Alma (Gomez) Heller


Alma Heller
Surname as Student: Gomez
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1956
Designated: June 10, 1956
Where: Toronto Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1928 - Born
  • 1956 - Graduated, June 10, 1956
  • 1967 - Withdrew

  • 1956-1960: United Church Deaconess, Grace United Church, Brampton, ON
  • 1964: Teaching

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Alma Gomez was designated as a United Church of Canada Deaconess on June 10, 1956 by Toronto Conference. The United Church turned 31 that day, and Alma was 27, but Alma’s involvement with the church had only begun a few years before.

Alma was born September 15, 1928, and she grew up “all over the place” as her father, a violinist and teacher moved frequently. Her father because of negative experiences in school as a young person, “didn’t approve of church” and the family did not attend.

When Alma was ten her family moved to Vancouver and then settled down. After high school and a few years as an office employee, she went to Normal school. A year later she was teaching primary. At the time the expectation was that one year of Normal school would be followed with one year of University to get a full teaching certificate so she began taking courses at night school. It was at this time that she checked out Chalmers United Church in Vancouver. Brought up in a musical family, she was drawn into joining the choir and her religious education began.

Her interests at Chalmers developed quickly and she was part of a group from the choir who got a Young Peoples program underway. “We would watch for young people in the evening congregation and immediately after the service we would go and speak to them and get them interested in Young Peoples. … I got very involved, twice during the Easter break I went on tours, into the Kootenays and the Okanagan, promoting Young Peoples, it was a lot of fun.” Alma also attended Young Peoples camp. “It was a very formative time for me. Again, music drew me into a growing Christian faith. We sang in four part harmony, hymns, Lift Your Voices songs, hiking songs … Some missionaries were there, a couple, I don’t remember their names, and after they saw my leadership they talked to me about church work. I had never thought of it before … I guess a seed was planted.”

Back in Vancouver Alma was feeling that she needed more bible background to be engaged in the teaching she was doing and she approached the minister. She organized the group and he led the class. Alma had good organizational skills, a strength that continued in her ministry. The study group helped her to discern her future and she decided to apply to The United Church Training School (UCTS). Alma didn’t know what kind of church work she was being called to do; she wanted to go to the school and anticipated that her path would become clear as she studied.

Her application to the school was accepted in 1953 but the class was full so she had to wait until 1954 to travel across the country to Toronto and start her studies. UCTS “was a wonderful place to be”. She was in the class that moved into the brand new building at 77 Charles St. “Over Christmas we made the move from the old to the new,” Alma remembers. That journey could serve as a metaphor for Alma’s growth at UCTS.

Alma described the move and life in the new school in a letter she wrote February 13, 1955. “We are in the new school now. … The four of us left New Year’s Eve (including Miss Christie [the Principal who lived in the school residence too] celebrated in my room, number 315 with hamburgers and ginger ale.”

Remembering back over 50 years ago, Alma recalls, “We had 3 marvelous teachers, [Katharine Hockin, Harriet Christie and Jean Hutchinson] were so very, very good.” Alma was grouped with the other UCTS students who were in the joint University program at Emmanuel College for her New Testament course, led by Jean Hutchinson. Jean taught the course using the “Sharman Method”, a program that was introduced to the Training School through the Student Christian Movement. The course encouraged students to engage in a critical approach to the scriptures, to question assumptions and to examine the gospel in a very contemporary way. The class was intellectually stimulating, and appealed particularly to students, like Alma, with a keen intellect. The students in the University program encouraged her to join them in their lectures with the theological students and she enjoyed the intellectual and theological growth she received through those experiences. “I loved the learning … there was so much to take in”, she remembers. “I really admired Katharine Hockin. It was hard to be close to her, but she could really make you think and I appreciated that.”

In addition to the regular classes, students participated in workshops, particularly on Christian Education themes. Again from her 1955 letter, “Last Saturday … we had a leadership training lab. The whole lab was led by Mr. Wilbur Howard. It was very good and I hope I get another chance to hear him speak. He really made us work and do things ourselves.” The students also had 6 hours of work in a congregational field placement. Alma was at Rosedale United Church.

Music played a big role in the life of the Training School and drew Alma into other activities. From the same letter, “On the lighter side I have been to another SCM square dance in January, there was a musical in the lecture hall in Emmanuel in which the Training School choir sang. We also sang as a combined Chapel Choir with Emmanuel Choir. … Last night the Chapel choir went to Peterborough [a two hour drive from Toronto] to sing at the special service closing a day of student ministers preaching on the call to the ministry. There were 15 churches in the Presbytery that had a student preach.”

