Wednesday, June 1, 2011

St. Paul's United Church Anniversary

In our most recent issue of the ANWC Historical Society Journal, we accidentally omitted an article describing the 100th anniversary of St. Paul's United
Church in Grande Prairie. Here is an article describing the congregation's history edited by Rev. Gord Waldie from a piece written by Mark Malek.If you would like to submit an anniversary article for next year's issue of the Journal, please contact editor Debbie Marshall at

St. Paul's United Church, Grande Prairie: 1911-2011

The roots of St. Paul's, Grande Prairie have been weaved into the stories of Clairmont, Sexsmith, DeBolt and even Valleyview; with the Presbyterian Mission of the 1900's and the ministry of Sandy and Agnes Forbes. Both committed to Foreign Missions and confident, " in him who was unmistakably going before us;" in 1909 Alexander Forbes drove a stake into the knoll where our church stands and wrote, "Presbyterian Church;" later named: McQueen Presbyterian Church, with a log building being built and dedicated in 1911.

As the region opened, so too the opportunities for mission and having established the ground work in many of the settlements throughout the region, Sandy and Agnes returned from Fort Saskatchewan to begin work in earnest. At one time, pioneers, missionaries and one of the few sources of medical help, they looked after the spiritual and physical needs of everyone. The Edmonton Women's Home Mission Society offered financial support for the young men and women who served as doctors, nurses and even druggists. A hospital was constructed and kitchens to care for the sick. A number of "firsts” followed: baptisms, weddings and funerals; a library in the church. As the number of settlers grew from Scotland, Eastern Canada and the United States, so did the work of the church and many remember of those who worked alongside Sandy and Agnes to meet the new arrivals. Each person strengthened the fabric of the community by the challenges and opportunities they shaped. In the church, there were more members to serve as Elders and teach Sunday School, relieving Sandy of the responsibility. The women gathered as much for fellowship, as together improving for many their health and the standard of living. In 1921 the "Canadian Girls in Training" group was started and continues to this day.

When Church Union birthed the United Church of Canada, Rev. Forbes disagreed with the guiding principles of this new denomination and his ministry in the region came to an end. However, his legacy remains in the naming of a school and the Presbyterian Church; the relocation of the original log church near our museum and their homestead becoming a provincial historic site.

With Union, McQueen Presbyterian became St. Paul's United and a new church building was constructed near the original log church in 1925-26. As with many congregations in the North, St. Paul's has been served by both clergy and lay people, some coming as missionaries with larger districts to serve; others of more independent mind who were successful in what we now call 'church planting' and gathered their followers into the work of St. Paul's because they were attracted to the denomination's mission and ministry.

Through the Second World War and the post war boom we remember particular men and women who gave extraordinary service as we responded to the growing number of children, making space for Sunday School with new buildings, for social events supporting one another during those bleak times; using the radio, to stay in touch with the region; their art and craftsmanship creating both pulpit and table to enrich our worship.

The 1950s brought pressure for space and a new Christian Education building was constructed while the log church was used for A.A. and worship space for the Lutheran congregation. A new manse was purchased and as the need arose a second person was called to help our clergy. As our buildings aged and the congregation grew, discussions of a new church building began. Undeterred by debts for the manse, C.E. Wing and organ, the congregation constructed the present building in 1956-57. Of particular note is that one of the men who helped clear the land for the original log building in 1911 was present in 1956 to turn the sod for the new sanctuary. Along with this St. Paul's had a radio ministry – broadcasting services on a local station from 1942-1960.

Our service to the community continued. We took responsibility for the Wapiti Lodge; housing for rural high school students, which later became a shelter for those who found themselves homeless. AA groups have been meeting at St. Paul's for 60 years. A new set of "firsts" were celebrated: candidates for ministry, new groups for our growing young adult members, newsletters and even 'envelope' stewardship campaigns.

In 1961 we celebrated 50 years of unbroken ministry to the Peace Country; an October day remembering our past with 'frontier food' and shared memories. It was only a resting spot and in the ensuing decades of church growth, beloved musicians retired, our efforts to stay in touch grew, making the newsletter an important resource and organizations matured: The United Church Women was formed and a new men's group: "As those who Serve," AOTS; came to be. Pictures of our 'new members classes' and the size of our CGIT groups fill a whole page! Notable leaders; Moderator's past and present gathered here with the Presbytery and we have even hosted the Alberta and Northwest Conference!

