Skip to content

Tempting Providence pays homage to Myra Bennett

She was called the Florence Nightingale of the North. To John Abelseth she was grandma.

She was called the Florence Nightingale of the North.

To John Abelseth she was grandma.

My grandmother left a good, comfortable life in Britain as a young nurse for the harsh north because shed heard that there was a shortage of nurses in Canada, said Abelseth, a longtime Richmond resident who recently moved to Kelowna to look after his 90-year-old mother Grace daughter of Myra Bennett.

She had always wanted to be a nurse, but in her teens she initially trained as a tailor, which helped her later on as a nurse in Newfoundland.

My mother told me she was a true force to be reckoned with.

Myra Bennetts life story comes to Gateway Theatre as Tempting Providence, opening Saturday, Feb. 1.

It tells the tale of a strong-willed 31-year-old nurse, who in 1921 was persuaded by the wife of Sir Alexander Harris, the Governor of Newfoundland, to leave her home for the small community of Daniels Harbour, where there were no roads or railways connecting it to the rest of the province.

She alone was responsible for providing medical services to people over a stretch of 350 kilometres in the remote Northern coast.

Initially, Bennett only signed on for a two-year contract that paid her $75 per month ($900 per year).

I met my grandmother a few times when I spent a year in Newfoundland in my early 20s, said the 65-year-old.

He said throughout her career, his grandmother delivered more than 700 babies, extracted 5,000 teeth, set broken limbs and performed operations on kitchen tables with only a lamp light.

She had a deep compassion for people who were suffering she was an incredibly brave woman.

Growing up in Newfoundland, actress Deidre Gillard-Rowlings remembers her grandparents telling her about the legendary outpost nurse.

My grandmother ran a private clinic and so I heard lots of stories about Myra and I even drove by her house twice but I never met her, she said from her home in Newfoundland. By all accounts, Myra was a really, really driven woman with strong Christian beliefs, who was very selfless yet stern and strict she had that British stiff upper lip.

She would often say she wasnt there to make friends but rather to help the sick.

Gillard-Rowlings has portrayed Myra Bennett since the play first opened in her native home in 2003.

She has traveled the show across Canada, the United States, Australia, England, Ireland and Scotland. While on this new western Canadian tour of the play, she will hit her 500th performance.

As an actress, it was really daunting at the beginning to play Myra, especially the first opening night when her son was in the audience, Gillard-Rowlings said. But, he and his sister, Grace, who came to another performance, were both so gracious and supportive.

The seasoned actress is on stage throughout the whole performance.

The stage is simple, theres a mat, four actors, a table, chairs and cloth, Gillard-Rowlings said.

She likens the stage to the fact that when Bennett nursed, she only had the basic tools of the trade.

Our set echoes what she was confronted with when she would travel for hours to get to her patients, she added.

In a CBC television documentary of her life, titled Lady of the Lonely Places, (October 1973) when Myra Bennett was asked if she was in love with Angus, she replied I felt safe with Angus and never felt fear

Myra kept her cards close to her heart, added Gillard-Rowlings.

The play has toured Vancouver, Victoria and northern B.C., however, its only now making its debut in Richmond.

Its been three or four months since I last portrayed Myra so Im getting in gear, polishing my boots and heading west, she quipped.

Her biggest challenge has been portraying such a stern and composed woman.

Its not in my nature to be like Myra, so it was a challenge early on to portray a severe character on stage for nearly two hours.

Gillard-Rowlings said audiences have responded extremely well to Myras story.

Its really a good piece of theatre and it honours not only Myra but all those brave pioneers who came from a civilized country, such as England, to battle the wilds of Canada, said Gillard-Rowlings. In her journal, Myra wrote that her reason for moving to Canada was so that she could strike out on her own and have full control of her own clinic.

Tempting Providence runs until Feb. 19. For more information, call 604-270-6500 or visit