Vanners still rolling in rural Alberta

In the humble beginnings of the Sunday School Caravan Mission in the 1920s, if a van driven by missionaries (or vanners, as they were commonly known) broke down or became stuck, the enterprising young women hired to bring Sunday school to children in isolated communities would either push or repair the van on the spot or hike through swarms of mosquitoes and miles of bush to the nearest civilization.

In the 21st century the vanners need only push a few buttons on a cell phone. 

Yes, Miss Hasell would spin in her grave at some of the changes to vanning in the diocese of Calgary, home to the only such program still in existence in Canada. The program, which, except for a couple of blips, has been in operation for 80 years, is seeking up to four recruits for July and August this summer.

Calgary’s vanning program is light years away from the 1920s, when well-meaning young women recruited for the Lord’s work by English-born Eva Hasell would arrive fresh off the boat from England and set off for months at a time in sturdy, sparsely-equipped Ford vans.
Those vehicles, modelled after World War I ambulances and painted a blue-grey — “a better match for prairie dust and mud” — carried the women, their Sunday school lessons and minimal provisions to remote communities in western and northern Canada.

Today, the vehicles are modern, rented minivans and the young vanners are fresh-faced youth from the diocese. Like anybody working with children in the 21st century, the vanners complete a vigorous application, police check and screening process and they train for a weekend before hitting the road, says Linda Clayton, who chairs the diocese’s vanning committee.

 The vanners travel on a set schedule to a different community each week. Those communities, usually too small to sustain a regular Sunday school throughout the year, contact the vanning committee in the spring to “book” their week with the vanners. 

The young people are billeted with a local family and take suppers with different families from the parish. While in the community, they run a vacation Bible school program from Monday through Friday for children ages four and up.

Ms. Clayton says the program is an outreach tool in the community, as the children who attend are frequently either from another faith or are not churchgoers. The vanners teach a theme from the Bible and use games, crafts and drama to build on it. The story of Jesus turning water into wine might be taught using water and fruit punch crystals in a jar.

On the last day, the children put on a show for the adults in the community.

Ms. Clayton, a vanner herself back in 1976, has served on the vanning committee since 1989. Her daughter, Laurel, 19, also spent a summer vanning in 2000, as did Laurel’s godmother, Isabel Forbes, a former vanning committee chair.

Laurel, a student at Rocky Mountain Bible College, says she sees God working in the parishes she visited and in the children she worked with: “They bless us and we bless them,” she says. She is hoping to be a vanner again this summer, despite the fact it pays just $2,200 for two months work, six days a week.

Her initial vanning experience, when she was in Grade 12, confirmed for her a desire to go to Bible college and she is considering a future using drama in ministry.

Laurel has heard many of the vanners’ stories of old but says her experience with the program is not much like it was in the early part of the last century.

Whereas a vanner in the 1930s might have landed the van upside down in a ditch and sat trapped while battery acid dripped down onto her tattered uniform (as did Miss Hasell), the hairiest it got for Lauren was a slightly worrying shimmy she felt when the van was going downhill. Caked mud on the underside of the well-maintained rental van turned out to be the culprit. 

Vera Fast, in her book Missionary on Wheels (a 1979 Anglican Book Centre publication) detailed the history of the Sunday School Caravan Mission. From 1920 through to the early 1970s, the vanners brought the church and Sunday school to far off communities which were not normally served by the church. The vanners were the only church and often the only company many remote farmers and homesteaders had for months or years at a time.

Run by two so-called “British spinsters” -Eva Hasell and Iris Sayle (commonly known in the church as Miss Hasell and Miss Sayle) — the mission reached its peak between 1955 and 1959, with 31 vans and 62 workers working in 15 dioceses.

The vanners, always young women, usually British, typically served four months at a time. One of the two staffers on each van was expected to be a “Sunday school expert” trained in religious education in England or Canada; the second woman was required to be able to “drive a car, do running repairs (of the vehicle), cook and wash and, if possible, teach under the supervision of the expert.”

Born into a wealthy family, Miss Hasell kept the operation running both with her own money and through constant fundraising back in the United Kingdom. 

Today, Calgary’s vanning program requires about $20,000 each summer, though the diocese no longer financially supports it. Anglican Church Women groups across the diocese raise much of the funds ($7,000 this year) and the committee also gets a provincial grant because the program employs young people.


The Van Girls
— essay from the diocese of Saskatchewan website

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