The list of clergy, laity, students and candidates for ministry who have served us are still remembered and their pictures are at the entrance of our church. Our mission continued: encouraging the establishment of the United Appeal campaign which funds need groups today and the meals-on-wheels program. In our stewardship, we have opened our doors to countless groups and gatherings; each one meeting a need.

Sixty years of service followed 50 and we reached another milestone: The construction of the new C.E.Wing in 1986; made possible by a grant from "Ventures in Mission," a Mission and Service Fund sponsored program.

In the decades that followed we have sought to respond to our city and our growing faith and have lived through a series of 'ups and downs': Members chose to transfer to the Presbyterian church in response to our national support for the ordination of gay men and women. We held our first summertime Vacation Bible Schools and bought the 'new' red hymnbook. We became a "smoke-free" building; 'cam-corded' worship for later broadcast and started an Outreach fund to help those having 'fallen through the cracks." We bought our Handbells, began the Healing Touch group and painted a Labyrinth on the floor of the lower hall; each one, beginning an important ministry. We participated in endless rounds of talking about restructuring for ministry and sponsored the Doberlani (from Kosovo) and then the Lemu (from Ethiopia) families to Canada. We approved a new policy for same-gender marriage and shared in a variety of adult learning possibilities. Humour and fun have never been overlooked: From hearing a confusing story about "green and blue people"-- to blow torches being used to thaw out a leg carrying too much blood thinner -- to 'trap lines' being set for our spring mice, the lives and jokes from all have been woven into our memories.

Candidates for Designated lay and Diaconal ministry have been nurtured here and endless amount of food, especially beef, have been consumed! Motorcycles and even dogs have had the run of the building; continuing to bring both a healing and a uniqueness that is St. Paul's United Church.

Heritage Cemeteries in Alberta

Sheila Johnston, Chair of the Heritage Cemeteries Ad Hoc Committee has recently submitted a report detailing the activities of this group. The Committee is dedicated to researching and preserving the history of "forgotten" Alberta cemeteries established decades ago by the denominations that eventually formed the United Church of Canada. Many of these pioneer cemeteries are no longer used and have become overgrown and neglected. Here is Sheila's report of the activities of the group that is determined to reclaim the memory of these historic sites:

In 2010 we helped support the work of the Alberta-Ukraine Genealogical Project which documented (photographed and recorded all available data) on eleven cemeteries in their East Central Alberta area with United Church (or our ancestor denominations) roots. This included the Wahstao Mission Cemetery (Methodist 1908) which prompted the work of our committee. (A DVD of this documentation is now in the Conference Archives.)

Our plans for 2011 include support for the documentation of a few more "UC Roots" cemeteries in this area, compilation of a list of cemeteries within the Conference with "UC Roots," and the installation of an interpretive plaque in the Wahstao Mission cemetery. Thanks must go to the members of the committee--Oliver Seward, Donna Krucik and Don Mayne, as well as our extraordinary volunteer in the area, Gran Gillard. If you know of a cemetery with UC Roots in your area, please pass the information to the secretary of your presbytery, to be forwarded to our committee.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Conserving Heritage in the United Church

By Tim O’Grady

If you ever get a chance, take a drive on the Bow Valley Trail (Highway 1A) west of Cochrane. Arriving at the south-western tip of Ghost Lake, among the rolling foothills and in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, you will see one of Alberta’s historical gems: McDougall Memorial United Church. Built in 1875, this small white church, with its simple wooden frame construction and central entrance and bell tower, is one of the most picturesque churches in Alberta. It is operated by the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, among whose activities include holding commemorative services, interpreting the history of the mission and Morleyville Settlement, and hosting special events such as weddings. While undoubtedly of incredible significance to Alberta’s history, McDougall Memorial United Church is not the only church to have been officially recognized as an historical resource. However, it is somewhat unusual, in that it no longer serves as a church full-time. Fifteen United Churches have been recognized as historic resources in Alberta and most continue to function as active, dynamic buildings for their congregations. This article will explain how heritage is measured and recognized, and will provide practical advice on how to conserve your church’s heritage value.

