Mona Parsons moved to Wolfville at the age of 10 – a move precipitated by the loss of her father’s business in a fire in their hometown of Middleton. Mona graduated from Wolfville’s Acadia Ladies’ Seminary in 1920, and furthered her studies at the Currie School of Expression in Boston.
After a brief career teaching dramatic arts in Arkansas, she landed a role as a chorus girl in the world-renowned Ziegfeld Follies. Following her mother’s sudden death, she changed course to study nursing, becoming a nurse for an ex-patriate Nova Scotian specialist’s practice on New York’s Park Avenue. In February 1937, Mona met Willem Leonhardt, a Dutch millionaire visiting the United States on business. They were married in September 1937, and built their dream home, “Ingleside,” in Laren the following spring. In 1939, before the Second World War began, she rejected her husband’s suggestion that she should return to Canada for the duration of the war. The Nazis invaded Holland in May 1940.
At the beginning of the Nazi occupation, she and her husband joined early resistance efforts through her husband’s cousin. Allied airmen shot down over occupied territory found refuge through a vast network of people in the Netherlands. Ingleside was one of the havens. Willem went into hiding in late August 1941 while Mona remained home with their dogs, determined to put the Nazis off the trail. Arrested on September 29, 1941, and incarcerated without charge until her trial on December 21, 1941, she received a death sentence. She was one of the first, and the few, civilian women to be tried before a military tribunal in the Occupied Netherlands.
Her initial death sentence commuted to life with hard labour, she was transported to Anrath Penitentiary in the Rheinland. She worked twelve hours a day and suffered malnutrition and more than one stay in solitary confinement. Moved to a camp at Wiedenbrück early in 1944, she manufactured igniters for enemy bombs and built air craft wings from plywood. When the supplies ran out, she boarded a cattle car bound for a women’s prison in Vechta, northern Germany, in January 1945.
During an air raid on March 24, 1945, 44-year old Mona escaped with a 22-year old Dutch baroness, Wendelien van Boetzelaer. Using her acting skills, Mona posed as a mentally-challenged woman with a speech impediment in order to avoid speaking in her Canadian-accented German. Wendelien’s knowledge of Germany was extensive and her German was flawless, so she posed as Mona’s niece. Pretending to be refugees from Dusseldorf, they began a three-week trek across Germany.
Mona and the baroness were separated at the Dutch border. Mona continued alone, eventually asking a group of soldiers for help. The first one she spoke to – Clarence Leonard – was astonished to learn that the 5-foot, 8-inch woman weighing only 87 pounds was from Nova Scotia. Mona was equally surprised to learn that the soldiers were the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.
Mona remained in Holland until 1957, when she returned to Nova Scotia. There she became reacquainted with an old friend, Major General Harry W. Foster. They married in 1958, although he died just six years later, in 1964. Eventually Mona moved back to Wolfville, where she died on November 28, 1976.
Feeling that the epitaph on her grave, which remembered her only as the “Wife of” her second husband (who is buried with his first wife in Kentville), the Women of Wolfville spear-headed a campaign for a more appropriate, public memorial. A sculpture showing Mona celebrating her and the Netherlands' liberation on May 5, 1945, was unveiled on the grounds of the Wolfville Post Office on May 5, 2017.