultural heritage of its members. 

Aldan was led by Reverend Albert E. Kristjansson, who was one of the founding members of the INL of NA and served as INL president from 1923 to 1925. The rest of Aldan’s leadership included the Rev. Guðmundur Johnson as secretary, Andrew Danielson as treasurer, Sigurður Helgason as corresponding secretary and Gestur Stefansson as archivist.  The first activity of the group was to plan the June 17th Icelandic picnic, a celebration Blaine Icelanders had engaged in every summer since 1928.

By the following October, Aldan was a thriving organization with 70 members, and was discussing the possibilities of creating an Icelandic language school, of building an “old folks home.” The group also voted to become a member club of the INL.

In the next half-decade, members of Aldan rallied the Blaine community behind the idea of creating the old folks home. Fundraising was helped enormously by a generous donation by the Stoneson brothers, Harry and Ellis, who were successful builders in the San Francisco area, with roots in Blaine. The home was built and named “Stafholt” after the Stoneson’s family home in Iceland.

The annual summer picnic at Peace Arch Park became a principal focus of Aldan and the Icelandic communities from Bellingham, Point Roberts and Vancouver, B.C. A 1942 cooperative agreement between the four geographical groups called “Icelanders’ Day Committee Regulations,” described how representatives would be drawn from each group, with a provision that the President and Vice President “shall live on different sides of the border.”  The goals of the group were to promote Icelandic language and arts throughout the year, culminating in the Icelanders’ Day Picnic, on the last Sunday in July.

Those picnics remained an annual summer event at Peace Arch Park through 1999. Even though Aldan disbanded as a functioning group on January 30, 1965, the Icelandic Day Picnic Committee continued to plan and hold the annual picnic on the fourth Sunday in July.  Eddie Johnson and Einar Simonarson represented the Blaine area Icelanders on the committee for more than 30 years. Einar’s son Garry later joined the committee after his father was unable to participate.   In 2000, Garry was the last Blaine representative on the Icelandic Day Picnic committee. The committee voted to try a new location since fewer Blaine residents were attending. The picnic found a new home at Diefenbaker Park in Tsawwaassen, near the Canadian-U.S. border, closer to Pt. Roberts. The site also drew members of the Victoria Icelandic club. The picnic remained a cooperative event until Garry Simonarson’s death in 2002. The Icelandic Canadian Club of B.C. continued the picnic tradition, booking the Diefenbaker Park each year through 2005.

Meanwhile, another generation of Blaine residents of Icelandic descent remembered the picnics at Peace Arch Park with fondness. After the 2004 visit of Icelandic tourists, this new Blaine group began gathering monthly to discuss their shared heritage, give their group a name–the Blaine Icelandic Heritage Society—and to plan a new Icelandic Picnic for July of 2005. As word spread of the upcoming Icelandic Picnic at Peace Arch Park, the ICCBC board decided to cancel their planned picnic at Diefenbaker Park and join in the Peace Arch Park picnic. BIHS also received invaluable guidance and support from ICCBC member Gerri McDonald, who became an early member of the group.

The BIHS, like Aldan, which tackled the major challenge of building a home for senior citizens, soon found itself involved in a large project honoring their local and cultural heritage.  Sculptor Bob McDermott attended a BIHS meeting in 2005 to describe a sculpture he wanted to make and place overlooking the Blaine harbor called “The Vigil.” 

The sculpture would feature a grandmother, mother and young boy looking out to sea. It was intended to honor the pioneer mothers, wives and children who waited anxiously for husbands, fathers and brothers to return from their toils at sea.  This would be an expensive project and would require extensive fundraising. BIHS members eagerly participated in the promotion and fundraising for the project, leading up to the public dedication on October 14, 2006.  One BIHS member, Jan Hrutfiord, also served as the model for the grandmother and mother figures.

BIHS continues exploring its Icelandic roots. In 2008, Norma Thomasson undertook a major project of identifying all unmarked graves of Icelandic settlers in the Blaine Cemetery. She developed an economical grave marker, and then proceeded to make 63 individual markers, one for each of the unmarked graves. Numerous BIHS members joined Norma over the several days it took to hand lay each marker.

Like other small clubs in the INL of NA, the Blaine group gathers to share their common heritage, indulge in a cup of coffee and a goodie or two, and enjoy the conversation around the table.

A brief history of Lutherans in Blaine and how an old bell becomes new again.

GraceLutheranBell Lynne Shelton photo1

(Note: On May 21, 2018, Grace Lutheran Church in Blaine, Washington re-installed their church bell that had been in storage for decades, awaiting a new bell tower. The story of how the bell was returned to its new home and a brief history of the Lutheran church in Blaine and its Icelandic roots is recounted here.)