A note to our readers in BC: this article is written from an Alberta perspective. The government of British Columbia has a heritage program similar to that in Alberta. For more information on conservation in British Columbia, contact BC Heritage or visit

What is Heritage?

A great deal of ink has been spilled attempting to define heritage and differentiate heritage from history. In terms of built heritage (like churches) the difference is fairly simple: history is everything that occurred in and around a site, whereas heritage is how a site manifests its history to a contemporary viewer. Defining heritage can be difficult, and some would say rather subjective. Therefore, an evaluation method has been developed to weigh heritage value based on two considerations: historical significance and integrity. There are several broad categories of historical significance recognized in Alberta that could apply to a site. These include:
• Theme: Does the site embody a particular historical theme important to the community or province?
• Person/Activity/Event: Is the site directly related to a particular person, activity or event of historical importance to the community or province?
• Design/Style/Construction: Does the site embody a significant design, style or construction?
• Information Potential: Does the site represent significant historical information that is not available through any other means?
• Landmark: Has the site served as an important landmark in the community?

The second consideration is historical integrity; basically, how close the site is to its original state. In order to qualify as a historical resource, the site must be in its original location and maintain its original design, environment, materials, workmanship, feeling and associations.

The majority of United Churches 50 years or older (built before 1962) likely have some historical significance. While a site need only have a single heritage value to be considered an historical resource, most have more than one. For example, most of the sites already recognized have been identified as historic for both their architecture and their relationship to the theme of settlement in Alberta. However, some, such as the Ralph Connor Memorial United Church in Canmore, have been linked with significant historical figures (in this case, the author Charles William Gordon, a.k.a. Ralph Connor). Rosedale United Church near Wainwright is another uncommon example. It was built in 1933 and does not exhibit an easily identifiable style, but is valued in the community for its vernacular design.

To determine the heritage value of your church, you’ll have to do some research. If your church has an archives that’s a great place to start, but even a local library, or the Alberta and Northwest Conference Archives in Edmonton will no doubt have important historical information. Look at the history of your church and your community, as well as at some of the larger historical themes in Alberta. Are there significant people associated with your church, or have any important events occurred there? Is it a good example of an architectural style, design, or type of construction? Is it considered an important landmark in the community? If you wish to pursue some form of official recognition, the more information you can provide on your site’s history and heritage value the easier the designation process will be.

Levels of Recognition

There are several levels of historical recognition: municipal, provincial and federal. Municipalities have the ability to recognize sites of local significance in two ways: through listing on an inventory of historic buildings and through municipal designation. Listing on an inventory means that the site qualifies for designation as a Municipal Historical Resource (MHR), but the site has not been yet designated and is not legally protected, nor does it typically qualify for associated benefits. Designation as a MHR is done by the municipality through a bylaw and will only be done through the consent of the owner. Municipal designation legally protects a site from demolition and inappropriate alteration. According to Section 28 of the Alberta Historical Resources Act (2000), a municipality is subject to providing compensation for designating a building. This compensation will vary depending on the municipality, and can include conservation advice and financial incentives. For specifics on benefits of designation as an MHR contact your municipality. Designation as an MHR in Alberta also makes the site eligible for conservation grants through the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation.

Provincial recognition applies to sites which have demonstrated heritage value at a provincial level. There are two types of provincial recognition in Alberta: Provincial Historic Resources (PHR) and Registered Historic Resources (RHR). Both recognize heritage value, though only PHR are legally protected from demolition and inappropriate alteration. Sites recognized as RHR should seek municipal designation if they want legal protection and better access to grant programs.

Sites with a demonstrated value at a national level are eligible for federal recognition. Currently in Alberta there is only one site associated with the United Church that is recognized at a national level – Rundle’s Mission in Sundance Beach on Pigeon Lake. Federal recognition as a national historic site is an honour to be sure, but does not provide legal protection, and there is as present no federal heritage funding program.

