Paisley Thread Mill Museum hosts Holocaust heroine's niece

Life is full of startling and unexpected connections. This could not be truer for Marcus Dean who discovered that Second World War heroine, Jane Haining, once lived and studied in his Edinburgh home.

Marcus Dean and Deirdre McDowell
Marcus Dean, chairman of Paisley Thread Mill Museum with Jane Haining's niece Deirdre McDowell. Photo by Rev Alan Birss.

In a further astonishing coincidence, he is the chairman of the Paisley Thread Mill Museum which is located in the factory where she worked before moving to Budapest, Hungary in 1932.

Mr Dean said was it "something special" to meet Deirdre McDowell, the niece of Miss Haining.

The Church of Scotland missionary died in the Auschwitz Birkenau extermination camp in July 1944.

She was 47.

Last Friday, Mrs McDowell visited the factory sites owned by JP Coats, the firm her aunt worked for as a secretary for 10 years before taking up a post as the matron of the Scottish Mission boarding school.

It was her love and protection of young Jewish girls in her care that led to her arrest, imprisonment and death in the most notorious camp the world has ever known.

Miss Haining of Dunscore near Dumfries, is remembered on a wooden rollcall board of Church of Scotland missionaries who died in service.

It used to hang on the wall of the chapel at St Colm's College in Edinburgh - a B-listed building opened in 1909 to train women missionaries tasked with spreading the Gospel across the world.

Mr Dean bought the magnificent house from the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland in 2011.

St Colms
Mr Dean's Edinburgh home formerly housed St Colm's College where missionaries trained. Photo courtesy of CKD Galbraith.

Miss Haining trained at St Colm’s from February 1932 to June 1932 and would have worshipped in the chapel. Her name appears on the rollcall board as Jean Haining.

Interestingly, the last letter she wrote from the Auschwitz Birkenau Death Camp in July, 1944 to Margit Prem, head teacher of the Scottish Mission School in Budapest, was signed Jean.

Mr Dean said: "We were aware of the sad circumstances of Jane's life just after we bought the property.

"We decided to keep the chapel unaltered as we felt it had so much history, so it was something special to actually meet a living relation."

Story of heroism and personal sacrifice

According to a World Mission Council report in the 2010 General Assembly Blue Book, St Colm's was the “place in which many have been prepared for mission and service in Scotland and throughout the world. “Its history has been long and distinguished and it rightly holds a fond place in the hearts of those who have been associated with it.”

Rev Ian Alexander, Secretary of the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland, said:

"Jane Haining’s story is one of heroism and personal sacrifice.

“Scottish missionaries were advised to return home from Europe during the dark days of the Second World War but she declined and wrote 'if these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness’.

“Jane died in the same camp as some of “her” Jewish girls.

“She was a woman who was simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary."

Miss Haining is the only Scot named as Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem's sacred Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Mr Alexander said: "Many who passed through St Colm’s, in its 100 years of service, recall a place of creativity and energy, of spiritual enrichment and innovative worship, of ecumenical and interfaith encounters with people from all over the world.

"It was a place where the mission workers of the church learned to share the joys and challenges of life lived in close community, something which often stood them in good stead when they went out to their posts.

"St Colm's was a very practical, realistic preparation for their future life, but it also imbued a deep and lasting spiritual influence and discipline, characterised by openness to all and generosity of spirit."

Guests of honour

Mrs McDowell from Londonderry, Northern Ireland is related to Miss Haining through her mother Agnes Haining.

The women were half sisters.

Mrs McDowell and her husband George were the guests of honour at a Auschwitz/Holocaust event hosted by the Renfrewshire branch of the Unison trade union last night.

Local historian Les Fernie and the Paisley Thread Mill Museum are working together to highlight Miss Haining's selfless contribution to the fight against Nazism and re-trace her steps during the time she spent in Paisley.

The death roll
A board painted with the names of missionaries who died in service includes Jane Haining's name as 'Jean' Haining

Dunscore Church is creating a heritage centre within the building to celebrate her life as she grew up on a farm nearby.

A civic reception in Mrs McDowell's honour was hosted at Paisley Abbey by the local authority yesterday.

Rev Alan Birss, minister at Paisley Abbey, said:

“I was delighted to welcome Jane Haining's niece to the Abbey today especially given the fact that Jane had spent several years in Paisley working for JP Coats.

“Her story is an inspirational one of a young woman who worked in our town and went on to give practical expression to her Christian faith so selflessly and sacrificially.”

Renfrewshire’s Provost Anne Hall, who attended the lunch, said: “It is important that we remember the inspirational story of Jane Haining."