Iris (Daly) Milton died all too young, at age of 59, in 1983. Iris was a “clergy wife”, one of the hundreds of women educated for ministry at the United Church Training School who subsequently became trained volunteers, as the church got “two for the price of one”. This sentiment was verbalized, with no shame, by pastoral charges, happy to be the recipients of such largess. The sentiment was even part of the campaign to recruit women for the school and the diaconate. Amazing as it might seem in our century, those were the exact words on the vocational materials produced by the United Church: two for the price of one.
Iris left her home in Winnipeg to enter UCTS in 1944 and graduated two years later. After graduation she was commissioned as a missionary by the Woman’s Missionary Society. Her first appointment was in the Thunder Bay District in a larger presbytery ministry called Lake Head Mission, where she served from 1946 to 1951. “Thousands of teenage girls and their leaders in the Canadian Girls in Training Movement in Ontario will remember Iris’ outstanding leadership skills,”[i] wrote Nancy Edwards in a tribute to Iris.
In 1954, Iris was designated as a Deaconess by Toronto Conference. I do not know why she made this decision; further research with her family might help to bring light on her vocational choice. She was perhaps then working as the Girl’s Secretary for the Ontario Council of Christian Education, in Toronto. At any rate she is employed there after becoming a Deaconess. In 1956, “Iris became National Supervisor of the Sunday School in the Home by Mail and Air. Her cheerful “Hello, boys and girls, Sunday School in the Home brings you Tell Us A Story”, together with a well-researched bible drama, was welcomed in villages, farms, lighthouses and hospitals.”[ii] This work was of such note, that her appointment is announced in the Observer, followed a year later by a short article. (Click here to view Observer articles)
Through the Sunday School in the Home by Mail and Air, the United Church takes weekly Sunday School lessons to children all across Canada, from Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island to Cartwright on the northeast tip of Labrador, and as far north as Yellowknife, N.W.T. This work is supervised and financed by an InterBoard Committee representing The United Church Publishing House, the Board of Home Missions, The Woman’s Missionary Society and the Board of Christian Education. In 1955 there were 2,382 families enrolled with approximately 6,500 children. These families contributed about $1,500 to the cost of the supplies which they receive. According to the ages of the children they receive every week graded lesson helps and story papers such as are used in regular Sunday Schools. The parents get a quarterly magazine specially edited for them called The Family Teacher. The Committee produces in co-operation with the Board of Information and Stewardship a weekly programme for children called, “Tell Us a Story,” which is now heard on 21 radio stations. The National Supervisor is Miss Iris Daly.[iii]
Construction on the foundations of the women’s movement that flourishes in the later part of the century began in the 1950s. One brick in the wall of discrimination under examination was the disjoining rule for Deaconesses, whereby they were required to leave the Order upon marriage. From the beginning of the Deaconess Orders they were only for single women. The story is complex, but briefly, as early as 1953 the Committee on the Deaconess Order and Women Workers were prepared to move forward an amendment to the rules of the Order eliminating the practice that they cited as no longer appropriate with the changing roles for women in society. (Click here for more on Disjoining) Blocked though by dissenting voices and then slowed down in anticipation of a complete overhaul of women’s ministries, proposed changes languished. The Committee however, began to grant short term exemptions to the rule. The practice was not advertised among the women, but for those who got wind, it became an option. Iris was one of those women in the know. When she married Reverend Charles Milton, June 29, 1957 in Winnipeg, she wrote to Tena Campion, the Secretary of the Order asking for an exemption from the disjoining rule. It was granted for the duration of the time she was in her current employment.
Two interesting things then happen in 1960. The General Council decides to eliminate the disjoining for marriage rule, YET, Iris disappears from the Deaconess List. I expect that she was disjoined, and it is entirely possible that she was disjoined because of her marriage, as this practice continued for at least another 8 years. However, because of Iris’ actions to get an exemption, it seems likely that she would have been aware of the General Council decision, and could have advocated for herself. (Many women were unaware that the rule had been revoked, with evidence this was true as late as 1965.) What is more likely is that she was disjoined for another reason. Cessation of work with the church also resulted in disjoining. Status could only be maintained when working for the United Church, or in para-church work that the Deaconess Committee approved, such as YWCA, Canadian Council of Churches, Sunday School by Air and Mail, and so on. Iris and Charles had two children, she may have stopped working to undertake childcare. The Church feared two things about Deaconesses: that married women working would destroy the family, and, that Deaconess might be considered to be ministers. While movement on the first fear happened in 1960, shaking loose the grip on the second took another couple of decades.