For the Training School students in the two year program a summer field was required. Alma wrote in 1955, “I have been speaking to Miss Christie [the Principal] again about my summer work. [She] had asked me if I would be interested in working for the Woman’s Missionary Society to go around Ontario and maybe Quebec introducing the Mission Study for next year. … I have decided I will give it a try. … It will start the third week of May and go to the end of August. … I will certainly have a lot of preparation to do especially when I have no idea of CGIT work. The Mission Study will be on Home Mission.” Alma’s gifts as a public speaker, previous church experience and her teaching background enabled her to do this work well. “What I mostly remember though”, she recalls, “is that I learned how to drink my tea without sugar … the women were all trying to lose weight so they were going without sugar and I tried it too.”

Toward the end of her 2nd year she turned her attention to deciding what kind of church work she wanted to do. Her options included work as a trained lay professional, Commissioning as a WMS worker or Designation as a Deaconess. “I think I went to the school expecting not to be a Deaconess but I decided to join …the atmosphere at the Training School was a focus on dedication, you wanted to be connected, dedicated to the work, and really the emphasis, through Harriet Christie [who was the Principal] was that dedication could be shown best as a Deaconess. There were some who wanted to be missionaries, like Marion Pope, who was the year ahead of me [and went to Korea], but being a missionary was not the strong emphasis.”

It was also in this last year of her study that Alma experienced some deep emotional and spiritual stress. Harriet Christie responded seriously to Alma’s angst and suggested she see a psychologist but she didn’t want to do that. The staff questioned whether she was ready to proceed into the Deaconess Order but they decided that she could be recommended. In hindsight, Alma recognizes that her need to process issues in her life was great, but she was not ready at this time to do that.

After graduation and designation in 1956, she began her 4 years at Grace United Church in Brampton, ON. Brampton was expanding as a suburban community outside of Toronto, where farmland sprouted houses for growing baby boomer families. Part of her work was to go out into the community and meet with newcomers identified by the Welcome Wagon as United Church. While extending an invitation to join the church she was on the lookout for Sunday School volunteers. That seemed to be the only thing I could do to support the Sunday school. “It was very large, but I don’t think the congregation knew how to use me. They didn’t really know what to do with me. I was hardly in a Sunday school classroom, they were carrying on that work well without me. I thought, from the message at the Training School, that my work was supposed to be in Christian Education. I did work on Young Peoples, that is one area that I made a difference there, where I could make a contribution, but I felt frustrated, I really struggled with what I was supposed to do, both at Brampton and at Dunbar {the next congregation I served]. … I never got the idea that I could have a meeting with the minister and talk about what I should do. That advice wasn’t told to us at school, and I thought it would be, well it would be too, confrontational. Now I know that I should have just asked for a meeting, we could have talked it out, that is what I would do now. … In my last year there, the minister finally asked me to do some pastoral care. I really liked doing that, and I was good. I visited with people who were sick, where there had been a death, that kind of thing … When I was leaving the minister said to me that he had wanted me to do pastoral work from the beginning. I was so surprised to hear that. He said because I had talked only of CE in my initial interview, he didn’t approach me about it. It was really too bad, because I liked the pastoral work.”

Alma was a good public speaker and while she was at Brampton she had many opportunities to lead worship and preach at special services throughout the mostly rural Presbytery, such as women’s Thank Offering Services. She also took her place in the rotation of ministers taking services at Senior’s homes. “I liked preaching too, and people seemed to appreciate what I did in that way”, Alma reflects. “I remember at one Senior’s home I picked a hymn that was an altar call hymn I guess, and while we were singing it some people started to come to the front. It made me nervous and not what I had expected!” Alma’s opportunities to conduct worship and preach, like those of many Deaconesses, were only, at times when an ordained minister was unavailable or unwilling. Another memory is my participation in Humber Glen summer camp in 1959, where I was the director. The camp was a good experience for all involved.

A bicycle was Alma’s only means of transportation in Brampton, never having the money to buy a car, nor any occasion to learn to drive. One snowy winter day, she literally landed on the doorstep of a congregational member. The woman was very concerned for her wellbeing and organized for the church to extend to her an interest free loan so she could buy a car, deducting the loan payment from her pay cheque. She bought a Volkswagen in 1957 and the church secretary taught her how to drive. Her classmate, and fellow Deaconess, Geraldine Dearing (later Bould) invited her to Manitoulin Island to visit. “There was road construction all the way north and I was glad, so I made it to the Island in my new Volkswagon at 30 miles an hour much of the way.”

After 4 years Alma wanted to return to the west coast so she applied to Dunbar Heights United Church in Vancouver and began as their Deaconess in 1960. She appreciated the openness and honesty she found in the more laid back atmosphere of urban Vancouver.

