Laura (Sharpe) Long
- 1910 - Born, February 27
- 1996 - Died, October 31
Laura Robina Sharpe was born on February 27, 1910 in Crystal City, Manitoba, the fourth of seven girls. She was an active member of her local congregation from a young age, teaching Sunday School on a regular basis by age 16. The Methodist and Presbyterian congregations in the community had formed a Local Union in 1921, anticipating the national union to come in 1925. Laura was proud to say that she cast her vote to create The United Church of Canada.
After she finished Grade 11, she helped her mother with the busy Sharpe household. She had hoped to become a nurse, but was not considered strong enough. Instead, she decided on Deaconess training. In 1934, Laura was able to go back to Crystal City to complete her grade 12, which was by then available at the school there.
In 1931, Laura entered the Deaconess Training Program at United Church’s Manitoba College in Winnipeg. (Her graduation photo is to the left.) While most of the Deaconess training was undertaken in the east at the United Church Training School, a new program was introduced in 1922 at Manitoba College (then Presbyterian) to train women for practical ministry—as Deaconesses, foreign missionaries, Sunday School workers and church secretaries. Students received theological education in Biblical Studies, Christian Ethics, Religious Education, Social Service and Vocal Interpretation of the Bible (preaching). Practical skills were gained in First Aid and Home Nursing, Physical Culture, and Missions and Personal Work. While optional at the time, Laura chose to attend Success Business College during the summer months to learn short hand and typing—skills that were to be put to very good use in many ways throughout her life long ministry.
Laura graduated from United College in 1933, one of two women to receive their Deaconess’ certificates that year, and in the company of ten men (including Stanley Knowles) who would receive their Bachelor of Divinity degrees. Following graduation, she was engaged in youth work and pastoral visitation at Knox United Church in Winnipeg and worked part time at MacLean Mission in the Kindergarten and Mothers’ Club. With her practical field experience now complete, she was formally designated a Deaconess in June, 1936 by Manitoba Conference.
From 1936 to 1938, Laura was employed at the Indian Residential School in Brandon. (see photo at the school.) In addition to her responsibilities for overseeing Explorers and CGIT and assisting with Sunday Services, Laura was the sewing matron in charge of up to 100 girls (4-16 years of age). Along with her seamstress assistant, she taught sewing and embroidery to the young girls and took great pleasure in the fine work the girls produced. It was here that she first met Gordon Long, an instructor of farming techniques, the man that she would later marry.
In September of 1938, Laura moved to Lethbridge, Alberta where she accepted an appointment to Southminster United Church as Deaconess Secretary. (see photo) Her appointment as Deaconess-Secretary was a first for that large congregation. In addition to managing all of the office functions of the church, she was responsible for pastoral visiting and Christian education.
In November, 1942, she moved to London, Ontario. Laura and Gordon were married there in December of the same year and both were employed in industries supporting the war effort—Laura in the personnel department at the Kelvinator plant (a refrigerator manufacturer who was now making parts for Bren and Sten guns). After the war, Laura was busy at home with two small children and Gordon was employed at the Muncey Indian Residential School as a farm instructor. They moved back to Brandon in 1946 where Gordon once again taught farming at the Indian Residential School. In 1949, Laura and Gordon moved to the Long family farm in Miniota, Manitoba where they ran a mixed farming operation until 1981, when they moved into the Village of Miniota. Gordon died in 1986 and Laura remained in Miniota until 1991 when she moved to a senior’s residence in Brandon, Manitoba. Leaving friends, church and community after 42 years was not easy, but it wasn’t long before she made new friends and found another home at Knox United Church and volunteer opportunities in the United Church Women (UCW).
