With a Twinkle in His Eyes
To know Stephen Thistle is to know a smile. He loves life, the past, the present and, yes, he looks forward to the future, God willing. He loves
sneaking a few chocolate bars (when his daughters aren't watching)
God and his church
And when you visit him (if he isn't down in the common room listening to music, having fun and dancing), he'll tell you that what he loves most of all is his family.
He was married to the one love of his life, Gertie (Billard), and together they raised seven children - a happy, hard working, fun loving family. Gertie and his daughter Sylvia are gone now and he misses them so much. Six of his children (three boys and three girls) are still living. They adore him and he them. To the boys, he remains their companion and friend. To the girls - well, they dote on him.
Stephen's face lights up when he speaks of family.
"They are all so good to me. They spoil me."
And, then with a twinkle in his eyes, he'll say,
"But, I'm still the boss."
Elizabeth (John Heatley); Jean (Winston Kean); Sylvia (Leo Spurrell); Brenda Thistle (Ray Rowlands);
John (Sharon Casey); Brian (Betty Foster); and Clarence (Beverley Morrissey)
Stephen's is such a wonderful story - so much to tell about 99 years of living. Stephen Thistle is a member of our congregation at First United Church and we thought you'd like to know more about him. He now lives at Hillcrest Retirement Home where he moved just over two years ago. Before that he lived in the family home at 18 Park Avenue, the home that he and Gertie built when they first moved to Mount Pearl in 1945.
At the outset, it was a small summer cottage, without running water or sewer. His first job was to winterize the building, dig a well and put in a septic system. Later he gradually redesigned and rebuilt that cottage to the home that is still there today. It took him several years starting with a basement which he dug by hand ... pick, shovel and a lot of hard work.Together, Steve, as he is known in the community, and Gertie turned that little cottage into a home for a lifetime and filled it with love.
Source: History of Mount Pearl, Told in the Words of Stephen Thistle, 2014
Used with permission
Stephen Thistle was born in Carbonear, Newfoundland, on a stormy day, January 10, 1920. He moved to St. John's when he was 9 years old and went to work for the Horwood Lumber Company when he was 14 years old. Stephen worked there for 17 years as a bench carpenter and in 1951 went to work with the Canadian National Railway (CNR). He worked with the CNR for 30 years, first as a Coach Carpenter and then as a welder in the Car Shop. He retired in 1981.
Stephen started visiting Mount Pearl when he was 12 years old, riding on his bike from St. John's. During his travels in Mount Pearl he met Gertrude (Gertie) Billard. They fell in love and were married December 5, 1939. Steve, as he is known, is very community minded. He served on the school board and was also Chairman of the PTA for many years. He was also on the committee which was responsible for building First United Church.
Family life was and is very important to Steve. He and Gertie spent a lot of time camping, swimming, picking berries complete with 'boilups" and skating (he taught her how). One of the joys of his life was skating. He was on the ice for the first public skate when the Memorial Stadium was opened in St. John's. He was on the ice for the last public skate when it closed on April 22, 2001. He was 81 at the time. And he'll proudly tell you that he skated again at Mile One Stadium when it opened for the first skate. Then on his 90th birthday, Steve celebrated with family and friends at the Smallwood Rink in Mount Pearl.
First United Church Mount Pearl
Did you know that it was Steve who actually instigated the start of First United? He and a few friends held their very first meeting to make the decision and to discuss what to do and how to go about it. That meeting was held in Steve's car - a Dodge Plymouth (late 1940s). But the story doesn't really start or stop there.
A couple of years earlier, Steve had organized a group of friends to lobby and raise funds sufficient to start the first school in Mount Pearl. His father-in-law, James Billard, let him use his old double garage which Steve and friends renovated and converted to a two-room schoolhouse. For the first few years it doubled as a school and a place of worship for the Anglican community. Afterward the Anglican's built a church and the garage/schoolhouse was then used by the United Church.
"Come to the church by the wildwood, Oh, come to the church in the vale"
Gerry Noseworthy and myself negotiated for a bell from an old train and we put it on the church. In the woods, every Sunday morning, the bell would ring and we would go with our youngsters by the hand...
a church in the wildwood, it sure was."
~ Stephen Thistle
As the town grew, so did our congregation to a point when the schoolhouse was too small. Stephen then formed a committee to orchestrate the approvals, design and fund raising needed for the church we have today. It started with a parcel of land ($700 purchase price) and a basement that was floored over and weatherproofed so it could be used for worship, Sunday School and church activities. It was several years before they had secured enough funding to build the top section. Believe it or not, Steve and the other members of the committee all mortgaged their homes to raise the collateral needed to start. Now that is really something!
Steve found a man, Mr. Trask, to help him design the building and finally after receiving approval from St. John's Presbytery, the contractor, Bob Miller, was hired. Stephen then spent many long hours working alongside Bob, helping with the actual build. Our church building was officially consecrated and opened Sunday, October 22, 1961. It was thanks to Steve and other wonderful people from our congregation.
The Whole Family
First United was an integral part of the lives of the Thistle family. The children were confirmed here and some of the grandchildren were baptized and confirmed at First United. Jean and two of her daughters were married there.
