Mrs. Verna White leaves legacy as fashion pioneer and trailblazer in Montserrat

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Verna White is pictured at her home in Olveston, where she lived since 2003 after moving back from London.

Verna White was still glamorous at age 92. Her outfits were colorful and coordinated, and fellow church members would eagerly await her next sartorial ensemble. Although she lost some of her physical ability to design dresses up to her standard, she never lost her sense of style.

“We used to drive to church together,” says Camilla Watts, Mrs. White’s life-long friend. “She was always well-dressed. She had a keen eye. She would tell me, ‘Your skirt is not hanging right.’ She really knew class.”

When Mrs. White celebrated her 92nd birthday last December, she was in good health and good spirits. Aside from the ailments that come with old age she was fine. She was quietly enjoying her golden years at her home in Olveston.

But over the past year she would tell friends and family that she’s ready to meet her maker whenever He is ready. She even began to display a sentimental side that family members had never seen.

On Friday, April 24, 2020, Verna White passed away. She left a legacy as an entrepreneur, community pillar and fashion pioneer who conquered many odds – not just in business but in life.

EARLY LIFE

Celesta Alverna Nanton was born December 3, 1927, in Kinsale to Elizabeth “Mae Belle” Woods (Roberts) and Jim Nanton. At age 7 her life was almost cut short when she fell head-first into a boiling pan of milk in the yard. She suffered serious burns and spent months in the hospital. She even overheard a doctor telling her mother she likely wouldn’t survive and would turn out “stupid” even if she did.

But she proved the doctor wrong on both counts. Thanks to diligent care from the nurses, she recovered. When she returned to school after missing a year she endured taunts from classmates over her scars. But she persevered academically and became a teacher when she finished school in 1944.

Verna and Joe White on their wedding day, November 14, 1954, in England.

While teaching at St. Patrick’s School she met future husband Joseph “Joe” White, who was also a teacher. Mrs. White eventually gave up her teaching job after becoming pregnant with her first child, a son named Edsley. Sadly, the boy died in his crib at only 5 weeks old. She migrated to England, where she married Joe in 1954. They would have three more children: Chrystal, Corinne and Julian.

Mrs. White had dabbled in dressmaking for years. It is a family tradition. Her mother Mae Belle and grandmother Sarah, better known as Larla, were both dressmakers (Larla also designed and sold handmade stuffed cloth dolls that were quite popular). When Mrs. White moved to England, dressmaking became her main source of income. Her clients were mainly friends and those who found her through word of mouth.

Mrs. White and her husband were helpful to others migrating to England in the 1950s. They shared their two-bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush with many of them until they found places of their own. The dressmaking business prospered, and the couple bought a second home in Ealing, also in west London.

Mrs. Verna White in London, 1955.

‘CELESTE FASHION HOUSE’

In 1970, Joe White secured a senior position with the Government of Montserrat as a civil engineer in the Department of Public Works. The family joined him a year later and the Whites built a home in Upper Dagenham.

In 1972 at age 44, Mrs. White opened a shop on the ground floor of the house. She called it “Celeste Fashion House” (she tweaked her first name to give it a French flair). Montserrat has always had an abundance of seamstresses and dressmakers, but Celeste Fashion House was the most elaborate of its time. The store had a mannequin display in the window – which was a first for Montserrat – plus a garment factory with eight to 10 employees. Mrs. White made dresses to order and also sold clothing off the rack for men and women. She also made staff uniforms for many business institutions.  

Celeste Fashion House (bottom floor) in 1972 before it became fully established.

The Whites were well known by friends and overseas visitors for their lively Christmas parties. Mrs. White was an excellent cook and enjoyed inviting family and friends for dinner. She was also a devout Catholic and fund-raiser. In 2017 she was awarded Mother of the Year by the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church.

In 1996, the volcanic eruption destroyed the Whites’ home and business in Dagenham and the couple returned to England. Seven years later Mrs. White bought a house in Olveston and returned to Montserrat. Mr. White chose to stay in the UK, but he often returned to Montserrat during winter months.     

Mrs. Verna White always had a keen sense of fashion. Above is an early photo in Montserrat.

SAD ENDING

In early April, Mrs. White was admitted to Glendon Hospital. She was initially diagnosed with pneumonia but a later test confirmed she had contracted COVID-19. For more than two weeks she fought bravely, but on April 24 she succumbed to her illness. She was designated by the Ministry of Health as Montserrat’s first casualty of coronavirus.

Mrs. White’s family, including younger sister Jeweline Roberts-Riley, was unable to visit her in the hospital because she was isolated due to the highly contagious virus. They never got to say a proper good-bye.

“What breaks my heart is that I envisioned her lying on her bed with all of us around her holding her hand and stroking her hair and giving her comfort,” Roberts-Riley says. “Instead she was pronounced dead with her husband, daughter, sister and medical staff around her all wearing Hazmat suits.”

On Saturday, May 2, Mrs. White’s funeral was held at the St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Lookout. It was limited to 15 people due to social-distancing guidelines. They celebrated her life, shared stories and gave her a sendoff befitting her legacy of class.

Among the mourners were her husband Joe and their children, Chrystal Butler, Corinne White and Julian White, and sister Jeweline. Mrs. White’s other survivors include sisters Claudia Mendes, Pam Arthurton, Joy Bramble, Toni Nanton and Kathy Reevie; sisters-in-law Sarah Roberts, Sarah White, Irene Andrew and Carol Nanton; and brother-in-law Percy Arthurton.

“What breaks my heart is that I envisioned her lying on her bed with all of us around her holding her hand and stroking her hair and giving her comfort. Instead she was pronounced dead with her husband, daughter, sister and medical staff around her all wearing Hazmat suits.”

Jeweline Roberts-Riley, Verna White’s sister

Although they were siblings, Mrs. White and Roberts-Riley had somewhat of a maternal relationship due to their two-decade-plus difference in age. Roberts-Riley, one of Montserrat’s top dressmakers and troupe organizers and a recipient of the Award of Distinction at the 2016 Montserrat National Awards, recalled one of her final conversations with her sister.

“I’ve always seen her as a disciplinarian,” Roberts-Riley says. “She would scold me and always urge me to do the right thing. But last December we were speaking on the phone and she said to me, ‘Do you know that I have loved you all your life? From the time you were born and I held you in my arms, I’ve loved you. I love you very much.’ “

Roberts-Riley was taken aback by her sister’s rare display of endearment. She paused for a moment, not certain how to properly respond. She finally answered.

“I love you too.”

Mrs. Verna White with daughters Corinne, left, Chrystal, right, and sister Jeweline in 2017.

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