Her work was primarily in Christian Education and working with the CE Committee there was a very positive experience. “I got to know the CE leaders but I felt isolated too. After I was installed [as the Deaconess] I was never in the morning service, I wasn’t asked to read a bible lesson or say a prayer. That was true at both Dunbar and Brampton. I was never seen in the role of leader and I didn’t get to meet the people. I did go to the evening service in Brampton, but it wasn’t the service where the parents attended. I didn’t get to contribute and I felt very isolated. I did ask, and they allowed me, to go to the Session meetings, so I could know what was going on. It wasn’t an automatic thing for the Deaconess to be included.”

Alma’s skills as an educational leader were recognized by the Presbytery and Conference. She participated in leadership in the Presbytery, for example, by introducing curriculum materials and with youth camps. She went to Naramata Centre to do workshops in their Winter Session program on Primary Sunday School. These opportunities were rewarding. Through the Conference, she was on a team with 2 ordained men and a ministry student who travelled from the lower mainland up to the Caribou and beyond to meet with young people, teachers and group leaders. The goals of the project were to promote church vocations, including diaconal ministry, but most importantly, to encourage young people to stay in school. At the time there was great concern that youth in the area where dropping out before getting a thorough education. She took her part in youth group discussions, meeting with ministers and other leaders to encourage and strategize and preaching about her work as a Deaconess.

The Deaconess community in Vancouver was large enough that a group met occasionally and Alma joined in when she could. Lily (Chin) Chow, one of her classmates is still a good friend. She worked at keeping the women connected, although she herself was not a Deaconess because she married. Many of Alma’s classmates married and left service after that, at least paid church work. Many married ministers and became minister’s wives expected to volunteer their time.

After 4 years at Dunbar Heights, Alma was anxious to complete her University degree. Going to school on a Deaconess salary was not possible and her evenings weren’t free to take University classes. In September 1964 she moved to Kitimaat Indian Village, BC to teach in the day School. Alma requested a leave of absence from the Deaconess Order, but Mrs. Campion, Secretary for the Order, explained that the Committee felt her work was within the scope of that of a Deaconess and would be considered an appointment. She continued to be active in the local church, teaching Sunday School. She was the theme speaker for a CGIT Rally in Hazelton. In the summers of 1965 and 66 she went to UBC. To complete her third year of University she moved back to Vancouver. It was during that year that she withdrew from the Deaconess Order.

Alma’s lingering psychological and spiritual distress resulted in her undertaking intense psycho-therapy. During this time of discovery, she determined that she needed to make a break from religion to do the necessary healing and she resigned in 1968 from The Deaconess Order. The United Church Chaplain at UBC helped to assure her that God would be accepting of this decision for the sake of her well-being. Alma remembers coming across a letter that the Deaconess Association sent to her saying how sorry they were that she had left the Order. This sentiment was shared by those in the Presbytery. From a letter to Alma from Vancouver South Presbytery Secretary, Rev. Redmond, June 8, 1968: “I write this letter, on behalf of the Presbytery, not only to let you know that your resignation as a Deaconess has been accepted; but also to express deep regret that you have felt it necessary to take this step. … Our Church, and the Christian world generally, so urgently needs gifted people like yourself. … I do pray that your career as a teacher will prove satisfying to you personally, and afford opportunities for further service in the Master’s Kingdom.”

Alma reflects, “When I left Dunbar I thought I would continue to be a Deaconess. But I needed to make the break, and the timing was right, but I did miss it too. I didn’t have much connection after that, only when [my classmate] Lily [Chow] would ask me to do things, and she told me what was up with people that I knew.”

After earning her degree, Alma returned to teaching in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. During her period of therapy she took up hiking, and on a hiking expedition she met Henry Heller. They were married in 1975. Alma retired then from teaching full time, and became a substitute teacher, first in Vancouver and then in Vernon when she and her husband moved there in 1980.

A year later her husband said to her, “you like singing, why don’t you join the church choir. Again, music drew me in.” She continues to be active at Trinity United Church in Vernon. Alma reflects, “[When I was younger] my faith was more intellectual than emotional or internalized. I have rediscovered my faith now as experiential; my faith plays a role in leading my life. I lacked the experiential part before but I didn’t really even know that. I am in a good place now.”

Alma acknowledges that women workers weren’t seen as ministers in the 50s and 60s, but she admits,
“Yes, I saw myself as a diaconal minister then. What I did was ministry, but I was missing that inner feeling, more of a strength that I have now. … God has been good to me.”

Based on an interview with Caryn Douglas, December 29, 2011