The Project


  Welcome to a community resource dedicated to sharing the stories of United Church of Canada Deaconesses.

Website wins Manitoba Day Award for Excellence in Archival Research!
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Students and Jean MacDonald, Principal (2nd row far left) in spring 1926 just before the Home merged with the Methodist Training School. Florence Capsey Karpoff 1st row right, Mildred Goldie Gorwill beside Jean.

Students and Jean MacDonald, Principal (2nd row far left) in spring 1926 just before the Home merged with the Methodist Training School. Florence Capsey Karpoff 1st row right, Mildred Goldie Gorwill beside Jean.Photo courtesy of Ruth Gorwill

Canadian Methodists designated the first Deaconesses in 1897, the Presbyterians in 1908. In 1926, the new United Church of Canada’s Deaconess Order was created as 101 women from the two denominations joined. Over 600 women served between 1897 and 1984 when a new order of Diaconal Ministers was formed. The Order provided a pathway for women to obtain a theological education and the training to carry out a variety of social, educational and liturgical ministries. The women did amazing and important work, in Canada and abroad. They responded to the call of God by giving of themselves, and by making the most of the opportunities the church provided for their ministry.

Christianity as it stands in the Bible and our Creed will never be read nor understood by millions; Christianity as it is revealed in the loving service of Deaconesses will be recognized by the dullest eyes. (i)

Diaconal ministry is primarily a ministry of service.  The ministry of Deaconesses was pragmatic and earthly. Whatever their theoretical theology, the women bore a strong conviction to alleviate suffering. This website pays tribute to the service rendered in earnest desire to be the hands and feet of Christ to a world in pain.

In this site you will find resources enabling a comprehensive understanding of Deaconesses and their history, including:

  • historic overview and reflection on the Order
  • resumes, pictures and biographies for most of the 600 United Church Deaconesses identified to date
  • scholarly papers exploring many aspects of the United Church diaconate and its Deaconess movement
  • primary documents from the United Church records and archival photos.

Take your time and look around.  And please add to the site if you can.

Deaconesses often served as "ministers" when a man couldn't be found to fill the pulpit. Jessie MacLeod in Success, SK Deaconess Student Summer Placement in 1946.

Deaconesses often served as “ministers” when a man couldn’t be found to fill the pulpit. Jessie MacLeod in Success, SK Deaconess Student Summer Placement in 1946.Photo Courtesy of Jessie.

This is a “diakipedia” site. YOUR contributions will enrich the record. Please CONTACT US if you have stories, information, pictures, or documentation to contribute about any of the women. Please let us know what you think.

Click on the pictures for enlargment and click on coloured text for additional photos and documents.  Please report broken links.

Reflections on this Project

For a privileged decade of my life (1998 to 2008) I was the Principal at The Centre for Christian Studies (CCS), the institution which prepares most of the diaconal ministers, and graduated most of the Deaconesses, in the United Church of Canada.  Visiting with the alumni was a treasured part of my job.  “This is work?” I would often ask myself.  I loved listening to the stories and eliciting reflection on diaconal life.  I sometimes wish I had taken a recorder with me for each of the hundreds of visits I made, to make a record of the biographies and anecdotes I heard. So many are now deceased, particularly the women who were Deaconesses, or, if still alive their memories have faded.  My memory isn’t that good either, and I am frustrated by what I can’t recall.

Well trained by my years as a student at CCS I acted like a pastor to the women and the smaller number of men who are in diaconal ministry. I came to see them like a family, like my family, as I stand in line after them as a diaconal minister.  One January day I sat down in front of a file box in the United Church archives to begin the archival research for my doctoral thesis on the story of the disjoining of Deaconesses when they married and the United Church apology to them. I had this overwhelming feeling that I was opening up the family album.

My deep desire in this project is to introduce you to my family.  I find them interesting.  I have respect and admiration for them.  I like most of them.  I am somewhat romantic about them at times.  After all, one often portrays one’s family to the outside world in a much better light than that cast on them behind closed doors.  The women were, after all, ordinary.  But they were amazing too.

One day I was at a CCS “tea” in Saskatoon.  It was in the “Ladies Parlour” of an older United Church, a quaint spot for a quaint gathering with a few senior women, in their 70s, 80s; a few of us a generation younger.  Glancing in, the last thing a stranger would think would be, “there is the woman who helped to smuggle pro democracy documents out of South Korea“, or “there is the one who hid refugees in her home in the tense days leading up to and after the outbreak of civil war in Angola”, or, “there is the one who moved into the interior with interned Japanese Canadians, befriending “the alien enemy “.  Admittedly, these are some of the more dramatic stories I could tell, but they are not untypical.  Even those stories which seem mundane, have their striking aspects, when looked upon with a analytical eye and in light of the context. It is such a very brief time in history that women have been publicly able to function in ministry that almost anything they did is noteworthy.  They broke ground, ground that is still tough to plough.

In her novel, Sanctuary Line, Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart tells the story of a woman trying to make sense out of the family she knows so well, yet continues to be elusive in her understanding.  Her character reflects: “In spite of my intimacy with each table and every chair, and the knowledge that the hands that either purchased or constructed them — and the bodies that touched them — made me what I am, they seem to come from a culture so brief and fragile that no one can name its properties, never mind care about its persistence.”

I know these women, and I don’t.  Not only am I gathering new facts, I am learning more from the information I had before. I am gaining insight into who we are as a church, as women in the church, and as a diaconal community. We need to know these stories, because, in the scope of time, they are brief and fragile, and, because the stories persist.  These women crafted some of the chairs and tables where my generation sits and conducts ministry.

Caryn Douglas, Primary Researcher

This site has been made possible by the financial support of The McGeachy Senior Scholarship, The United Church of Canada; and the Barbara Elliott Trust Fund for Innovative Ministry, Nancy’s Very Own Foundation, St. Stephen’s Broadway Foundation and private donations. Many thanks.
 (i) 1904-1905 Annual Report of the Toronto (Methodist) Deaconess Home and Training School