A Life's Story
February 23, 2019
Home was where her heart was
Olga Herdy loved her life in West St. Paul -- from digging in the garden to hosting family gatherings
By: Ashley Prest
Wearing a string of pearls to a fancy lunch with family and digging in her Grassmere Road farm’s garden in an old pair of trousers were two of Olga Herdy’s favourite pastimes.
The spunky matriarch of Middlechurch loved to do both in the same day, plus add a visit to St. Theresa’s Parish in West St. Paul and spend time with her animals.
Herdy, who died at age 99 on Dec. 30, 2018, was honoured in 2016 by the RM of West St. Paul as its longest living resident. For more than eight decades, she had lived on the same farm at the corner of Grassmere Road and McPhillips Street after moving there when she was 12 years old.
When Herdy could no longer stay on the farm following a heart attack in April 2017, she chose the Middlechurch Home as her new residence so she could stay in West St. Paul.
"Auntie Olga loved her house, her farm and her community," said Pat Ternovetsky, Herdy’s niece and the daughter of Herdy’s younger sister, Elsie.
Linda Davidson, Ternovetsky’s sister, said their Auntie Olga was very dedicated to her church at St. Theresa’s Parish, and a founding member of the Catholic Women’s League Council of St. Theresa’s Middlechurch in 1961. She was an active volunteer for decades, teaching catechism to children, making perogies, preparing newsletters, caring for church linens, opening and closing the church, helping host teas and contributing to bake sales and other fundraisers.
Olga was a trailblazer and fiercely independent, her family said. As a single woman in the 1950s, she shunned traditional roles. She struck out on her own and moved to California where she worked in a legal office as an executive assistant. She moved back to the family farm in 1957 to join her sister Anne in looking after their father after he had a heart attack.
After their dad died in 1967, Olga and Anne continued to live on the farm.
"Olga was a model of caring for all of us. She selflessly gave up her life in California for her dad and sister and she compassionately looked after Auntie Anne for many years while she was blind and ill, until she died in 2006," Ternovetsky said.
"She really, really cared about family and she would give up anything or do anything to make sure everyone was well looked after and happy. We never celebrated a holiday or a family event without her (after she returned from California). She was always a big part of our family."
Boxing Day celebrations were always at the farm, gathering all of Olga’s nieces and nephews and their extended families.
"For all our cousins, that’s one of their fondest memories. You could bring anyone you wanted. It was always an open house. It was lovely," Davidson said. "I loved my aunt. I asked her to give the toast to the bride at my wedding. She was the most important person, other than my parents, to me."
Davidson said Olga "loved life" and "saw the wonder and glory of everything."
"She was always really kind, giving, thought of others first and always interested in everybody," Davidson said. "She would wear the oldest clothes when she was at home on the farm but she would always give you money for something new. But off the farm, she looked like a true lady. She always wore her pearls and was always graceful. She loved to chat with people, but she was very private."
There had originally been at least 80 acres when Olga’s father farmed the property, but much of the land was expropriated in the 1960s for the upgrade to the Grassmere Drain. The house, moved to a different area on the property, and the remaining 20 or so acres were Olga’s home for half a century until she sold it and moved to Middlechurch Home.
"She and her sister Anne planted hundreds of trees on the property to redevelop the yard. That was really hard for her to leave. She said, ‘Anne and I planted every one of those trees,’" Ternovetsky said, noting the new owners have since cut down all the trees. "I get a lump in my throat just driving by."
Olga worked at Winnipeg’s Thompson, Dorfman, Sweatman LLP law firm as an executive assistant until her retirement. She never married. Instead, she kept her extended family close, was a constant presence in their lives and was a generous benefactor to anyone in need. Her family noted in her obituary that she "adored many generations of the children in the family."
Davidson said Olga was the ultimate cool aunt when she and Ternovetsky were children, and she was like a third grandmother in the lives of her great-nieces/nephews and their children.
Ternovetsky said Olga and Anne often bought winter clothing for her and Davidson when they were children, bought them a piano, took them to Rainbow Stage and summer trips to nearby lakes.
Olga was born on Dec. 6, 1919 in Winnipeg to George and Maria Hyrdylowsky (later changed to Herdy), who had met in Canada after moving from the Ukraine. Olga was the fourth of six children in the family, which included John, William, Anne, Elsie and Harry.
George had been a CN worker until he was seriously injured on the job. The family had been living on Stella Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End but George bought the Grassmere Road farm with the settlement money he received and moved his family. They grew grain and had some livestock, fostering Olga’s lifelong love of all animals.
"Where she lived, people dropped animals off; they dropped off puppies, kittens, older dogs and there was forever something stray wandering around and she opened her door to all of them," Ternovetsky said.
"Olga once had four dogs and always had cats. A few years before she moved (to Middlechurch Home), she had brought in a feral cat. No one could get close to it except her. It looked like a lynx! Her hands would be all scratched but she wouldn’t care. She just loved animals."
When Olga was moving and her nieces were helping find new homes for her pets, the feral cat could not be found, as if it knew she had gone.
A prolific gardener, Olga would sell her vegetables from her driveway or garage. She was an organic farmer long before research came out about its benefits.
"She wouldn’t use pesticides and said she hated poison. Auntie Olga’s garden never looked extremely pretty but everything was really good. There’d be chewed leaves sometimes. ‘Let the bugs have some too!’ she’d say," Ternovetsky said.
Davidson said Olga even drove her own car, which she often loaned to family members, until she was 97.
In her eulogy to her great-aunt, Ternovetsky’s daughter, Julie Veenstra, recalled a family drive with Olga to a teahouse in Stonewall. She noticed Olga gazing peacefully, with a wide grin, out of the vehicle’s window. When Julie asked what she was looking at, Olga’s response was like a summary of her general view of life.
"The sky is so blue, the sun is so warm, the children are laughing; it’s a perfect day."