Winnabell (Harper) Morrison


Alice Winnabell Morrison
Surname as Student: Harper
Education: United Church Training School

Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1897 - Born

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Alice Winnabell Harper, from Watford, in Southwestern Ontario, was the daughter of Isabella Stewart and Samuel L. Harper and one of 7 children (Annie, Bessie, Robert, James, John and Frank).   Winnabell’s home church was Erie St. Methodist Church, later Ontario St. United Church. She entered the Methodist National Training School in 1925 and graduated from the United Church Training School in 1927, (Convocation Bulletin) in the heady days of church union.  Winnabell was awarded the “Deaconess Aid” prize of $50.00 at the Convocation.

Winnifred Thomas, Secretary for the new United Church Deaconess Order, formed in 1926 when the Methodist and Presbyterian Orders were amalgamated, traveled to the western provinces in 1927 where, “In all I met 38 Deaconesses and 71 other women who are giving full time service to the United Church.” (Report in United Church Archives). She doesn’t mention Winnabell by name, but she did visit Regina, where Winnabell had just been appointed to serve as the Deaconess at Metropolitan United Church.  Winnifred wrote in her report:

“These women [deaconesses], some nearing the end of their years of service and others quite young, are filling very responsible positions.  Their work consists largely of congregational visiting and leadership in Religious Education, though several do a certain amount of secretarial work.  The churches seem to want those who can do all of these phases of work, but above all, want those who can see the needs of today, and in loyal cooperation with the pastor, can help in making the Church a real factor in meeting those needs.”

Winnabell was one of a series of Deaconesses at Metropolitan Methodist/United Church.[1]  Elsie Smith served the congregation from 1919 to 1922, and Nellie Barker (Parker), (1924-1927) immediately preceded Winnabell.  Nellie not only left the position at Metropolitan, she left the Deaconess Order, as she was “disjoined” because she got married, like so many of the women trained for service. The same fate awaits Winnabell, and ends her professional ministry career as well.

Population growth in the mid-1920s was strong in Regina and the membership of Metropolitan grew from 756 in 1923 to over 1,000 by the end of the decade.  The work of the Deaconess in this period was focused on Christian Education, especially with children.  At the 4th Conference of the Deaconess Order, held in Toronto, in June, 1930, Winnabell likely listened with keen interest as Ruby Brown, Deaconess at Zion United Church in Brantford, gave a presentation on “the work of the deaconess in the uptown congregation.  She pointed out that this worker has many problems, in spite of the larger budgets, not the least of which is the problem of representing a spiritual outlook on life as over against a materialistic viewpoint.”  It would seem like the church was struggling with the same issues as century ago that challenge it today.

In 1927, the congregation employed an ordained pastor, an associate minister (part time, shared with a teaching position at Regina College), a church secretary and caretaker, as well as the full time Deaconess. There were also several paid musicians.  The congregation was prospering.  The work of the Deaconess was primarily in Christian Education, called Boys’ and Girls’ Work.  Since there was a church secretary, Winnabell likely was not expected to take on clerical duties. (Photo of 1926 Sunday School class.)

Music was key to the identity of the congregation, with a sanctuary known for its acoustics.  As Winnabell arrived the Darke Memorial Chimes were being installed and dedicated.  The congregation had just recovered from the financial burden of destruction caused in the horrific tornado of 1912, which virtually destroyed the core of Regina.  Optimism was in the air, and no one would have predicted the decade of drought and depression that was around the corner.  The combined salaries of the minister, the Deaconess, the secretary and the caretaker, in 1931 was $6,448, but the next year that was reduced to $5,406.  Perhaps it was that new economic reality that prompted, or required, Winnabell to move. She took a position as Deaconess at Kew Beach United Church in Toronto in the summer of 1932.

From this point in her career Winnabell changes positions frequently.  It is always dangerous to make an argument from nothing, since I have not come across any description of her work, but perhaps her short stay could be an issue of competency.

In a letter written by Jean MacDonald, Principal of UCTS, to Winnifred Thomas, the Secretary for the Committee on Employed Women Workers in the Church, June 14, 1927, she wrote,

Alice Winnabell Harper has completed a Two year course of study and has won the diploma for the General Course, with special study in Religious Education.  She has shown good intellectual ability and gives evidence of a spiritual experience essential for her chosen work.  She has qualities that mean success in practical service – a deep sincerity and a quiet strength of purpose.  From temperament and from environment Miss Harper may not be adapted to every type of congregation but she should prove a very effective worker indeed in most situations.  Like many people Miss Harper has some obvious defects or hindrances but she is heartily recommended as worthy to be admitted as a candidate to the Deaconess Order.

To put the above in context all the other women who “won the diploma” described by Jean are “heartily recommended” without any hedging about their weaknesses.  Counter to the assessment made by the school Principal, Winnabell did serve in Regina for five years, and may only have left because of money.  She later is hired back to a congregation after a time away, not likely to have happened if there was concern about her work.

In the early years of the Order, (before and after Church union) Deaconesses did move frequently. It was topic of conversation among them, and as this excerpt from the report of the   2nd Annual Conference of the Deaconess Order of the Methodist Church of Canada, held in Toronto October, 1924, indicates, it may have been an intentional strategy to maximize the effectiveness of the Deaconess:

Speaking for long appointments, Miss [Annie] Richardson said, “The deaconess should be a connecting link between the need and those who are willing to help. She knows who are the strangers and can make them feel at home.” Miss Moffatt for short appointments: She spoke of the itinerancy having been a great power in the church. “Should not the deaconess be willing to be part of that plan and thus serve the church in a more helpful way?” An interesting discussion followed. The general impression left, being that the shorter appointment was preferable and more advantageous to the church.

