A legacy of hard work and home cooking
Okotoks: Helen Lomenda began town's first Meals on Wheels program
Wednesday, Oct 05, 2016 06:00 am
A home cook from Saskatchewan made a name for herself in the Okotoks community with her large family, big heart and good home cooking.
“Mom was a busy lady,” said Mark Lomenda. “Whatever was going on around town, she was always part of the community. There was always stuff to do, whether it be CWL (Catholic Women’s League) or the Royal Purple or Meals on Wheels. I don’t think she ever had any trouble keeping herself busy.”
Helen Lomenda passed away on Sept. 17 at the age of 90 after suffering with heart disease for a number of years.
Originally from Stockholm, Sask., she and husband Frank settled in Okotoks in 1956 and Helen opened her first restaurant. There were five in total – one on the second storey of the building next door to the current town hall, one in the Okotoks Business Park, one at the High River Auction Mart, and a truck stop on Highway 2A. The Lomendas also ran the kitchen in the Willingdon Hotel before it was renovated.
Mark said he had fond memories of the truck stop on the highway, which had a house attached where the family of nine lived. It was a busy place open 24 hours per day, he said.
“Canadian Magazine Star Weekly, it’s an old magazine, they did a little write-up on her as one of the top best truck stops in Canada,” said Mark.
The restaurants were a family affair, he said. All the Lomenda children helped at one time or another to make the restaurants work, whether that meant washing dishes, waiting tables, or carrying crates of pop up from storage.
Helen’s restaurants became so busy eventually Frank left his job with an engineered homes firm in Calgary to help his wife. Together they were in the restaurant business in the Okotoks area for more than 30 years.
In the early 1980s, when they were running the White Rose on the second floor across from the former Willy (Currently the Royal Duke Hotel), Helen decided to launch a Meals on Wheels program. It was the first of its kind in the town.
Ursula Hoppenheit worked with Helen, delivering meals and collecting money from clients in town.
“Helen did all the cooking Monday to Friday, and we picked it up from there,” said Hoppenheit. “I imagine we would have done five to eight every day, probably for around $3 or so for a meal.”
Carrying meals down the staircase was awkward, but they made it work every day, she said.
The program only lasted about four years, she said. It became too difficult to continue, but the base was built for a program to begin in the Sandstone Lodge in 1990.
Hoppenheit met Helen years before, when she came to town in 1968 and bought a coffee shop on Elizabeth Street near the current Big Rock Inn. Helen came into the café one day to look at the menu.
“I think that was when she was running the coffee shop in the hotel, and she came and she looked at the menu and she said, ‘You don’t make cabbage rolls?’” Hoppenheit said with a laugh. “I remember that. She wanted to see what we cooked, since we were the competition.”
Helen was no stranger to competition, bringing a fierce hand to the bridge table. She was known for her skill in making tricks in the game and was rumoured to be a sought-after partner.
“I really enjoyed playing bridge with her,” said Evelyn Paterson, who also worked with Helen delivering Meals on Wheels. “She was always so gracious. In bridge, people can get a little upset, but she was never that type of lady. She was very much a lady.”
As time moved on, Frank’s health began to decline and he was rendered bedridden. Before he was moved to Rising Sun Long Term Care in Black Diamond, he was cared for by his wife in their Sheep River House home.
That’s when life came full-circle for Helen, who was now on the receiving end of Meals on Wheels. Paterson delivered to her.
“I brought meals to her when her husband wasn’t well,” said Paterson. “It was strange to think she used to cook these meals, and now I brought them to her door. But she was always very grateful, very gracious. A delightful lady.”
Throughout her busy years Helen always took time for her growing family – seven children, 25 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and five great-great-grandchildren. She also devoted a lot of time to her community and her hobbies.
“She’d go out to all the ladies’ clubs, the Lions, the Royal Purple, the Catholic Women’s League,” said Mark. “They were just going to give her her 60th year pin for the CWL this year.”
She had also been a member of the Sheep Creek Weavers for 25 years, during which time she participated in “Sheer to Shawl” competitions that saw participants sheer a sheep, spin the wool and knit a sweater in the best time.
She continued to be active until her health started to decline in recent years, he said. After a heart attack at age 80 she underwent surgery to replace a valve in her heart and came through the surgery surprisingly strong, said Mark.
“She’s a pretty tough, pretty strong little lady,” he said. “In the end, her heart was just getting so weak.”
Helen suffered from chest pains for years, and the last bout landed her in South Health Campus hospital, where she was surrounded by her family and even got to Facetime with Saskatchewan relatives before she passed.
“It’s sad, but she had a good life, a satisfying life, and she said that to me so many times in the past year,” said Mark. “When she left this earth she was happy.”