Protecting Your Church’s Heritage Value

Whether or not to pursue formal designation for your church is a something only your congregation can decide. Although designation requires that some restrictions are placed on the building, the intent is not to preserve it as a museum. Managed change is a useful way to think about conservation. Not everything must be kept, only those elements that relate directly to the building’s historical significance. These features are known as Character Defining Elements, and they should be retained whenever possible. When doing renovations, less is more. Can something be restored rather than replaced? Only replace material as needed. Rather than replace an entire wooden window for example, replace only the rotten section. If an element is so deteriorated that replacement is necessary, always replace material in kind. For example, if you are replacing wood siding, use new wood siding, not metal or vinyl. If you are having old wooden windows removed, replace them with new wooden units, rather than aluminum or vinyl. If you have to make changes to elements related to identified heritage values, do so in a way that will be reversible in the future. For conservation advice, contact one of the province’s Heritage Conservation Advisors.

Properly conserving your building, whether through designation or just responsible stewardship can have positive impacts on your congregation and your community. Protecting your church’s heritage will add to your congregation’s sense of pride and identity. Your building’s heritage can make it a destination church, attracting new congregants as well as serving as an attractive events venue, thereby increasing church revenues. Historic churches also tend to be prominent in both size and location, and conserving their heritage value will ensure your congregation maintains a high visibility in the community.

The conservation of your church’s heritage can also have a positive impact on the community. Conservation projects have been shown to foster community revitalization, encourage heritage tourism, enhance local cultural life, and add to the distinctive character of the city and community. Finally, heritage conservation is an environmentally sustainable choice which fits well with the United Church of Canada’s stance on environmental issues.

The United Church, as well as its Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist predecessors, had an enormous impact on the history of Alberta and British Columbia. This influence is seen not only in history books, but on the contemporary landscape as well. As owners of significant historic sites, as well as active partners in the community, congregations should take pride in their resources. They should understand why their site has heritage value, and they should conserve that value for their own benefit, as well as that of the community and future generations.

Tim O'Grady is a member of the Alberta and Northwest Conference Historical Society.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Alberta Women in the United Church of Canada

By Gayle Simonson

According to Louise McKinney, “the purpose of woman’s life is just the same as the purpose of a man’s life—that she may make the best possible contribution to the generation in which she is living.” McKinney knew what she was talking about. Throughout her life she contributed to society as a temperance leader, women’s rights campaigner and groundbreaking politician. What is often forgotten, however, is that the Alberta woman also made a tremendous contribution to the history of The United Church of Canada, attending the denomination’s first General Council and signing the Basis of Union as one of the Commissioners. She was the only woman from western Canada to do so.

McKinney may have been one of the United Church’s early founders, but women of all three of its founding churches—the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian—made major contributions to the development of the church in Alberta. They raised funds for the building of churches and for mission work, shaped the spiritual and theological life of the church, and played leadership roles within the church and in society—often in the face of opposing ideas about what their “proper place” should be.

Protestant Women in the West
The women of those founding denominations had worked in missions and settlements throughout the west for over 50 years before union. Some of them were paid; most were not. Ministers’ wives and other women volunteered as fundraisers, Sunday School teachers, musicians and social organizers, offering community support when it was required.

Within congregations, many women were organized into Ladies Aid Societies (LA) and Woman’s Auxiliaries (WA). They supported the Woman’s Missionary Societies (WMS) which raised funds and trained workers for mission both at home and abroad. In areas such as Alberta which were just becoming settled, women helped to build, finance and staff churches, hospitals and schools. Because distances were large and children often could not travel to school daily, women also ran school homes where children could board while they received their education. Workers of the WMS taught school, nursed the sick, provided care in community and worked for social reform.

The Methodists
“The story of brave women on the lonely homesteads of the prairie and among the mountains has never been written and can never fully be told. Who shall give a record of the heroic women of the mission house, far removed from the haunts of civilization?” wrote Rev. Dr. John Maclean in his 1918 book Vanguards of Canada, published by the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church. Maclean was chief archivist of the Methodist Church in Canada and he and his wife had served as missionaries in Fort Macleod. Despite his lofty words, Maclean clearly didn’t think the record of “heroic women” needed to be a lengthy one. In Vanguards of Canada, his single chapter on Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholic “heroines of western Canada” followed 14 chapters describing the work of male missionaries.

Despite its limitations, Maclean’s very brief history of women’s mission work did include an extraordinary Protestant missionary named Elizabeth Barrett. “It seemed a strange thing for a woman to found the first Protestant Mission in Southern Alberta, but that honour was reserved for Miss Barratt (sic), the mission teacher, whom John McDougall sent, with one of his daughters as companion, to Fort Macleod… An heroic soul was this pioneer woman...”