In 1986, Laura wrote in her diary of celebrating 50 years in diaconal ministry and the various ways in which that was recognized by the Presbytery and Conference. While Laura’s formal employment as a Deaconess spanned a mere six years, her calling and vocation as a Diaconal Minister was lifelong. She served her local church (and later wider parish) by leading girls’ groups, helping with Vacation Bible School, and acting as recording secretary, as well as president of both the Woman’s Missionary Society and (later) United Church Women. Because she had experience in a church office, it was just routine to type and print (on the Gestetner) the weekly Church order of service. She was the minister’s support person, discreetly keeping him informed of pastoral needs in the community. At the same time, she exercised her own ministry of pastoral care, offering the comfort of a gentle touch and quiet presence when and where needed.
She provided pulpit supply to both her own and area churches when ministers were on vacation, as well as occasionally supervising summer student interns (it’s been said that Laura smoothed the rough edges off more than one fledgling minister!). She served as secretary of Birtle Presbytery from 1966 – 1986, and was lauded for the high quality of her work. She served on the Executive of The Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, was actively involved in the stewardship program and was twice a commissioner to General Council. She had the distinction of being the first woman from her Conference to be elected to General Council Executive, a position she held for 4 years, and served on the Board of World Mission. Laura represented the Conference for nine years on the board of Prairie Christian Training Centre (now Calling Lakes Centre), and also attended there as a student to continually challenge herself as a lifelong learner. In addition to her work in the United Church, she was an active volunteer in her wider community, including with the Women’s Institute.
Laura was constantly on the go, travelling to meetings far and wide to serve the Church at all levels. Interestingly, though, she never learned to drive and was always dependent on her husband, friends or ministry colleagues for transportation. One could wonder if she really had no interest in driving, or if perhaps she had more interest in the people she was travelling with and valued that time together more than the independence of driving herself.
According to Rev. Norm Velnes, who served the Birtle-Miniota-Isabella Wider Parish in the 1970’s and worked closely with Laura, she had an innate sense of ministry. For her, being a Deaconess was much deeper than a designation or paid vocation; it was a calling and lifelong commitment that was rooted in an incredibly deep faith and a strong sense of justice. While she was very involved in both her parish and presbytery, Laura believed that our call as Christians was far more than how we live our lives as individuals or how we served our local church. She was an active volunteer in several non-church organizations, including the Women’s Institute, and considered that part of her ministry in the broader context. She was an untiring advocate for the Mission and Service Fund, urging others to see beyond the needs of the local community and recognize the needs of the world.
Laura also believed that ministry was the work of the whole people of God. She had a keen awareness of others and could read people very well, which led her to recruit and develop ministry potential in others. This was very evident in her work with Birtle Presbytery as she worked to fill committee vacancies, but also included others like her good friend, Margaret Taylor, who agreed to play the organ in church for one week and has been the regular organist now for over 30 years!
Laura was a strong, confident, intelligent woman, very wise and caring, always optimistic and with a winsome personality. (See photo from 1990.) At a young age, she was called to a ministry of service, and she lived out that call for her entire adult life by serving God, the Church and others to the best of her ability in all times and all places. “She was thankful for all the good relationships she had through the years, never having felt discriminated against as a woman.”
Written by Jamie Bradshaw as an assignment for The Centre for Christian Studies, from notes taken at a personal interview with Laura’s daughter, Helen Wilson, in Winnipeg on October 19, 2013, as well as documents and notes provided by Helen, and telephone interviews with Margaret Taylor on January 6, 2014 and Norman Velnes on January 11, 2014. Many thanks to those interviewed for sharing their recollections and insights into Laura’s life and ministry.
Photographs of Laura are courtesy of her family, except the graduation photo, which is courtesy of the University of Winnipeg Archives.
 Curriculum information was documented in Sherri McConnell’s thesis, Training Deaconesses the Manitoba Way! Manitoba College’s Deaconess Training Program 1920 – 1939,
 While it was not until 1938 that Manitoba College and Wesley College (Methodist) formally merged, (McConnell, 11), the two colleges had been working together for several years. Laura’s 1933 graduation picture is titled “United Colleges’ Graduating Class.”
 Dulcie Ventham, Editor, The Newsletter: Historical Issue, Spring 1988, Association of Professional Church Workers Anglican Church of Canada and United Church of Canada, 1988, pg 19.