In their younger years, they all attended Sunday School and took part in church activities. Elizabeth was one of the first Explorer Leaders, while Sylvia was involved with the CGIT (that was in the old schoolhouse). Elizabeth and Jean also taught Sunday School. Gertie was part of choir for 19 years. At various points, Elizabeth, Jean and Brenda also sang in the choir. The girls remember the youth groups and singing with 'The Silhouettes' in church (Florence Mansfield was the Director). Brenda played guitar and remembers singing with the Junior Choir.
Today, John plays guitar in church. He and Brenda along with a friend Sheila Feaver also have a band called "The Right Fit" and often play at church functions.
His Pew! His Spot!
Do you have a 'spot" in the church - a special pew and place where you always sit and are the most comfortable? Stephen only gets out to church services once in a while these past couple of years but before that you'd see him there on a Sunday morning, sitting in the sixth pew from the back on the right hand side ... by the window. That is his spot and the spot where his wife and children could be found in the early years.
When he gets out to church now we bring him up in front. But, his favourite place was always in that particular pew, in that particular spot. ~ Jean
The Communion Rail - A Work Of Art
When you come to church next time, go to the front of the Sanctuary and take a close look at the Communion Rail. In the middle on the top rail you will see a little plaque which reads
"Designed and Built by Stephen Thistle
Donated by His Family
"One day I went to the church to do some voluntary work, and my son-in-law, Wince Kean was there with me. I said to him "Get on the other end of this measuring tape and we will see how long this communion rail has to be."
~ Stephen Thistle
Yes, you are getting the picture! Steve designed and built our Communion Rail. It took him all one winter. He built it in his basement in four sections so it could be moved easily when ready for installation. It is 25 feet long with a gentle but precise curvature from one end to the other. It features 12 panels (one for each month of the year) with each displaying the United Church Crest and a small cross on either side. Wince's role was to draw the crest, scaling it to the perfect size to fit the panel. The rest of the design and the carpentry work was done by Steve. If you look at the inside of the rail, you will also see a ledge with 152 perfect little cup holders for the communion cups. The whole thing is a work of art!
The Thistle Family Photos
(used with permission)
When we chatted with Stephen a few weeks ago, he said,
"All of my life, God has been so good to me. I just hope I have been good to God".
A Few More Highlights
"I was about 11 or 12. I would leave town to ride my bike into Mount Pearl. I'd ride over Topsail Road and come down Dunns Lane again and go up Park Avenue to my brother's cabin where I would stay overnight. I would spend a lot of time swimming and biking in the Park. You couldn't see any houses in those days, just woods and a scattered cabin here and there. I became acquainted with Gertie in there. We used to look over the fence and talk to each other."
~ Stephen Thistle
Some know him as Mr. Thistle; some as Steve; some as Uncle Steve but to his family he is Dad; to his grandchildren, Pop Thistle; and, to some of his little great grandchildren he is Big Pop Thistle. There is so much to tell you about Stephen Thistle and his family:
- that he and Gertie were among the first seven families to move to Mount Pearl to live year round;
- how he taught each child how to drive;
- that Steve built a model of the church. It was placed in the front garden and lite up each Christmas. The model now belongs to his great grandson, Justin (Jean's grandson). He treasures it.
- that there was always a car and a project underway in the garden - the boys were involved in those activities. Clarence is the one mechanically inclined and loves to tinker. Brian and John remain car enthusiasts and both have antique cars today. Brenda remembers how she and her mom took the car out to the Village one day. They ran out of gas on the way, discovering at that point there was only a cup where the gas tank should have been - the tank being in the basement undergoing repair. It was a fodder for a good many laughs and stories told and retold around the kitchen table;
- how he and the family spent their summers camping, something that each one of the children continue to do today. Steve actually designed and built several campers in his day;
- how he, the children, and later the grandchildren, loved Boxing Night at home. Gertie would make 'dressing balls' with fried onions, savory and butter. She was a great cook - no written recipes with measurements being 'just enough and according to';
- how he and Gertie were such wonderful parents and how he is a fabulous Dad. He did everything he could for his children - always there, always dependable.
Steve is a big part of the history of Mount Pearl and has often been acknowledged for his many services and contributions. There's even a park named after him. In 2017 Steve was one of three nominees for Citizen of the Year Award.
Steve is so proud to be part of his faith community at First United and of his community of Mount Pearl. He is enthusiastic about his involvement in helping make it what it is today. He is even more enthusiastic about its future. That enthusiasm has been there from the start.
Remember that two room schoolhouse ... well it grew another five rooms before it had to be abandoned for a new, bigger, school.
We extended on the school and we built five more rooms to become a seven room school when it was finished. This community came alive - it came with a bang.
~ Stephen Thistle
You can read more about Steve at the Admiralty House, Mount Pearl. As well, he has been featured in a number of newspaper articles over the years. You'll find copies of these in the archives at the A.C. Hunter Public Library in St. John's. CBC also featured him as one of Mount Pearl's founding citizens during its 60th anniversary in 2015.
Article by Pam Pardy Ghent
© First United Church Mount Pearl
Initially Published April 15, 2019