Isobel Constance Rae was born in her grandmother’s house in Toronto in 1910. She grew up in Toronto and Newmarket, Ontario, and entered nursing at Grace Hospital in Toronto, graduating in 1929. She married Fred Benham in 1933. At that same time she became ill with tuberculosis. Her infant son died in 1933 and she spent four years in Sanatoriums in Hamilton and Weston, Ontario. She was able to return to nursing in 1937 and nursed Fred, who died in 1938.
After Fred’s death, Isobel volunteered at the Chinese United Church in Toronto, working with a group of young girls. In 1943 she began her studies at the United Church Training School (UCTS) and graduated in 1945 in a class of 20 other women who would impact the mission and ministry of the United Church of Canada in many fields at home and abroad.
Isobel’s first appointment, as a Deaconess Candidate, was as an Assistant lay pastor to Colborne St. United Church in Brantford. She worked alongside Bev Oaten, who was the ordained minister at Colborne St. from 1941 to 1952 and visionary for, and first Director of, the Five Oaks Christian Worker’s Education Centre in Paris, Ontario.
It was customary for women to serve as a Deaconess Candidate for one year prior to being designated. Isobel’s designation however was postponed because in the summer of 1946 she was away, serving as the hostess, Co-Director and nurse at a Student Christian Movement “Student in Agriculture Work Camp” in St. Vital (now part of Winnipeg) Manitoba. (For more information on the Camps see The Story of Howland House)
The purpose of these camps was to bring University students together to live as a cooperative Christian community and at the same time to work in factories. The non-working hours of the students would then be directed to study and community interests. Bev Oaten was a key actor in the emergence of these volunteer service work camps through the Canadian Work Camp Committee and then the Christian Work Camp Fellowship. Bev, along with Isobel’s UCTS classmate, Eunice Pyform, who was a co-leader in the movement, encouraged Isobel’s participation. Living in an onion warehouse, Isobel worked with 13 students as well as 4 Japanese Canadians who had been relocated from British Columbia to Winnipeg. The students worked on sugar beet farms.
Isobel was designated as a United Church of Canada Deaconess by Hamilton Conference, May 28, 1947. That summer, Deaconess Benham was the Cook at the Dixie (now part of Mississauga, Ontario) Work Camp. It was there that she met a Scottish widower, Reverend Norrie Anderson, Associate Minister at Old St. Andrew’s in Toronto. Norrie and Isobel married in June, 1948 and November, 1948 the Committee on the Deaconess Order minutes acknowledge her marriage and she is “disjoined” from the Deaconess Order because of it.
The couple travelled by boat to Scotland in 1950 where Norrie was an interim minister. Isabel contributed to Norrie’s parish work, leading youth and girl’s groups and filling in in the pulpit on short notice when he was taken ill. Tragically, Norrie died in Lairg, Scotland April 30, 1952 and Isobel was again a widow. When Isobel died The Northern Times and Weekly Journal for Sutherland and the North (November 19, 1999) commented, “In 1950 Norrie and Isobel Anderson came to Scotland. … Early in 1951 Norrie Anderson became indisposed one weekend. No-one could be found to take his place in the pulpit at such short notice, until Isobel offered her service – undoubtedly the first woman to preach there, or indeed anywhere in the north of Scotland.”*
Following her husband’s death, Isobel moved to Edinburgh where she served for a short time as a Deaconess with the Church of Scotland, visiting and conducting services in hospitals there. From January 1953 to April 1954 she was a Dormitory Matron at King Edward’s School in Witley, Surrey, in England. It is not clear if this was a position normally undertaken by Deaconesses. However, deaconesses were paid very low wages and Isobel may have taken this position, if it were a secular one, to earn more money. She did have to borrow money from her family when, in July, 1954, she returned to Canada by boat.
Isobel initially volunteered her services at Five Oaks Centre and then took a refresher course in nursing. She intended to return to her calling as a Deaconess but worked as a nurse in order to repay some debts (in Canada Deaconesses earned only 2/3 of what nurses did). She joined the nursing staff at Lambert Lodge, in Toronto, where she worked for 14 years, the last six as Director of Nursing. Isobel never regained her Deaconess status.
When she worked at Lambert Lodge she “traveled to Aberdeen, Oslo, Stockholm and Amsterdam to inquire into the care and treatment of the elderly and take part in a geriatric symposium” according to her Scottish obituary.
In 1969 she retired from nursing to care for her mother and she was very active in the United Church Women and other volunteer work at her St. Andrew’s United Church congregation in Toronto. In 1982 she had a seriously debilitating stroke. She stayed in her own home for 5 years, working hard on rehabilitation, then she was in a series of Senior’s Homes (Isobel in her senior years) until her death September 5, 1999.
*This is an example of how women’s lives are rendered invisible by the assumption commonly made that until very recent times women did not play public leadership roles in the church. In the Church of Scotland women were commissioned as deaconesses from 1888, although not officially allowed to preach until 1949, roughly coinciding with Isobel’s preaching at Dornoch Catherdral. She may have been the first woman preacher at the Cathedral, which currently (2012)has a woman minister. However, the Salvation Army, who ordained women preachers from the beginning, established a presence in northern Scotland in the 1880s. The Methodists established churches and evangelistic missions in Northern Scotland by 1761. John Wesley allowed for women to be preachers from the inception of the movement, and many women did preach, so it is likely that women took the pulpit in some Scottish churches prior to the mid-20th century.
This profile was written by Caryn Douglas from material provided by Betsy Anderson, Toronto, who is one of Isobel’s grandchildren, January 2012.