Elizabeth Utting


Elizabeth (Bib) Mary Utting, B.Ed
Surname as Student: Utting
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1949
Designated: 1962
Where: British Columbia Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1916 - Born, January 26
  • 2002 - Died, May 7

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Elizabeth (Bib) Utting’s ministry was lived out through her vocation as a teacher. She was an affable person, with a good sense of humour. People liked to be with her.

Prior to attending the United Church Training School in 1947 Elizabeth taught for 8 years in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the community in which she was raised. Upon her graduation in 1949 she was Commissioned as a Missionary, and she accepted an appointment to Angola under the Woman’s Missionary Society.

Angola was a Portuguese colony and the Portuguese government had a less than welcoming attitude to the protestant missionary movement. The church personnel faced frequent road blocks in carrying out their work there. An initial hurdle was the requirement of a full year of language study in Portugal prior to being granted a visa, so Elizabeth’s first year was spent living in Portugal and studying the language. While Portuguese was the language used by officials, the village people spoke indigenous languages, so after reaching Angola in 1950 further language study in Umbundu was required. Elizabeth subsequently taught Portuguese in the Church Mission Schools. (Dondi Mission 1953) From her 1954 report in the WMS Annual publication, Missionaries Reporting: See a sketch of children done by Margaret Dawson)

It was almost like a United Nations School to hear them counting in four different languages, when I was present at the opening of our newest Central School in the Tembo area. One could call this new school an air-conditioned one, for while it had a substantial grass roof, the four side walls were merely sticks standing waiting to be plastered with mud. It was May and warm, but I fear that in the cold months of June and July and the wet months of November and December the children sitting on the logs on the mud floor will be uncomfortable and will find it hard to concentrate on school work. But at the time of the opening the enthusiasm of teacher and pupils was quite evident, even when they had to translate everything into four languages. This school is on the borders of several different tribes, and in the school are children from the Luimbi, Chokue, and Ovimbundu tribes and they all learn their lessons in the Portuguese language.

The missionaries (See photo Angolan Missionaries in 1950s) were highly committed to equipping the local people with the skills to take over their own education system. Elizabeth played a significant role in teacher training as she describes in her 1956 report:

In July, a visit to the Portuguese Government Normal School in Cuima spurred us on to do more teacher training, especially among those who are already teaching in the village schools but who have had very little, or in many cases, no teacher training. In August, 55 village school teachers gathered in the centre of Ulondo for a 3 weeks’ Refresher Course taught by Chesley Ervin, Margaret Dawson and myself. We all worked together in the two class-rooms of the adobe school. We wished to work in exactly the same environment as a village teacher would, so our equipment consisted of a blackboard, chalk, a table for the teacher’ and 3 benches for the children. New methods and new materials were presented but all were such that every teacher could reproduce them in his [sic] own school. The enthusiasm that followed after the first days of confusion was very gratifying. Already we have heard results from those who are trying to put into practice the new ideas gained from that conference. September found us in Bie repeating the same course in a conference with 45 different teachers of that area. In the two conferences we have helped 100 teachers. But that is only a beginning. In the Dondi area we have reached only about one-fourth of the teachers.

The missionaries were keenly aware of how great the need was, and longed for more resources. Margaret Dawson reported on behalf of herself and Elizabeth in 1958:

It has been fun working up a course for the training of teachers who expect to work in the Kindergarten Primary classes of Angola, and to watch the progress of small folk learning all their lessons (with the exception of Bible) in a language other than their own. Our work in the Teacher Training Department is worth-while for girls who may eventually teach the small children in their villages. But, all of our students need more help in how to teach the more advanced classes. In our Teacher Training Department we need more concentrated teaching of the Portuguese language by Portuguese teachers. We should have three instead of one teacher training course …

The Portuguese government provided poorly for the educational, as well as the medical needs of the Angolan people. The system of primary and advanced education developed by mostly Canadian and American protestant missionaries, along with some Roman Catholic orders, was significant to the development of skills among the Angolan people, outstripping the work of the government in most regards. In the 1950s the missionaries were already aware of the importance of establishing a strong indigenous leadership if the country were to be successful in the long run. Elizabeth wrote in late 1958:

With the demand for education for African children being insistently brought before us, the school year has been lengthened to almost eleven months, and the job of finding money to pay the teachers during this length of time is a momentous one.

In addition to carrying the weight of these responsibilities, Elizabeth shared with a few of the other women responsibility Christian Education. Again, from her 1956 report:

I helped to write a series of Sunday School lessons based on the Old Testament, for children. They have been printed and we are now using them in various Sunday Schools. I have given a weekly lesson to the theological students at Emmanuel Seminary in the use of these lessons. They, in turn, have put them into practice by teaching the teachers in the Lutamo Sunday School how to use them.

And in 1957, from Margaret Dawson’s report:

Elizabeth Utting and I had the privilege this year of writing the complete material for the 1956 AGIT [African Girls in Training] camps. This entails the planning and writing of the Bible lessons, the Worship Services, the games, the ceremonies, handwork suggestions and everything connected with at girls’ camp in Africa.