Elizabeth Barrett arrived from Ontario in 1875 to teach at Henry Steinhauer’s Native mission at Whitefish Lake. She was not the first woman of the Methodist Church in what is now Alberta. That distinction belonged to two Native women, Margaret Sinclair, wife of missionary assistant Benjamin Sinclair, and Jessie Mamanuwartum, wife of missionary Henry Steinhauer. George McDougall brought his family, including son John, west in 1863. By 1875, George’s wife Elizabeth and their daughters and daughters-in-law had worked at Victoria Mission (Smoky Lake), Woodville (Pigeon Lake), Edmonton and Morley.

While Barrett wasn’t the first Methodist woman in Alberta, she was the first Methodist woman to arrive without a husband. She may have also been the first female political activist in what is now Alberta. She and Steinhauer wrote to the territorial government and their school received the first government funding for a Protestant school in what was then the Northwest Territories.

Life wasn’t easy for Barrett. In a letter east, she wrote that on her visit to Fort Edmonton, she nearly wept to see again a carpet, pictures and a melodeon. After two years, the Missionary Society transferred her to Morley where she worked with the McDougall family. When Treaty 7 was signed at Blackfoot Crossing in 1877, three Methodist women were invited to sign as witnesses, as were three wives of NWMP officers. This was quite an honour for the time and was an indication of the esteem in which they were held. One of the three Methodist women was Elizabeth Barrett. (The other two were Annie McDougall and Eliza Hardisty, nee McDougall). Elizabeth (George’s widow), and John’s wife Elizabeth were not there. They were, as usual, minding the mission at Morley!

Over the next 50 years, 1875-1925, the Methodist WMS sent teachers, nurses and community workers west to establish orphanages, schools and hospitals. Support for the orphanage at Morley, school homes at Wahstao, Kolokreeka and Radway, hospitals in Lamont and Bonnyville, as well as Alberta College in Edmonton and Mount Royal College in Calgary, are a few examples of the extensive work in Alberta supported by Methodist women. Annie Jackson, Edmonton’s first policewoman and the first in the British Commonwealth, was appointed in 1912. She had been a worker with the Methodist Church and was assisted by WMS worker Jennie Robinson.

In his 1920 book Breaking Prairie Sod, Wellington Bridgman, who had arrived as missionary in Medicine Hat in 1883, wrote that, “for a time we were without a doctor or a nurse, and often our cabin home would be deserted at night, my faithful wife, who is a good nurse, looking after the women, and I doing my best to take care of the men.” Bridgman also wrote of Rose Green, maid to the NWMP doctor at Fort Macleod and a worker at his mission: “I don’t think any human calculation can ever estimate the real worth of that quiet Christian life, a life everyone knew and everyone wanted to be like.”

In a 1925 history of the Methodist WMS, Mrs. W. H. Graham honoured all aspects of the women’s work including education and medical assistance. According to Graham, the work of the WMS was accomplished because: “The very truest of Christian women are giving themselves in daily service.”

The Presbyterians
Like their Methodist sisters, Presbyterian women supported societies for foreign (WFMS) and home (WHMS) missions. They worked locally to build new churches and improve health care. Presbyterian women established schools for girls, including the Red Deer College for Girls. The school was created in 1910 and later moved to Edmonton, where it was renamed the “Westminster Ladies College” and described as a “High Class Residential and Day School for Girls and Young Women.” Presbyterian women also founded two school homes in Vegreville in 1911.

Several Women’s Guilds (Calgary, Camrose, Lethbridge and Wetaskiwin) worked with the Edmonton Guild to support Robertson College, the theological school of the Presbyterian Church in Alberta. The guilds raised funds to furnish and maintain the college residence and held fruit and vegetable showers each fall to stretch the food budget. Preserves and pickles were welcome!

Ministers’ wives played key roles in the community. In 1909, when Rev. Alexander Forbes moved to Grande Prairie, his wife Agnes cared for the sick until missionary nurse Agnes Baird arrived. In 1912, the WHMS funded a small log hospital for the community. Early improvements to the hospital in Vegreville which had opened in 1906 were also funded by the WHMS.

