Lily Yuriko Uyeda, was born in British Columbia, January 28, 1922. Her family had a successful silk business on Granville Street in Vancouver. She was the youngest of three children. Her parents, Bunjiro (father) and Kimi (mother), were immigrants from Japan. Upon their arrival just after the first world war, they decided that if they were to fit in to their new homeland they should adopt Christianity as their religion. They were prominent members of the Japanese Methodist, later United, Church. Lily’s father was on the board and was a generous financial supporter of the congregation.
At age 18 she began at the University of British Columbia, where she was involved in the Student Christian Movement. She was unable to finish her BA at the time however, as the events of the world were about to shatter her young life.
In 1942, after the war with Japan was declared, Lily and her family were ripped out of their home and evacuated from the Pacific coast. The BC Security Commission, formed in March 1942, decided to dispatch Japanese-Canadians to remote interior towns, especially those which had numbers of unoccupied or derelict buildings. Kaslo, along with Sandon, Greenwood and Slocan City in the Kootenays met that criterion, as did a few former gold-mining towns near Lillooet. Along with roughly 22, 000 Japanese Canadians, many of them born in Canada, the Uyeda’s were interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. Lily, who was in her second year at UBC, managed to complete her courses with supplemental work, perhaps done from Kaslo, where her family had been resettled. (For an insightful exploration of the effect of the War on Japanese Canadian students at UBC see A University at War: Japanese Canadians at UBC During World War II, by Elaine Bernard.)
Thanks to the diligent advocacy of Mary Kitagawa, in May 2012, UBC conferred honourary degrees on the 61 Japanese Canadian students unable to complete their studies because of the consequences of the racist policies enacted under the War Measures Act. Lily and her sister Mariko were two of those recognized. “Return: a commerative yearbook” documents the lives of the students honoured by UBC. Lily’s biography is on page 69. It is available by clicking here. UBC has also created a webpage describing the convocation. Lily’s neice, Leslie Uyeda was present to represent her family. She describes the experience in this way: “When I walked out on stage to receive the two degrees and the two hoods on behalf of my beloved aunts, I could feel the presence of my entire Japanese Canadian family there with me – coming home; … I felt the warm energy of healing.”
At the camp Lily taught children in a grade six class. The Canadian government was barely supporting primary education for the Japanese Canadian children, so even though Lily had no formal credentials to teach, in these circumstances she was approved. It was the churches who organized, funded and staffed the high schools for the older children. Lily would likely have been in contact with some of the many church personnel who followed those interned into the camps. Many of them had been missionaries in Japan, recalled home at the outbreak of the war, or, had been in service with the “oriental” communities in Vancouver.
Toward the end of the war Lily’s family moved to Montreal where her father was able to start all over again, having lost their business and most of their possessions. In spite of this, Lily was never resentful, but talked about the humanitarian effort made by the United Church of Canada and many others to alleviate the plight of the Japanese and be a voice in protest to what the government was doing. Lily took a business course at Sir George Williams Business School, and then took a secretarial job with the Quebec Religious Education Council. Her work there continued to kindle an interest in church work which had been first sparked with her SCM connections. In 1948 Lily entered the United Church Training School in Toronto, graduating in 1950. (Graduation Bulletin)
Her first appointment, working in Christian Education, was to St. James United Church in Simcoe, in southwestern Ontario. It was not unusual at the time for women to serve in a position for one or two years before being designated as a Deaconess, and this was the case for Lily. In 1952 her designation took place in Montreal and Ottawa Conference.
Lily was a small and physically delicate woman, but she had a large and strong spirit. She felt a determination to complete her Bachelors degree, so in 1954 she returned to Toronto and did just that. Next she worked again in Christian Education, beginning in 1956 at Olivet United Church in Hamilton, then beginning in 1960, undertook CE and Outreach work at St. Luke’s in Toronto.
At Olivet United Lily was well appreciated by all those she worked with. According to a 1959 United Church Observer article,* the ordained minister was so enthusiastic about Lily he was known to treat her “just like an assistant minister.” This was intended to be a compliment. At the time Deaconesses were not considered to be “in ministry”. They were supervised and often accountable to the ordained minister with whom they worked. Despite the calibre of their work and their capacity to be responsible, independent, productive and so on, the women were often characterized as helpers. In keeping with the times, Lily probably had developed the ability to do her work effectively and with a kind of authority, while at the same time deflecting praise and recognition to men.
While Lily was at Olivet, the congregation, along with others in Hamilton Conference, raised $1,000 to support her attendance at the 14th World Convention on Christian Education which was in Japan. She was able to travel in Japan for 6 weeks. Passionate about sharing what was happening to people in Japan in the post war period, upon her return, Lily gave over 50 presentations describing the results of American intervention and forced westernization on the Japanese culture. She could see how the gospel would be a help in aiding to the Japanese to find the strength they needed to face the difficulties. She had great admiration for the Christians she met in Japan, who remained cheerful despite their situation.
In 1967, Lily took a year of study leave, entering into a special program in Religious Education at Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, Rochester, NY. Resuming her work in Christian Education in Hamilton, this time at Melrose United Church, Lily might have been content to remain there, except her mother, now alone in Montreal, was very ill. Lily left her position in 1973 to return to Montreal. She nursed her mother until her death in 1974.
Back in Toronto, Lily pieced together part time work for the next two years. She was involved in Christian Education and Outreach at Parkdale United Church and did work with Seniors through the Bloor Bathurst InterChurch Council. Lily’s next move however, was much further afield from the familiar, as she took a position as Associate Minister at Knox United Church in Brandon, Manitoba.