Story and photo by Lynne Shelton

In 1914, a small group of Icelandic immigrants bought two lots of land in the small border town of Blaine Washington, and with the guidance of Reverend Hjortur Leo, built a Church. The Church was chartered as Blaine Snofurdur, (Blaine Congregation), later as Blaine Lutheran Church. After two years Reverend Leo announced his departure. He cautioned the congregation “ To let no small difference come up as a hindrance to the cause, but stand together as one man, and God will bless your efforts.”
Reverend Sigurdur Olafson was called to be the first Pastor of the new Church. Church services were conducted in Icelandic until 1944. In English and Icelandic until 1946, and then English only.

Over the years, many Pastors served:
The Reverends:
Halldor Jonsson, Valdimar Eylands, Gudmundur Pall Jonsson,Erik Sigmar, Arthur Hanson, Harold Sigmar, Albert Neubauer, Ernest Nygaard, Biomelle, Bracher, Hoyne, Philip Ramstead, George Beard, Gordon Pritchard, Paul Hoch, Dennis Wildermuth,and our Pastor since 2013, Aaron Zuch.

The Church split in 1928, when Reverend Halldor Jonsson resigned to establish the more liberal Icelandic Free Church in Blaine. In 1962, there was another split. Rev. Carl Fischer served as Pastor to the newly formed Peace Lutheran Church, L.C.M.S. for the next two years. In 1977, the two Churches were discussing a merger. In 1980, Blaine Lutheran and Peace Lutheran joined together to become Grace Lutheran Church. Reverend Dennis Wildermuth was called to serve at Grace, and did so for the next thirty two years, bringing stability.

A new Sanctuary was built at this time, and the older sanctuary and fellowship Hall from the old Church was incorporated into the new. The old bell, that had rung out each Sunday for the past 60 years, had to come down. It was moved at this time to a temporary location, under the roof of the old bell tower, where it was unable to ring out . Over the years, the question of what should be done with the bell was a common topic. Some wanted to get rid of the bell , and some wanted to hear the bell ring again. Little progress was made, and so the bell, quiet for the next 30 plus years, was mainly ignored.

In 2016, three members of Grace, with a varied history and connection with the original Church, and yes, of Icelandic descent, decided to explore some options regarding the future of the bell. Our desire to hear the bell ring again was foremost in our minds, along with honoring the past. We also recognized the real need to get the bell down from it’s temporary perch, before it came down on it’s own! Getting the bell down was a real challenge. We found the right crew to make it happen and all 360 pounds of the old bell was removed safely.

With approval from the congregation, we moved forward in faith. A special fund to raise money for the bell project was created, and thanks to the generous members and friends of Grace, our monetary needs have been met.

In 1980, the Architect for the new Sanctuary had included in his drawings , a bell tower. This proposal was put on hold because of the costs involved. Those original drawings were the inspiration for the 2018 design. Fortunately, we were able to engage an Architect that shared our vision and understood our mission. His design accomplishes the goal of unifying the older buildings with the newer, more modern design of the Sanctuary. We are extremely thankful for his guidance, expertise and patience!

The bell tower, bell, spire and cross, were assembled the morning of May 21, 2018. It went together like a three dimensional puzzle, guided by the crane operator, and placed. The tower is built of powder coated steel and is anchored to a hefty slab of concrete. The bell lives inside the tower, and the spire, topped with a cross , sits on top of the tower. The result is a lovely piece of living art! I say living , because the bell has come back to life. Our beautiful cast bell has had a makeover, and looks better than new, and sounds even better than we had dared to hope! The bell is ready to play an integral part in the worship service again, bridging the old with the new, the past with the present.

Over the past two years, we have experienced blessings at every turn. The right doors have opened and the right people and skill sets have been made available. The seemingly impossible has become possible.

Our hope and prayer is that when the bell rings out on Sunday mornings, or for any special service that takes place at Grace, that it will bring joy to our family here at Grace and joy to our community. May it be a blessing to all within hearing.

Thank you to everyone that contributed in any way, towards our goal of bringing new life to our old bell.
Thank you for meeting the monetary needs for the project.
Thank you for your encouragement.
A special thanks to Pastor Wildermuth, Sid Nesbitt, Architect, the bell committee and spouses, Tom and Jana Peterson Dunn, Steven and Rachel Hrutfiord and Bruce and Lynne Shelton.

-Laura Lynne (Goodman) Shelton