With no telephones or Internet, information was printed and the missionary societies did a wonderful job of publishing and distribution—their form of public relations. Some of these publications survive to tell us stories of the women’s work. A 1910 edition of The Home Mission Pioneer, published by the Presbyterian WMS, shows a picture of a smiling little girl. The caption calls Marie “the pet of Vegreville hospital.” She had not been treated following a bad burn. As her arm healed, it grew attached to her body. With the advent of the small hospital in the district, a doctor operated, corrected the problem, and she recovered.

Many of the women who came west were teachers and nurses before preparing for mission work by attending the Toronto Training Schools operated by both Methodists and Presbyterians. Those who graduated were generally known as deaconesses. In a 1925 publication, one writer commented that the “marvel of it is how these ladies who have come from good comfortable homes have gone into their work under such difficulties.” The training and duties for deaconesses remained the same for many years. Despite their extensive education, in 1932 they were described as “handmaidens… (who worked with) … singleness of heart, simplicity and humility.” By 1939, deaconesses could be appointed as lay supply ministers. After 1962, men could also train for similar work. Eventually the diaconate was recognized as an order of ministry and members could be commissioned to a Diaconal Ministry of Education, Service and Pastoral Care.

Women of the United Church
Church union brought together missionary societies from three different denominations. All wished to share their own strong faith but also to offer practical help to a world in need. Such societies gave women an opportunity to learn and to develop leadership skills in a society that still refused them full participation.

The first Alberta United Church WMS president (1926-1939) Mrs. A. M. Scott, wrote that, with the help of women such as Louise McKinney, Nellie McClung and Elizabeth McKillop, the harmonization of the three Uniting Societies, “was made easier and more pleasant for me because of the whole-hearted co-operation and friendly spirit of all the members.”

The WMS of the United Church continued the churches’ hospital, school and social work in western Canada. It published information and study materials, encouraging its members to learn more about the church and the world. By 1960, the WMS had supported hospitals and schools overseas in Angola, Northern Rhodesia, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Trinidad.

Although the WMS had many trained workers at the time of union, ordination was still limited to men. Many of the women of the church had been advocating for equality, both within the church and in society in general. A motion in 1906 in Methodist WMS minutes states that, “we believe that the enfranchisement of women by Church courts will be the entering wedge to a national and civic enfranchisement.”

Inclusive language concerns aren’t recent—the same 1906 minutes went on to ask that, “at its next sitting, the General Conference will amend its constitution re the constitution of all church councils, by substituting the words ‘lay members’ for the word ‘laymen,’ believing that the highest interest of our church will be best served by an equal recognition of united membership.” At union in 1925, “Miss Jamieson advanced the ideal of the women’s work being an equal part of the church’s work… It was felt by all that it would not be wise at the present time to make any radical change in organization but to work up gradually to the ideal…” It was not until 1960 that women were encouraged to be a part of all church boards and councils.

At the time of union, how did young girls see attitudes toward women? In The Calgary Herald in1922, Emily Spencer Kerby recalled her concerns as a child: “We believed that God did not think much of women. We were here for one purpose, to make this world nice and homey for the men… The preachers were always ringing the changes on the awful peril of ‘women and wine,’ so I had a sort of feeling that some day we might be legislated out of existence, like the whiskey, and it behooved us to mind our Ps and Qs.”

Emily had been forced to give up a position as a school principal when she married Rev. George Kerby. When they came west to Calgary, they co-founded Mount Royal College and she worked unpaid as both teacher and co-principal. Kerby, like many others, was a strong proponent of women’s right to equality. It was one of many struggles for justice in which the women of the church have engaged over the years. Alberta women were at the forefront of that struggle in Canada.

In 1917, Roberta MacAdams and Methodist Louise Crummy McKinney were elected to the Alberta legislature, the first two women elected to government in Canada. McKinney had gained excellent leadership experience in her church work and, like many other Methodist women, their experience included leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Once in the legislature, she was acknowledged as a strong debater. She promoted legislation to aid people with disabilities, and consistently pressured the government until prohibition laws were made more effective.

A strong proponent of women's rights, McKinney urged the adoption of social welfare measures for immigrants and widows. Her major initiative was the improvement of the legal status of widows and separated wives. With Henrietta Muir Edwards, she drafted a what became the Dower Act, one of Alberta's most progressive laws. She was also one of only four women to sign the United Church Basis of Union. Along with Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Irene Parlby and Emily Murphy, she went on to become a member of the “Famous Five” who, in 1929, had women in Canada declared as “Persons.”