The sense of excitement over Lily’s arrival in Brandon is demonstrated by a series of advertisements that the congregation placed in the Brandon Sun in July and August, 1977. Each week the broader community was invited to “come and meet our new deaconess”, “come for a cup of tea and shake hands with Lily Uyeda”, “This Sunday meet Lily Uyeda”. (See picture of Lily in front of Knox) Lily’s job as Associate Minister, in team with an ordained colleague, was focused on Christian Education and Outreach. She also had regular responsibilities to share in worship leadership.
Bev Ramcharan, a member of Knox contributed the following to the congregational history book: (edited slightly)
Then God said to Moses, “What are you holding?” “A walking stick,” he answered. God said, “Throw it on the ground.” When Moses threw it down, it turned into a snake, and he ran away from it. Then God said to Moses, “Reach down and pick it up by the tail”. So Moses reached down and caught it, and it became a walking stick again.”
The above Old Testament story appealed greatly to Lily Uyeda, who served Knox Brandon United Church as a Diaconal minister from 1977 to 1982, before retiring to Hamilton, Ontario where she lived until 1987 before succumbing to cancer.
A year after coming to Knox, Lily discovered a lump in her breast, and as a result agreed to a mastectomy. Throughout her recovery and subsequent treatment, Lily was always positive, and returned to work very shortly. She was so positive that few in the congregation knew that she had had such a traumatic experience. In telling the [scripture story above], I think that Lily [was saying she] always trusted that no matter how fearful her experiences were, and may be in the future, it was important to trust in the power of God and take hold of fear “by the tail”, so to speak. Her faith in God shone through all the difficult times of her life and with quiet courage she lived her life with the knowledge that God would give her the strength to cope with whatever difficulties may come her way.
During the year 1979 to 1980 Knox was without a main clergy person. … So with Lily’s gentle but competent guidance, and the blessing of the services of three of our own former retired United Church ministers …along with all our other Knox people serving faithfully on committees, Knox had an excellent year, proving that we are all ministers and can rise to the occasion when it is necessary.
It was Lily’s gentle nature, sincerity, compassion and her special way of bringing out the best of people’s nature that endeared her to us. Her gentleness was the key to her persuasion which I can speak of personally. She was able to get my husband to play his guitar one Sunday morning in the service for the Sunday School children. That speaks to the power of Lily Uyeda, that she was able to entice Clifford Ramcharan to do something which I would have said was absolutely impossible. The Lord, they say, can work wonders, but I would say that Lily worked a major miracle which would never again be repeated in the history of Knox.
I asked a few people to share memories of Lily. Bill Burgess recalls spending every Tuesday at lunch with her to plan their Sunday School lesson for a group of boys. He said that they had a great time together talking about their life stories, gossiping, and at the last minute they would look at their watches and realize that they only had a few minutes to plan the lesson. Gwen Trott remembers Lily spending about three hours with her after her husband died, holding her hand and giving her much needed comfort.
Lily was a member of Amnesty International, and was particularly instrumental in influencing us to start a group in Brandon, so Group 19 was formed in the lounge of Knox. She was also passionate about social justice and world development issues and was delighted to see the birth of the Marquis Project [a substantial ecumenical social justice education and advocacy group which continues in 2013], also in the lounge of Knox. Both of these organizations she supported with her enthusiasm and encouragement. It was a special occasion for her when our refugee family, the Darasengs, decided to become members of the congregation. Lily had given us tremendous support and was very happy when Knox decided to sponsor two refugee families.
Lily decided to resign after serving for five years. I think that she was aware that she was a cancer survivor and wanted to spend the rest of her days in a place “with a lovely garden”. She chose Hamilton where she settled and bought a house. [Lily didn’t retire though from church work, just from the salary. She was an active member of the Olivet United Church Outreach Committee and their Refugee Committee, along with providing leadership to Amnesty International and Ten Days for World Development. ]
Unfortunately, Lily’s cancer recurred a few years after she retired. I visited her twice while she was battling the disease, which had gone to her bones. I remember accompanying her to have her chemo treatment. Lily was so upbeat and always lived with hope throughout these difficult times. She fought her cancer with a passion, and truly faced her fear grabbing it “by the tail”. [Two weeks before her death she attended a NDP meeting with her neice.] She taught me a lot about living for which I will always be grateful.
Lily died in the February 12, 1987 just a month after celebrating her 65th birthday. Her ashes are entombed in the beautiful garden where she wanted to be.
In 2010, Leslie Uyeda a noted Vancouver composer and musician, dedicated a concert “Sakura Songs” at the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, in memory of her family: her father, Yutaka Uyeda; her aunts, Mariko and Lily; and her grandparents Bunjiro and Kimi Uyeda, who, in the 1930s, donated a thousand cherry trees to the City of Vancouver.
* For a higher resolution copy of this article contact info@UCCDeaconessHistory.ca.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, February 2013. Thanks to contributions from Bev Ramcharan, Ethel Hurren and Leslie Uyeda. Other sources include: 1987 Record of Proceedings, Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario, The United Church of Canada; Nikkei Images, National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre Newsletter, Summer 2004, Vol. 9, No. 2; Ancestory.ca; The Brandon Sun archives online; UBC websites related to Honourary Degrees for 1942 Class; A University at War by Elaine Bernard; and,”Deaconess …1959 Model” by M.B. Pengelley and Margaret Pryce, The Observer, November 1, 1959.