Frances Grogan traveled east from the farming community of Treherne, Manitoba to enter the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home in 1911 and graduated with a two year diploma in 1913. She was Designated as a Deaconess by the Presbytery of Toronto April 4, 1913. She then headed to the west coast to an appointment at Mount Pleasant Presbyterian Church, in Vancouver. She was the first Deaconess employed by the congregation. It must have been an exciting time as an impressive, and large, new building had been opened only 4 years before.
In the 1914 report to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church from the Deaconess Committee, Frances describes her first year. (While the extracts from Reports of Deaconesses are anonymous, this one is identifiable from context to be that of newly appointed Deaconess Frances Grogan.)
From Vancouver this report: My initial work was a house to house canvass of the district, and out of the 2,800 doors called at, Presbyterian families who were strangers were reached, beside a new list of names of members and adherents made for the church. One also finds innumerable ways of helping needy ones in these visits, and although it often means a long series of calls, it is worth while if the family is reached. The Presbyterian immigrants who come to the district are under my care, and much time is spent following incorrect addresses, investigating and distributing relief to these families.
In 1915, Frances returned to her home province of Manitoba. She worked first for Knox Presbyterian Church, then doing Strangers’ Work under appointment of the Women’s Missionary Society, probably through Robertson House. Digging around in the Robertson House records might reveal more about Frances.
Strangers’ Work focused on work with immigrants and newcomers. Reports of this kind of work include “hanging around” in the train station to assist people upon arrival. For immigrants without English, a friendly face, willing to assist, was a blessing. Reports often recount the work of finding food and lodging for new arrivals, not just from overseas, but people on the move within the country. The Deaconesses helped runaways, and although the language is vague, it is clear that in many cases the runaways were fleeing abuse. The Deaconess found safe shelter for what was often girls and women. There are also stories of meeting unaccompanied orphans, as young as six, with only a badge pinned to their chest to give information about their destination.
Strangers’ work also involved visiting people in their homes. Well into the 1910s the conditions for Winnipeg’s poor were appalling, especially in the area known as “the north end”, north of the CPR tracks. Winnipeg’s medical health Officer Dr. Douglas likened conditions there to those of a medieval European city. A combination of ignorance and poverty was making people and especially children sick leading to the highest mortality rates in North America and Europe. Far too many people were living in slum housing conditions. Children were malnourished. And even where people understood about appropriate hygiene, the water was often unsafe. These conditions helped to set the stage for the 1919 General Strike.
In this setting, the women functioned much as what we would identify as social workers today. There was no expectation that the help offered be returned with Presbyterian, or later United Church, allegiance, but there was always the hope! As one Deaconess writing in 1917 put it:
It is essential that we [the Presbyterian Church] show these people that we have something far better to offer them than either the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic Churches in the way of practical Christianity. (Report of the Deaconess Committee and Board of the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home
The Deaconesses dispensed charity, but they also advocated for what few services were available for people. Another 1917 Deaconess report tells of a more cooperative approach with other Christians in the best interest of those in need:
[Another Deaconess] associates with the Protestant and Roman Catholic organizations for the district, and some of the warmest and most grateful friends are found in these families who appreciate the effort of the deaconess, who not only reports the case to the proper authorities, but, “keeps after them” until the needed help is obtained. “They never would hae done it, if you had not got after them,” said one, after a sad and very complicated condition of illness and destitution had been happily arranged.
In 1926, Frances is named as a Deaconess in the new United Church Order, but sometime after June of that year she married Rev. T.D. Barnett, of Cartwright, Manitoba and was disjoined from the Order, taking up the role of a trained clergy wife.
Biography written by Caryn Douglas, October 2012