Sylvia (South) Bell


Sylvia Bell, BA, BRE
Surname as Student: South
Education: Covenant College
Graduation Year: 1966
Designated: 1966
Where: Hamilton Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1935 - Born

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In an article in the United Church Observer (2001) about retired United Church ministers, “retired” diaconal minister, Sylvia (South) Bell explains that after retiring she wanted to give herself six months to “not join things”, although she did confess to going to Presbytery. I am not sure how successful she was in adhering to her own promise, but more than ten years into her retirement it cannot be said of Sylvia that she is not joining things. She is a familiar and welcomed face in the work of faith-full justice in her southern Georgian Bay community.

In these past ten years, I have grown to know Sylvia as a friend and mentor. Long before I had discerned my own call into diaconal ministry, but hired as the staff associate to work with children in our church, Sylvia had taken me under her wing and nurture. Sensitive to my feelings of being out of my field of experience and knowledge, Sylvia introduced me to various people and resources that would support me and my ministry. When needed, she would simply meet me for lunch and listen. Throughout my path in ministry, Sylvia has been an ally.

While Sylvia listened, championed and supported me, I had actually learned relatively little of her own path and past. It made perfect sense then that I discover more about the woman who has been instrumental in my diaconal journey – and Sylvia was more than happy to oblige.

Sylvia’s entry into diaconal ministry began with another woman who “invited” Sylvia into the work of the church. Isabelle was the Christian Education Director at Christ Church, Clarkson (Mississauga, Ontario). When Isabelle was about to marry, her position was to be left vacant and she turned to Sylvia to take her place. Sylvia applied, got the job and then worked there for two years training Sunday school teachers, facilitating a youth group, and visiting congregants. As Sylvia describes it, she “found herself in that job.” She also realised that she wanted to be qualified and so looked to formal, higher education. At the advice of friends, she sought an Arts degree at McMaster University. In this milieu, Sylvia also found herself in the excitement of learning. As she says, “Whatever course I was taking, was my favourite.” During the summers of those years, she trained leaders for Vacation Bible School across Ontario, worked on a mission field in Saskatchewan, and even traveled to Tanzania with Crossroads Africa where she worked with Mozambican refugees. All of the Americans in her work team had been at the March on Washington. “I was ignited,” remembers Sylvia.

Following her Arts program, Sylvia went immediately to Covenant College (1964-66). It was the middle of the civil rights movement and Sylvia’s class was deeply involved. Describing them as well traveled and “highly politicized”, Sylvia remembers them being passionately argumentative – more of politics and human rights than what would have conventionally been thought of as theology! The hymns that they sang were the hymns of the times: “If I had a Hammer” and “We Shall Overcome”.  Sylvia was a popular classmate, appreciated for her friendliness and the depth of experience she brought.  She was the valedictorian in her graduating year. (To read the text of her speech click here.)

In 1966 Sylvia was designated as a Deaconess by Hamilton Conference and hired as the Deaconess with responsibility for Christian Education by St. Paul’s United Church in Hamilton.  But within a year married life came her way and priorities changed. Providing a home of nurture and love for her minister husband and growing children (both biological and foster) became a compelling part of her focus and Sylvia relinquished her diaconal status. Nevertheless, Sylvia continued to live out the life of a dedicated diaconal minister, although somewhat in the guise of a “clergy wife”.  In the 1960s there was still a defined role and expectation for women married to ordained men, although the attitudes were beginning to change.  Sylvia was just one of dozens of women, trained themselves for ministry, who became a particular breed of clergy wife.

Along with husband, Donald Bell, Sylvia was involved in new church development in Mississauga where they facilitated family clusters groups. These groups were gatherings of various family configurations in which they would meet, share a meal and have some kind of programming. Multi-generations would mix and mingle and learn about and from each other and develop lasting friendships. Later, when Sylvia’s family moved to Ottawa and after that to Sudbury, family clusters would also be organized. As she observed, eventually it would become difficult for families to commit to the time required. A sign of the times?

At the age of fifty, Sylvia realised that she wanted to do more to respond to her sense of call. She also wanted to return to paid ministry. In 1985 she was hired as a Staff Associate, in a team position alongside Don, at St. Andrews United Church in Sudbury.  Following her passion for Christian Education, she pursued the job of Christian Education minister at St. Stephens-on-the-Hill United Church in Mississauga the next year.  Her call coincided with her reinstatement to the diaconate which had evolved from a lay order of Deaconesses into an Order of Ministry.  She became a Diaconal Minister.

At St. Stephens on the Hill, having identified the need to support and empower Sunday school teachers in their faith formation and sense of confidence in sharing that faith, Sylvia met the challenge by facilitating Bible studies, including discussions on upcoming themes. She further supported adult eduction in leading the Kerygma Study. After a year in an Interim Minister position at Eden United Church, in 1993 Sylvia took up a ministry focused on pastoral care at Eglinton (later Eglinton-St. George’s) United Church in Toronto.  She served there until her retirement in 2000.

While achieving success in the ministry of Christian Education, Sylvia recognized that she also wanted to be a part of worship leadership. There is an all too pervasive sentiment that if one is in Christian Education, one is the “kiddies’ minister” – and not “where the action is”. It is one of the reasons, Sylvia has observed, that some diaconal ministers return to theological college to go through for ordained ministry. Changing her status was not on Sylvia’s mind but she would, and still does, find opportunities to lead worship as she understands worship leadership to be part of a diaconal call.

Now in her retirement, Sylvia has been welcomed as both interim and guest minister in a number of pastoral charges in the area. Even as she has done so her ministry has extended far outside the hour of worship on a Sunday morning. Among other justice-making initiatives, Sylvia’s sense of call has moved her to be an active member of the local Amnesty International group.  Her work in supporting diaconal candidates and students at the Centre for Christian Studies is also an important ministry.

Sylvia’s marriage dissolved several years ago. Although this event in her life was deeply painful, she has, nonetheless, moved on to make a spirited life for herself. And she continues to learn. In her home church in Thornbury, Ontario, she is exploring Celtic theology and its deep connection with nature. Her own theology has evolved into understanding creation not as a one-time event, but as on-going – still to be revealed. One gets the sense with Sylvia, that there is a great deal more for her to explore and question; more to reveal in the world and within herself.

This biography was written by Ingrid Remkins in 2011 for an assignment at the Centre for Christian Studies, edited by Caryn Douglas.