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 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.”
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.
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