Ministry was essentially the work of men, even after the United Church began to ordain single women in 1936. Deaconesses were lay women, they were never considered to be in ministry. The rules of the Order were clear from the very beginning: “[Upon completion of the course of studies, and a suitable appointment, women shall be designated.] Such designation, however, is not to be regarded as ordination, nor shall any pledge of perpetual service be exacted, but each worker shall be free to retire from her work upon notice duly given to the Committee under whose direction she is labouring.” [iv] In fact, the responsibilities of the Order would customarily be defined as, “all aspects of church work except for ministry.” Allowing women to retain their status would be admitting something life-long about their vocation, and, theologically speaking, it would have acknowledged something ontological about designation as a Deaconess. But the removal of the disjoining rule for marriage is a step on the pathway towards shifting the diaconate from a lay Order to an Order of Ministry. Only a few years after Iris is disjoined, some women are retained in the Order by Presbyteries even though they are not working, particularly in the west, where the traditional grasp on clericalism is eased sooner than in the east.
Interestingly, in 1976, 6 years before the Order of Diaconal Ministry evolves officially out of the Deaconess Order, Iris appears again in church records as a Deaconess. She is retained by Winnipeg Presbytery, without a ministry appointment, but recognized as a Deaconess. There is no record in the 1976 Manitoba Conference Record of Proceedings reporting her reinstatement, she simply appears.[v] Confusion rather than clarity surrounded the treatment of Deaconesses in early 1960s and it continued for quite a while. Possibly Iris was able to convince Manitoba Conference or Winnipeg Presbytery that she had never been disjoined, or perhaps her reinstatement occurred in another presbytery. Again, it would take more digging in the records or memories of families to confirm what happened.
In 1980 Iris joins her husband Charles and Deaconess Oriole Veldhuis in a team ministry at Deer Lodge United Church in Winnipeg. Iris is responsible for Christian Education in the team, with Oriole handling Pastoral Care and Charles the worship leader. While serving in this role Iris died on July 3, 1983.
This obituary by Norma Fox appeared in the Record of Proceedings for Manitoba Conference (1984) (I have not edited this obituary which has some errors, for example, the date of her designation)
Iris Doreen Milton (nee Daly) was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1924. Her life was one of service and love for her fellow humankind. She was tolerant, compassionate and loving. A devoted daughter, wife and mother. A friend and teacher of great strength. She is missed by all who knew her.
As a young girl she became interested in the CGIT movement and worked with that organization at Harrow United Church in Winnipeg. She was commissioned and designated as a Deaconess in 1946 at the United Church Training College in Toronto, and worked in the Thunder Bay, Ontario, area as a Missionary-at-Large for the Women’s Missionary Society (W.M.S.) until 1951. She served on the Council of Christian Education, Sunday School in Home, by mail and air, and remained always interested in that field.
Earlier in her career she had been Executive Secretary of the Ontario Girls Work Board in Toronto for a period of several years and she was at one time field work supervisor in the Centre for Christian Studies.
In 1957 she married the Rev. Charles A. Milton, and together they served charges in Mansfield and Keswick in Ontario, then came to Deer Lodge United Church in Winnipeg, where in 1980 she became Director of Christian Education for that congregation. She was active in Winnipeg Presbytery and became a valued member of the Christian Development Council. She played an important role as Secretary for the Conference Interview Board until the time her illness forced her retirement.
My association with Iris came when she arrived at Deer Lodge. We both were members of the Association of Professional Church Workers and enjoyed our meetings each month. She was a delight to be with and an inspiration in our Bible Studies. She was a wonderful teacher and her patience knew no bounds. She had an understanding heart for seniors and in my work in Nursing Homes I found her counsel a great help.
Her husband Charles, son David, and daughter Janet must miss her shining presence greatly, but those of us who called her friend feel a great void in our lives too. We will be forever grateful that we were privileged to have known Iris Milton.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, January 2013.
 The church only ordained single women until 1957, and there were very few ordained women prior to the mid 1970s
[i] Quoting Nancy Edwards in The Newsletter, Historic Issue 1988, The Association of Professional Churchworkers, p 102.
[iii] The United Church Observer, January 1, 1957, pg 27.
[iv] Report of the Deaconess Committee and Board of the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1924 pg 178
[v] Examining Winnipeg Presbytery minutes and the minutes of the Conference’s Education, Students and Vocations Committee could reveal more detail. The Conference of Manitoba’s Education, Students and Vocations Committee does put forward a motion to reinstate Elaine (Harland) Frazer) May 22, 1975, which is approved by the Executive. Record of Proceedings, 1975, p 69.