Interview of Frances Laracy

PROFILE
FRANCES LARACY

From Women Speak (PACSW newsletter), Vol. 1, No. 4, Fall 1983

Many women in Newfoundland and Labrador have heard of or met Frances Laracy, but few of us are aware of all that has made up the life of this quiet, industrious women (sic).

In 1918, Frances was born to Ellen and Lawrence Hennessey of Avondale, Conception Bay. She says, "Father had a carpentry shop where the boys could work, with all the fascinating tools: power saws, lathes, and drills, but never the girls."

Frances' mother often urged her four daughters to "join the convent — everything would be perfect, and you would have no worries." While Frances kept a strong religious faith, she was bound to choose a path which would lead her into the world of commerce, family and women's organizations.

In 1934 she completed school. It was not long until she was offered a job at Kennedy's shop in Avondale. Like most shop clerks of that era, she worked a 12-hour day, 6 days a week and dreamed of opening her own shop. Frances worked in Avondale until 1937 when she married John Joseph Laracy and moved to Conception Harbour.

Between the ages of 20 and 32, Frances gave birth to six children, three boys and three girls. She was 25 when she and Jack started their own retail business in 1943.

Though it was her driving force that built J.J. Laracy's Store to what it is still today, Frances never received wages. She says it's only in the past decade that women have begun to earn pay for work with their husbands. The success of the business undoubtedly gave her the confidence to work in new directions.

Like many Newfoundland women of her generation, Frances experienced her share of tragedy, in the accidental death of her six-year-old daughter in 1949, and her husband's sudden death in 1969.

In 1967 Frances was nominated by Conception Harbour Women's Institute and then appointed to the provincial executive of Women's Institutes. She came to the organization just as it began to shed the vestiges of a colonial structure run by upper class ladies from St. John's. She was one of the pioneers of the vote for a democratic, rural-based structure, and through her persistent work with other women on the executive, a Constitution and By-Laws were drawn up.

In the winter of 1977, Frances travelled to Inuvik for a seminar sponsored by the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada. Her international experience as voting delegate to conferences of the Associated Country Women of the World in Norway (1971), Australia (1974), Kenya (1977), Hamburg (1980) and Vancouver in 1983, and the friendships she has developed with women of many countries and colours, have given Frances memories her mother would have envied. Frances knows this. She is not one to take for granted the opportunities and challenges which she has accepted. So she shares her stories with friends over the kitchen table, in meetings and in her writing.

In 1980, after serving at all levels of the organization and as provincial representative on the executive of the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada for five years, Frances was acclaimed President of the Women's Institutes of Newfoundland and Labrador.

What has been her effect on Women's Institutes in 16 years? Frances has shown us the skills of a diplomat — her ability to understand differing points of view, to find words which make everyone feel understood; to unify; to appreciate the old, but to see the value of the new; her fluid approach; her humour — all these qualities have opened the eyes and hearts of the women who have worked with her.

She has never refused to participate on boards and in conferences, even when this involved travelling in all seasons, and the stress of separating from her family during times of illness. She still serves on the board of the Women's Health Education Project, which the Women's Institute co-sponsored, as well as on her local parish council, school board and women's institute.

In her prize-winning essay on Adelaide Hoodless, the Canadian founder of the first women's institute in 1897, Frances says, "To truly imitate her, we would not get too carried away with visions of self-fulfillment or self-greatness." Frances' family and community are central to her life. She has travelled the globe, she has met the Queen, but she has not returned with over-inflated ideals. She is tempered by years of sharing in the joys and sorrows of her community.

For years, Frances had collected clippings and notes documenting Newfoundland politics, and many other topics. Though they may be buried, as she says, under a pile of other papers in the living room, she can always find what she needs. Her days and evenings are taken up with the affairs of the shop which is managed by her son Larry and daughter-in-law Mary. It is in the small hours of the morning that Frances has her most productive hours of personal work.

As she convened the official opening of the Women's Institutes' Provincial Convention last May, few of her friends knew that Frances had postponed surgery for cancer, in order to be there. With grace and warmth, she gave a magnificent address to 200 women, which touched and humbled and made laughter and tears. Only three weeks later, she was smiling in a hospital room, surrounded by the perpetual motion of her triplet grandsons, friends from home, friends from W.I., and flowers and the promise of health.

Another fortnight, and she was in Vancouver, heading the Newfoundland and Labrador Women's Institutes delegation to the 17th Triennial Conference of the Associated Country Women of the World. When some colleagues found her up to her arms in dishes during a Newfie Night, what could they do but laugh — for that's Frances, and there's no stopping her. 

by Jane Robinson