These samplings from the reports written by Elizabeth and her colleagues give a glimpse into the breadth and intensity of the work. While being concerned about the lack of resources to meet the needs of the people, neither Elizabeth nor her sisters in the work complain about the conditions under which they did their work. While in Canada on furlough, Elizabeth did offer some reflection on these conditions, as recorded in a newspaper article (circa 1954 or 1960):

For Elizabeth Utting, returning home on furlough from Africa meant readjusting to many conveniences Canadians take for granted. At her mission station in Angola, Portuguese West Africa, there is no electricity and no telephone. Lighting is provided by oil lamps, clothes are washed by hand, cooking is done on a wood stove and messages are sent by telegraph with no assurance they will ever reach their destination.

There was some respite from the hard work. (Elizabeth and Margaret at a wedding.) In 1957 Elizabeth and Margaret Dawson traveled on holiday to England and Scotland. They traveled through Cape Town, South Africa to board a ship for the British Isles where they had 7 weeks to tour. Margaret reported that she and Elizabeth made a point of hosting the teachers in training in small numbers after returning to Angola for a meal of “rice, potatoes, meat, corn-bread (our Johnny Cake) and coffee, followed by entertaining them with slides and sketches of our trip.”

In 1960 Elizabeth and Margaret took a furlough year in Canada. Etta Snow, a colleague of Elizabeth’s recounts, “Coming up to the 1960s, we heard Northern Angolans were going to jail for talking about justice and so on. In the south, we were being cautious.” Violence had already begun to seep into the everyday experience of many Angolans, including those leaders who had been trained through the missions. In 1961 when the two women applied for a visa to return to Angola it was denied. It was just as the War of Independence from Portugal began. That war was to last until 1974, when the Portuguese government fell in a coup, and a few months later civil war erupted. The missionaries who were still in the country were all forced to flee. Today Angola is trying to rebuild from decades of devastating strife. The once flourishing mission campuses of Dondi and Lutamo are in ruins. The Angola Memorial Scholarship Fund is a project supported by former United Church Angolan missionaries and their families which is attempting to assist development in the country today. (www.angolamsf.org) Elizabeth supported that effort up until the time of her death.

Unable to return to Angola, Elizabeth and Margaret went to British Colombia, initially under loan of the WMS, to teach in Indian Schools at Aiyansh, Kitsegukla and Bella Bella.(See Archives photos of Bella Bella Day School) In 1962, the WMS was ended and their work was rolled into the Boards of Home and World Mission of the United Church. A large number of WMS “Women Workers” took the offer in that year to be designated as a Deaconess. While the exact motivation for Elizabeth and Margaret, who both became Deaconesses, is not known, others made this move out of a concern that they would be lost in the system, and for a desire to continue to be connected to other women for collegial support and accountability. Two years later however, the Deaconess Order was dramatically changed when the United Church made Deaconesses members of Presbytery and transferred the responsibility for them to the Presbyteries. The up to then powerful national committee on the Deaconess Order and Women Workers was eliminated, as was the staff position, and for the next 20 years the Order floundered as the women tried to reestablish an identity and a unified voice.

In 1965, Margaret’s death was a big blow to Elizabeth, and she grieved her loss the rest of her life. In that year she relocated to Victoria and she completed her Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Victoria in 1967. From then to 1976 she taught in Special Education in Victoria. In 1977 Elizabeth again took an appointment overseas, this time to work in Zaire at I.M.E. (Institute Medical Evangelique). There she taught the children of missionaries working at the Hospital and Nursing School. Her students were from Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, England, United States and Canada; a little United Nations but all spoke English. She had some French lessons but said her French was almost nil. Elizabeth didn’t let small details like that stop her!

This was a completely different experience from the Angolan one in terms of the living and work site conditions. Yet Zaire was a place of tension. More than half of the million refugees in Africa were in Zaire in this time frame, nearly all of them from neighbouring Angola. Civil war was continuing to rage in Angola, with bloody factional fighting supported by international arms. There had been a brief hope in 1974 when Angola gained independence that the churches, which had so long labored under the oppressive Portuguese colonial control, would be able to bring about reconciliation and help to rebuild a civil society. But with the civil war those hopes evaporated. Dr. Betty Bridgman and Nurse Edith Radley, two United Church missionaries who had refused to leave when the others fled in 1975, were held in an Angolan prison for 3 months. Elizabeth knew Betty and Edith and shared fears about their wellbeing. She later noted a highlight of her time in Zaire was welcoming Betty and Edith when they arrived to work at I.M.E. after their deportation to Canada upon their release from prison.

After retiring in 1979, Elizabeth lived in Victoria, and then for some time in Niagara Falls. Her final years were lived out at the United Church’s retirement home, Albright Manor, in Beamsville, Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls. When visited by Caryn Douglas, the Principal of the Centre for Christian Studies in 2001, Elizabeth was excited to be reconnected to the school. Her memory had deteriorated by then, but she remembered particularly her experiences in Angola. They had been formative for her self understanding. Elizabeth died May 7, 2002 in her 87th year.

This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, drawing on a biography Elizabeth wrote for the 1988 Newsletter of the Association of Professional Church Workers, and the annual Woman’s Missionary Society publication, Missionaries Reporting, along with notes from a meeting with Elizabeth in 2001.