However, more likely the continual concerns voiced in the community about job security, accounted for some of the moves. After her tour of Deaconess appointments in 1927, Secretary Winnifred Thomas noted that there was a need for a more assured future for all women workers, including Deaconesses, although she was confident that there are jobs for women because of the increase in number of full time positions opening up, and the “frequent openings occasioned by the withdrawal of the present staff members”.  She does not name explicitly that disjoining is the main cause of the loss of personnel, and offers no critique of the practice which was universally accepted as the normal course of events for woman, at least middle class women. (more on the Disjoining Story) She does however cite the low salary at entry and even more importantly, the lack of increase over time for women who remain in service and need retirement income, as a key problem for attracting and retaining women.

For whatever reason, in 1933, a year after arriving in Toronto, Winnabell inquires about work outside of the church.  The Deaconess Committee responds: “It was agreed to inform Miss Harper of the regulations regarding membership in the Deaconess Order and suggest she make formal application for a leave of absence in order to serve the Department of Family Welfare in Toronto.” [2]

Deaconesses were lay women, they were never considered to be in ministry.  In fact, the responsibilities of the Order would sometimes be defined as, “all aspects of church work except for ministry.”  Ministry was essentially the work of men, even after the United Church begins to ordain single women in 1936.[3]  The disclaimer continues, even though by the 1940s many deaconesses are serving as the only paid staff in pastoral charges, performing all of the functions of ministry except conducting sacraments.  The vocation of Deaconess was regarded as temporary, argued on a theological principle that a woman’s God given primary vocation was that of wife and mother.  Complimenting this understanding was the sociological view that women were incapable of sustaining two vocations at the same time.  Once a woman was married therefore, other vocational pursuits must be ended.  This line of rationale successful fed the patriarchal analysis of sacrament (communion and baptism) as the most powerful expression of Christianity. This, yoked with the restriction that only men could provide sacramental leadership, ensured men’s power.

Another consequence of the temporary nature of the diaconate, was that Deaconesses could be disjoined if they were not employed by the Church, unlike their ordained colleagues who held the office for life regardless of their occupation[4].  The rules of the Order make explicit the expectations:

Should a deaconess be without appointment because of illness or home duties; or through engaging, by permission of the Board in some work other than under the United Church for a period of two years, it will be the duty of the Committee responsible for the supervision of the Deaconess Order to inquire into the case, and, should they deem it wise, to request that the deaconess withdraw from the Order … [5]

In Winnabell’s case, the Committee decides she be granted a leave and continued in the Order a few months later.[6]  But Winnabell’s employment with the Department of Family Welfare only lasted two years. She returned to Kew Beach United Church for one year then in 1937 she moved to St. Andrew’s United Church in Sydney, Nova Scotia, where she served until 1941.  Leaving Cape Breton, she spends a year at Queen Street United Church in Toronto.

In 1943, Winnabell moved to Wesley United Church in Montreal.  There she might have found community among the other Deaconesses and Women Workers who had a local group of about 17 members. They held monthly meetings for community and education, which always included worship. The following are some topics the Montreal group explored the year before Winnabell arrived in the Presbytery:  “News of Current Interest”,  Exchange of New Year stories, Aims and Purposes of the Student Christian Movement”, Case work presented by a worker in Family Welfare, The Situation of the Japanese Church”, social evening entertaining the heads of Mission Boards Missionary Committees and officials of Montreal Presbytery, settlement work in Downtown Montreal, and, the work done in the Girls’ Industrial School.[7]

The next year Winnabell makes her last move as a Deaconess, this time to Dominion United Church in Ottawa, Ontario.  It must have been a year of mixed emotion for Winnabell. In September of 1944 her mother dies.  In August 1945 she is married to the Rev. Donald Morrison[8], trading in her Deaconess hat and pin for the vocation of a clergy wife, joining the ranks of 100s of her sisters.

When Winnabell’s brother Robert dies in 1976, his obituary notes that he was predeceased by his sisters.


This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, July 2012

[1] Details on the congregation are drawn from Let The Bells Ring, Knox-Metropolitan United Church, Regina 1882-1982, An Illustrated History by Dorothy Hayden.

[2] November 27, 1933 Minutes of the Committee on the Deaconess Order and Women Workers, United Church of Canada Archives.

[3] The church only ordained single women until 1957, and there were very few ordained women prior to the mid 1970s.

[4] In the United Church even if an ordained minister is disallowed from working in the church for disciplinary reasons, they still remain ordained.

[6] February 19, 1934 Minutes of the Committee on the Deaconess Order and Women Workers, United Church of Canada Archives.

[7] Minutes of the Joint Conference The Deaconess Association and The Fellowship of Professional Women, Hamilton, ON June 1942 (10th Conference of Deaconess Association, 1st Conference Fellowship), The United Church Archives.

[8] St. Thomas, Ontario paper August 21, 1945  Married –   Rev Donald Morrison, son of Roderick Morrison to Alice Winnabell Harper, daughter of Samuel J. Harper. Donald Morrison is not on the historic list of United Church ministers, perhaps he was Presbyterian.