A self-styled champion of the underprivileged
October 6, 1907: Born in Montserrat as Maria Ann Frances Dyett
Circa 1917: Sent to Bermuda to live with a relative
1931: Marries Arthur Benn
1930s to 1950s: Operates a bakery and restaurant
1950s: Hosts an annual party for Sunshine League children at her King Street home; it evolves into her legendary block parties hosted on Elliott Street
1956: Opens Maria’s Dress Shop
June 1977: One of 25 people who receive medals in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee
1979: Husband Arthur Benn dies
1982: Centre of media attention after pledge to pay for an American woman’s heart transplant; undergoes psychiatric care at St Brendan’s Hospital
Circa 1985: Marries second husband, Edison “Ed” Ible
October 1989: Organises her final fundraising Libra party before moving to Florida
February 13, 1999: Dies in Florida, aged 91
Maria Benn was a larger-than-life personality best known for her charity fundraisers and for the block parties she staged for the children in her back-of-town neighbourhood.
A self-made businesswoman, she had overcome a tough childhood, but had no children of her own.
She gave back to the community by throwing children’s parties for more than 40 years.
Born Maria Ann Frances Dyett in Montserrat, and known as Maria Benn for most of her life, she was shipped off to Bermuda at age 10 to be raised by a relative after her mother died.
She lived next door to labour leader E.F. Gordon and attended Matilda Crawford’s primary school on Till’s Hill.
Her school day started in the afternoon — after she had put in a full day’s work. She rose before dawn to make meat patties and to bake bread.
By late morning, she was walking the streets of Hamilton, carrying baskets laden with baked goods and fresh fruits that she sold to locals and tourists.
Playmates mimicked her West Indian accent and taunted her with the rhyme “Maria, Maria, jump in the fire” because of the unusual pronunciation of her name.
She even wanted to change her name, but in an interview in 1975 in The Royal Gazette, she recalled how Dr Gordon advised against it, saying: “You’re the only Maria in Bermuda.”
In the same interview, she said of her growing-up years: “And people talk about work. It was work and licks. But those licks set me straight.”
Details about her teenage years are sketchy, but like most young people of her era, she would have left school at age 13, possibly even younger, and gone straight into the workforce.
In October 1931, she married Arthur St Felix Benn, a masseur who was originally from Guyana.
The couple started a bakery in Southampton, relocated it to Victoria Street, Hamilton, where they remained for 18 years, and expanded their business with the addition of a home restaurant, Maria’s.
Sometime after the end of the Second World War, they purchased a two-storey property on King Street, which doubled as their residence and place of business.
Around 1956, Benn, having got out of the restaurant and bakery business, ventured into retail.
She tested the waters first by selling women’s clothes out of a suitcase, before opening Maria’s Dress Shop on the ground floor of her King Street property.
She sold everything from dashikis to Sunday dresses for church ladies at Maria’s, which remained in operation until the 1980s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the ever-enterprising Benn produced dances and live shows with a Caribbean flavour.
She also led group tours to the Trinidad Carnival. All were business ventures out of which her fundraising events evolved.
Over the years, she organised fashion shows, Caribbean-style mini-carnivals and Libra parties, held in celebration of her own birthday in October.
Her first children’s parties were held at Top Hat Ballroom in Southampton in the 1940s.
After her move to King Street, Benn threw an annual party at her home for children from the Sunshine League children’s home, located on the same street.
The guest list grew to include children from the neighbourhood and other homes, and eventually expanded into a full-scale block party that attracted 400 children and saw Elliott Street closed off to traffic for an afternoon.
The former restaurateur, whose cooking skills were legendary, put together a team of helpers to help to prepare and serve the food. Gombeys provided the entertainment.
Caribbean culture — its food, music and dance — was a mainstay of Benn’s life. She claimed she was the first person to introduce limbo dancing to Bermuda.
She made frequent trips to Trinidad, although visits to the island of her birth were rare. An avid traveller, she embarked on tours to Africa in her later years, and marvelled at its similarities to the Caribbean.
Her contribution to the community was recognised in June 1977 when she was one of 25 people honoured with a Jubilee Medal in honour of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
Other recipients included such notables as Sir Henry Tucker, then premier John Sharpe and Opposition leader Lois Browne-Evans.
Benn and Arthur Benn, a retiring man who kept out of the spotlight, were married for 48 years.
A combination of hard work and thrift, which typified the lives of many immigrants, brought the couple financial security.
Arthur Benn died in September 1979 and three years later, Benn’s life took a bizarre turn. In February 1982, she called a radio talk show and told shocked listeners she intended to sell her assets and leave the island because a black man, John Swan, the recently appointed premier, was now running Bermuda.
Less than two weeks later, she sparked a flurry of media attention in the United States and Bermuda when she showed up at the hospital bed of a poor Milwaukee single mother, promising to pay the full cost, $150,000, of a desperately needed heart transplant.
Benn had been visiting Dallas when she heard about the woman’s plight.
The media were captivated by Benn’s pledge, but on her return to Bermuda, she was instead committed to St Brendan’s Hospital, now known as Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute.
Friends told the local media she had been acting irrationally.
The media flurry eventually died down.
The woman had the transplant surgery, but subsequently died. The hospital later revealed that Benn had donated $60,000 for the procedure.
Benn spent several weeks undergoing psychiatric care and was eventually released. That August, she was back to organising her annual block party.
About three years later, she married former deejay Edison “Ed” Ible, who was several years her junior.
In October 1989, she announced plans to hold two fundraising Libra parties in one weekend.
Soon afterwards, she and Ible moved to Florida, where she would spend the rest of her life.
She died in Orange City, Florida, on February 13, 1999.
Her body was returned to Bermuda for burial. MPs paid fulsome tribute to her in Parliament after her death.
The amount she raised for charities is not known, but beneficiaries over the years included the Sunshine League, the Lady Cubitt Compassionate Association and St Paul AME Church, where her funeral was held.
In May 1999, a plaque that paid tribute to her community work was erected at the corner of King Street and Elliott Street — around the corner from her former home.
It said in part: “This plaque is placed here in memory of Maria Benn, a long-time resident of King Street who took a special interest in those who are less fortunate, and who for more than 40 years, until the early 1980s, organised annual ‘Block Parties’ in this area for neighbourhood children and for children in special homes.”
“That’s why the children are so bad. They don’t get enough licks. Those licks are still fresh in my mind. Oh, the pain.”
“What women’s lib! Don’t bring up my pressure this morning. I have to get along with my man.”
“You know I introduced the limbo to Bermuda. I had visited Jamaica and saw it performed there. I taught it to the local dancers.” — The Royal Gazette, September 2, 1975
“I’ve been selling all of my life — either one thing or another, from cakes to pies to restaurant ... then I decided to run a dress shop.”
“Being in business for yourself gives you an independent feeling knowing you are on your own and don’t have to take orders from anyone. Some people are afraid to go on their own, but you can make it if you try.” — Bermuda Recorder, August 14, 1971
“I’m doing it because the Lord told me to. What am I going to do with all this property and money I have? That’s what money is for: to give it to somebody who needs it. If you can help someone help them. All I need is food and a place to stay.” — The Royal Gazette, February 22, 1982
• Courtesy of bermudabiographies.bm and Meredith Ebbin
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