Disjoining Stories


These are just a few examples of hundreds of stories of disjoining.  (See individual Deaconess Profiles and Disjoining Affected Profiles (women who married instead of becoming Deaconesses)  for other stories,)

The Three Davis Sisters

The Davis sisters, Irene, WInnifred and Gwen all attended the United Church Training School, responding to the vocational call to be a Deaconess.  Their stories help illustrate the effects of disjoining.

Disjoining had a big impact on the Davis family as three sisters (Gwen and Winnie pictured here) had a call to be a Deaconess

Disjoining had a big impact on the Davis family as three sisters (Gwen and Winnie pictured here) had a call to be a Deaconess.

Irene (Davis) Inglis, graduated from the United Church Training School in 1932 but she never became a Deaconess, although that had been her intention upon entering the program, before meeting Harvey.  He was at Emmanuel College, next door to the Training School, preparing for ordination.  Having to decide, at the point of her graduation, whether to marry or pursue her vocation as a single woman, she decided to marry, taking up the vocation of minister’s wife.  Women like Irene are even less visible when considering the effects of disjoining.  She wasn’t technically disjoined, but the rule had an impact on her life and ministry.

The disjoining story of Gwen (Davis) McMurtry is an astounding example. She was the only woman disjoined twice.

Gwen was one of three sisters who graduated from the United Church Training School. Gwen was designated a Deaconess in May, 1944. Although engaged to Doug McMurtry at the time, no objection was raised by the Committee on Deaconess Work, even though she was upfront that she would be marrying. This was not unusual; the whole system was predicated on Deaconess work being temporary. Gwen went to serve the congregation at Lethbridge, Alberta. When Doug got word that he was going to be sent overseas he and Gwen got married in December 1944. She resigned from her position and passed back her pin, but in January, 1945, the Committee discussed the case and decided that:

since Mrs. McMurtry’s husband would be serving in China with “The Friends Ambulance Unit” and considering the fine work she has been doing in Lethbridge that she be continued as a member of the Deaconess Order.

Gwen agreed to this offer and was deployed again as a working deaconess. When the Committee became aware of Doug’s return to Canada in 1947 they then “agreed that Mrs. McMurtry be appraised of the ruling as found in the Constitution and that she be now disjoined from the Order.”  Doug McMurtry did not recall his wife being angry at having to relinquish her status again. As he remembers, there was no real debate in her mind because “the option of work and vocation for women was just not possible.” But the church had the power to make it possible arbitrarily!

Winnifred (Davis) Henderson, graduated in 1948 and was designated as a Deaconess in 1949.  She married John Henderson later in life, after the rule ended, and while she was not disjoined herself it had an indirect impact on her life.

The Next Exemption to the Rule

Ruth Sandilands Lang refused to relinquish her pin when she was disjoined

Ruth Sandilands Lang refused to relinquish her pin when she was disjoined.

As early as 1949, Ruth Sandilands (Lang), while studying at the United Church Training School to become a Deaconess, felt the disjoining rule was unfair. When asked by Jean Hutchinson, one of the staff members, if she was prepared to forego marriage for service she instantly said, “Yes”. But after a week of reflection she sought out her teacher to declare that she was not going to be put in the position of deciding. “I told her I would fight it.” As Ruth remembered the conversation, Jean neither encouraged nor discouraged her thinking. “[The staff] were conflicted, we knew that they didn’t like the rule, but they upheld the Church and its authority, things were different then for women. I guess I was a rabble rouser, and Mrs. Hutch[inson] knew it!”

After graduation Ruth became a Deaconess with a position as a Christian Education Director in a busy suburban church. She also became engaged to marry Wib Lang, then at theological college in preparation to become an ordained minister. Ruth recalled sharing news of her engagement with the Principal, Harriet Christie, at an alumni gathering in 1952. Harriet told Ruth that there were possible changes coming to the disjoining rule, but only in a quiet, private conversation.

Earlier the next year Ruth asked the Deaconess Committee for an exemption to the rule.  She planned to be married in the spring and the congregation she was serving, at her request, had agreed to keep her employed for two years beyond her marriage. The Committee granted the two year exemption for “as long as she continues to perform duties of a deaconess.” However, Ruth didn’t get married in 1953, but waited until 1955, when her employment with Grace United Church in Brampton, Ontario ended and she was disjoined. Ruth explained:

I don’t know why I gave up my idea [of an exemption], Wib [my husband] was ordained, we moved, we were going to have a family, it was the 1950s, it was so different … Still it seemed unfair, we were just dumped, I had more experience than Wib. Oh well, we just went on doing the work.

When Ruth was asked for her pin back at the meeting of the Deaconess Association in 1955, she said with great passion, “You can’t have mine!”

Ruth was reinstated to the United Church diaconal order in 1977.

The Last Woman Officially Disjoined

The last woman known to be officially disjoined by the United Church because she married was Joan (Davies) Sandy. She was disjoined in 1968. Joan graduated from the United Church Training School in 1961 and was designated a Deaconess and appointed by the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) to serve as a missionary on a pastoral charge in northern Saskatchewan. When the WMS was integrated into the official structures of the United Church in 1962, Joan was transferred to the Board of Home Missions. During a furlough leave in 1967 she met with the staff from the Board and innocently mentioned she was to be married in the coming summer. Returning home she found a letter informing her that since her appointment had been made under the WMS their rules governed her employment, and, since the WMS did not employ married women, upon her marriage, she would be required to leave the position she had filled for seven years. Further, she was obligated to pass back her pin and was resigned from the Deaconess Order. These last two actions were justified by the same explanation as her firing, even though the WMS never administered the rules of the Deaconess Order; they were distinctly separate entities. Joan was never certain who made the decision to fire and disjoin her, but it seemed to her that it was the decision of perhaps just one person.  She recalled that she was angry at the time, but she was about to marry a farmer and was hoping to have a family and dedicate herself to parenting, so she accepted the decision. In the 1980s she applied and regained her status as a Diaconal Minister.

Discrimination Outlasts the Official Rule

As Wilma's children grew older she sought reinstatement as a Deaconess but was rejected

As Wilma’s children grew older she sought reinstatement as a Deaconess but was rejected.

Wilma (Unwin) Cade* was disjoined in 1964. Upon graduation from the United Church Training School in 1960, she was designated a deaconess, and took up her first placement in Ontario where she met Peter, whom she married three years later. Wilma remembers,

[the ordained minister in the congregation where I worked] explained to me that the church really didn’t think that women should carry on after they were married. I did carry on for a year, at least he said that was alright, so I did carry on for a year.

At the end of the year, the minister informed Wilma her time was up.  She lost her job and her status.  Fifteen years later Wilma was again treated unjustly as she sought to regain her status. As a trained lay worker, Wilma had become a Director of Christian Education. When the congregation experienced financial difficulties she was let go. As she recalls, “it was explained to me that if I had been a deaconess they would not have been able to so summarily get rid of me.” She returned to volunteer work and to gain more security, and to enhance her chances of getting a position, Wilma decided to seek reinstatement to the Deaconess Order. She applied to Toronto Conference, but as Wilma explained:

…they were very formal about it and said they didn’t reinstate people unless they had a salary, a position in the church, so doing all this work for free didn’t qualify, so … while I had time to jump through the hoops … the church wouldn’t have me because I wasn’t being paid.

* Follow this link for a longer biography of Wilma