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Bonine House to honor COVID-19 victims with light ceremony

DOWAGIAC — The Underground Railroad Society of Cass County announced that the Victorian Bonine House, located at the corner of Penn Road and M-60 in Vandalia, will be lit to honor COVID-19 victims throughout January.

Candles will be placed in the windows, and amber lights will be displayed on the front doors and in the tower. On Tuesday, bells will ring out from the tower from 5:30 p.m. through the night.

The bell-ringing will coincide with President-elect Joe Biden’s memorial to remember and honor lives lost to COVID-19, with church-bell ringings and light shows across the country, according to URSCC member and event organizer Cathy LaPointe.

“We have had candles in the windows during the Christmas season because we’re usually open during the two weeks before Christmas,” LaPointe said. “This year, we couldn’t open. When we were taking Christmas decorations down, we decided to leave the candles in the windows and put up amber lights. When we saw that the national day of mourning was Tuesday, we felt we had to do something. This is our way of honoring everyone.”

The Bonine House was built by James E. Bonine and Sarah Ann Bogue Bonine in the mid-1840s. The Bonines and their neighbors were important figures in the fight for African American freedom, acting as station masters in the Underground Railroad by hiding freedom seekers in their carriage house and in other nearby locations.

Purchased by the society in 2010, the Bonine House had almost fallen victim to time and the elements, but thanks to gifts from the society’s 350 members as well as various grants, the house is the centerpiece of the URSCC’s efforts to revive interest and preserve the history of the Underground Railroad in Cass County.

The COVID-19 virus has taken the lives of thousands of more than 400,000 people to date, including someone near and dear to the URSCC.

Mary Charlotte Bonine Roberts, 86, died on January 15 in Valdosta, Georgia from COVID-19 complications. Roberts and her family, which included Michigan Senator G. Elwood Bonine and Ruth Bonine, were the last Bonines to live in Bonine House.

“She came up every year for Underground Railroad Days since 2012,” LaPointe said. “The lighting of the house is especially meaningful for us and everyone who knew her, including former classmates and childhood friends.”

While the organization has closed activities due to the pandemic, LaPointe hopes the state of affairs will improve enough in order for the annual Sam Adams Elementary School Wax Museum event in April.

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