Manitoba History: Review: Vera Fast, Missionary on Wheels: Eva Hasell and the Sunday School Caravan Mission
by Arthur N. Thompson, PhD
This book is an important contribution to the unfolding story of the Church in Canada.
Vera Fast has handled her resource material well and used it to advantage to reveal the real life character of Eva Hasell, “the indomitable British spinster” who “had something to give, and when she took on a job, like the bulldog, she never let go.”
The Caravan Mission began in the spring of 1920 and was to continue for more than half a century. The date 1920 is significant, for that was the year that the Church Missionary Society withdrew its support from Canada after one hundred years (John West, the earliest Anglican missionary on the prairies was the first to receive its support.) The fledgling Anglican Church told its parent, the Church of England, that it was time to assume its own responsibilities, but it was plain that it would continue to require men and money from what-ever source for years to come. As the west began to fill up with settlers from Britain and eastern Europe, none of the Churches could adequately cope with the isolation and deprivation those early years involved.
It was into this situation that Eva Hasell took her vans and van workers to bring Sunday School classes to children in isolated communities. “Vanners” might be licensed by the bishop to baptize where necessary and to lead to public worship, but Hasell did not see her Mission in terms of replacing the clergy. Indeed, in the post-Second World War years when dioceses like Fredericton and Rupert’s Land found that they no longer required vanners, Hasell took this as a personal affront, an aspersion on the Mission by younger clergy who regarded her Mission as a rival to their ministry.
Vera Fast follows the dictum of Abraham Lincoln to paint the portrait “worts and all”. She portrays Eva Hasell as physically strong (one year she walked 912 miles), psychologically undaunted and spiritually determined. She could be dictatorial and imperious with Church Boards but always deferred to bishops. Thoroughly British (maintaining the Empire came second only to promoting Christianity) and loyal to Anglican ways. she had little use for things American and was more than a little suspicious of the United Church and other denominations. The sects she found a threat. As the years advanced, Hasell relied more and more upon “experience,” unwilling to alter Mission strategy to meet new conditions. She had to be at the centre of things and thoroughly in control, and had her companion Iris Sayle not been content to be Silas to her Paul, she would never have survived. Hasell received the first Anglican honorary D.D. degree ever awarded to a woman, she was made an MBE and was invested with the Medal of Service of the Order of Canada, but none of these honours came to Iris Sayle, nor did she seek them.
Vera Fast has done her work well, but I found myself asking questions which were touched on tangentially but never answered directly. Eva Hasell represents the typically English approach to Missionindividually inspired and personally promoted and maintained. The Church of England does not have a department of missions, leaving it to the missionary societies great and small. I recall mentioning to John V. Taylor, the present Bishop of Winchester, when he was General Secretary of the CMS, that the Church Missionary Society had no official connection with the Church. He replied that if we maintained the low estimate of the Church simply as an institution, then of course the CMS was not part of the Church. If, on the other hand, we held the high doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ composed of baptized Christians, then the CMS through its members was indeed the Church! In Hasell’s clash with the General Board of Religious Education we see the two approaches to the missionary enterprise: I would have liked to see that explored and developed. It is a large and important theme.
Again, Henry Venn, the greatest General Secretary the CMS produced, spoke of the “euthanasia” of a missionthe time when foreign leadership and support should give way to indigenous control. Obviously Hasell did not understand this, otherwise she would have avoided a great deal of the friction and acrimony that developed between herself on the one hand and the GBRE and the bishops on the other. This book is primarily a biographical study, but to save it from the threat of being a potted biography (which it is not) I would like to have seen more attention given to these “gut” issues of Church history.
The statistics of the Mission are impressive, though one vital statistic is overlooked. I would liked to have known how work on the Vans altered the future lives of the vanners. Having a younger sister who is a graduate nurse and who met her future clergyman-husband while doing summer van work in the Diocese of Saskatoon, I know something of how Vera Hasell’s Mission strengthened that Diocese in unsuspecting ways!
Vera Fast’s book repays the careful study of any student of Canadian Church history or anyone who was touched by the work of Eva Hasell and the Sunday School Caravan Mission. My chief regret is that the Anglican Book Centre decided to retail it for the prohibitive price of $6.95. The western printing cost of this book would have been $2.25. Add promotional costs of 50¢ and it should have retailed for not more than $3.95. Obviously the need is for the Anglican Church to set up a special division of the Archives Department to promote and publish such books as this. It could be initially funded by the Anglican Foundation and provide a real service to the Church.
Page revised: 11 February 2023