The Road to Ordination
Emily Spencer Kerby was a strong advocate of ordination for women. In 1921, she wrote that, “What womanhood is asking is not some corner in the sanctuary where she may ‘appropriately render service’ but freedom to work where she deems best.”

Soon after church union, a woman actually dared to seek ordination! In 1926, Lydia Gruchy was working as a lay minister. She had graduated at the top of her class in theological school in Saskatchewan but it was ten years before the United Church finally agreed to ordain her. For many years, there remained reluctance on the part of many to accept ordained women in the pulpit. It wasn’t until 1951 that Ilene Etta James (later Munro) and Frances Edna Pratt became the first women ordained in Alberta.

Other women hesitated to seek ordination, since they were not allowed to work if they married. This “disjoining” rule also applied to deaconesses. Though “disjoining” officially ended in 1957, it occurred until 1968. In 2006, General Council apologized to those women who had been affected by this unfair practice.

We have come a long way since 1925. In 1980, the church elected its first female moderator—Rev. Lois Wilson. In 2007, one third of ordained United Church ministers were women. Of 282 diaconal ministers, 262 were women and of 307 designated lay ministers, 214 were women. None of these women feared being “disjoined!”

The Formation of the UCW
In the period following World War II, women’s roles began to change in Canadian society. In 1953, General Council established the Committee to Study Women’s Work in the Church. The committee submitted recommendations on women’s organizations and the relationship of women to the church as a whole. The goals were to establish a united women’s organization and to promote full partnership of women and men in the church.

In its report to General Council in 1956, the committee concluded that, “It is the unanimous conviction of the Committee that there should be for the women of The United Church of Canada one organization at all levels (National, Conference, Presbytery and Congregation) the aim of which would be to enlist all the women of the United Church for the total mission of the Church and to conserve all of value in our present women’s organizations.”

The subsequent Commission on the Work of Women in the Church was chaired by a man. However, Minnie Villett of Edmonton was a strong representative on the Commission. As Minnie McLean, she had entered Alberta College before church union, hoping to train as a doctor. While there, she met and married theology student Harrison Villett. Harrison went on to become principal of Alberta College. Minnie devoted herself to the unpaid job of minister’s wife, working within the church both locally and nationally and in groups like the WCTU. In 1969, she became the first woman to be awarded an honorary doctorate by St. Stephen’s College. A letter of congratulation read that: “We hope that this public recognition of your life which has been devoted to the church will be a small repayment of the dedication which you have shown.”

The Commission completed its work. At the General Council meeting held in Edmonton in 1960, final approval was given to a new organization called the United Church Women (UCW). The UCW officially came into being January 1, 1962.

The Work of the UCW Yesterday and Today
The 1960 General Council also took action to ensure that women could “share in a much more meaningful way in all the work of the Church” by allowing them to participate in boards at all levels. As mentioned earlier, women had asked for this at church union 35 years earlier!

Both the WA and the WMS groups had continued their work throughout the period of discussion. In some congregations, the two were already functioning together as a Woman’s Federation.

The Woman’s Auxiliary in Yellowknife, formed in 1956, was probably one of the last. In the five years before the formation of the UCW, their members had led some worship services, convened social gatherings and of course, done plenty of fundraising! In the fledgling congregation, they had paid for the janitor, the telephone, the kitchen floor tiles, dishes, manse furniture and draperies, and painting as well as contributing to outreach projects at home and abroad.

In 1960 the WMS was supporting many national church endeavours—Church Vacation Schools, Youth Caravans, Sunday School by mail and by air, Evangelism and Social Services, and Home Missions. They were developing stewardship audiovisual resources and contributing to the United Church Training School. They supported women’s colleges and universities in India, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong and offered about $30,000 yearly in bursaries and scholarships in Canada and abroad. They also cooperated with organizations outside the United Church including the Student Christian Movement, World Literacy and Christian Literature, the Canadian Bible Society and the World Student Christian Federation.

One speaker at the last meeting of the Dominion Board of the WMS stressed the study aspect of the group:

“The women of the church have been largely THE study cell of the church. Now as you move into the various boards and committees of the congregation, you will come upon many areas hitherto somewhat monopolized by men of action, which need to be illumined by the light of knowledge…The destiny of the United Church Women will be determined largely by how you maintain your present genius for study in a wider area that has not been notable for that kind of self-discipline.”

Women, both within the UCW and in unnamed groups, have continued that tradition of study—both of theology and of social issues. They carry that study into their broader work. It is part of their vision and mission.

The UCW vision states that:

“As Christian women of faith, we nurture spirituality by reaching out with commitment and devotion to all God's people—promoting truth, justice, peace, caring and sharing with respect for all in the community and wider world; loving God and others by living generously and giving joyfully; and affirming and strengthening ourselves creatively in study and witness through music, laughter and solitude.

Our Mission is to love God, to foster Christian faithfulness, spirituality, commitment and devotion and to promote love and respect by living generously and giving joyfully to all God's people and to affirm and strengthen ourselves creatively.”

Get-togethers beyond the congregation continue to be important to the women of the United Church. These are shared at Presbytery and Conference levels and beyond. They are a source of learning and form the basis of new friendships. The first Banff Conference was held in 1963 and the Western Women’s Conference dates to 1974. In 2005, the Western Women’s conference included 340 women from the three western provinces.

Political activism continues. Over the years, UCW members have been involved in campaigns such as the Nestle boycott of the 1980s. From 1988 to 1998, they were involved in study and work around the international Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women sponsored by the World Council of Churches. The decade concentrated on four focal issues around the world—economic justice, violence, racism and women's ecclesial participation. The moderator of the United Church at that time was Anne Squires. Squires saw the Decade as an opportunity to share with sisters in the international community.

One current project of the UCW in Alberta is the Child Well-Being Initiative. Using both print and DVD resources, it calls on all United Church members and indeed the wider community to examine the extent of child poverty and challenge politicians to enact policies that ensure all children receive a good start in life.

Women’s groups have served in many ways over time. They provided essential services to others in the early days of Alberta settlement as well as social opportunities for members who were often far from family while the province was being settled. They also promoted education. In the 1920s, the women of the Robertson College Guild in Calgary organized guest speakers on literature, politics, modern art and music as well as on the various international mission fields of the church.

Looking Ahead

It is now over 50 years since General Council agreed to encourage full participation in all committees and boards. Women didn’t need much encouragement. They had already developed among themselves the skills needed to provide knowledgeable leadership. Today they are given equal opportunity to exercise those skills. Mardi Tindal is moderator, Nora Sanders is General Secretary of General Council and Lynn Maki is Executive Secretary of Alberta and Northwest Conference.

Women’s groups no longer need to build hospitals but they are still an important part of every healthy congregation. They offer friendship and support to members while giving them an opportunity to work towards common goals. They offer a ministry of caring through support for those who are ill or bereaved. Some congregations now include a parish nurse on their staff.

In addition to the leadership roles they now play, women carry on their historic roles, teaching Sunday School, leading youth groups such as CGIT, playing the piano, singing in the choir, and fundraising for missions and social service agencies, colleges and chaplaincies as well as for local congregations and the Mission and Service fund. They still bake pies and cookies, sew quilts and crafts, organize study groups, raise awareness of political issues, cater to weddings, funerals and community suppers—and then do the dishes! And they know how to have fun together, as anyone who has seen some of their skits can attest!

In 1915, Mrs. George Bremner wrote of the Presbyterian women: “Someday someone may give to these noble women the place in history they deserve, and pen a worthy tribute to their devotion and self-sacrifice.” Since then, nearly 100 years have passed and women’s stories are still often ignored or unreported. A national church initiative, “Making Room for Women in the Archives,” hopes to ensure that many of the stories are preserved so that when someone finally does pen the stories, they will be available for study.

The 2008 United Church Annual Report affirms that:

“Ours is a rich and vital legacy of faith and of faith in action. Our work has sustained countless thousands of people in Canada and throughout the world,” to which the women of the church can say, “Amen!”

Edmonton writer and historian Gayle Simonson is a member of the board of the Alberta and Northwest Conference Historical Society. She is the author of Ever-Widening Circles: A History of St. Stephen's College. She is currently continuing research on a number of women from Alberta history