In 1922, The Board of Management of the Methodist Deaconess Society appointed Sister Margaret Saunders as the first Field Secretary for the Methodist Order. Margaret was an English Deaconess from the Wesleyan Methodist Church Deaconess Order. It was an Order much like its counterpart in Canada, developed in recognition of the contribution women could make all aspects of the church “except that of the pulpit” in an era of growing interest in social service and evangelistic ministry.
The desire of the Board of Management was to “create a wider understanding of Deaconess work in its many-sided activities, with its opportunities for life investment on behalf of needy women and children.” The position of Field Secretary reappears periodically over the next half century, with much the same focus on public relations and recruitment, and much of it done on the road.
Margaret was scheduled to visit Methodist Conferences across the country, starting in Quebec and Ontario then to the Pacific coast in her first year (1923). She spent two years in this work, possibly going east in the following year. The Board provided Margaret with a personal monthly allowance, “but the organization for which she speaks is expected to entertain her during her stay and also give a plate offering for [her] work.” The new constitution of the Deaconess Society, adopted in 1918, did recognize Deaconesses as paid workers, although many still felt that the opportunity to serve was more important than remuneration. The issue of how to compensate Deaconesses was significant. Prior to 1918, the women received a small stipend and a commitment that they would be “looked after” while under appointment and upon retirement. There was no pension plan. Women who were required to leave the Order, because of marriage or poor health had no benefits. When the Canadian Methodist Order was established it was assumed that women would either be in the Order for a short period prior to marriage, when their husband would look after them, or, they would be spinsters and after a life time of service that somehow the Order would come up with the funds to support them. At its inception The Deaconess Society did not establish a fund to meet the obligations promised to the women, a practice which may not have been illegal at the time, but could certainly be judged to be immoral. In the Wesleyan tradition that Margaret came from the Sisters took a vocation but no vow, and to mark this theological stance and to insure that the Order was open to all not just the rich the sisters were paid.
I do not know if Margaret Saunders transferred into the Canadian Methodist Order. To my knowledge, there was no process for doing that, and given her short term of appointment it isn’t likely. There were several American Methodist Deaconesses who served in Canada, for example Ora McElhenie who is active in Canada from 1899 until her retirement in 1921, and was retained on the retired list of United Church Deaconesses after 1925 until her death in 1949 even though she had moved in her retirement back to the US. At any rate, Margaret’s introduction to the Methodist Community (see below) notes she was embraced into the work of the Order.
This letter of introduction was printed in The Methodist Deaconess Year Book of 1921 and 1922.
Toronto, Ontario, June 1st, 1922.
To WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
This is to bear testimony to the official standing and qualifications possessed by Sister Margaret Saunders, who for the past year has been a faithful and efficient Deaconess of the Elm Street Methodist Church, Toronto.
Miss Saunders came to us a year ago as a Graduate Deaconess of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, England, possessing as well a local preacher’s certificate. During her year of service with us, we have had ample opportunity to appreciate her many and varied gifts. She came to us most admirably qualified for her work and in our various Church activities she has had a splendid opportunity to develop the same. She has a very pleasing platform appearance and is an exceedingly fluent and thoughtful speaker. She is well qualified to conduct any service in connection with our work, and in her present position to which she has been recently called, we feel confident she is possessed of all the necessary qualifications to make that work a decided success. We find much pleasure in giving endorsation to her efficiency and pray that God may abundantly bless her in her work.
Signed on behalf of the Quarterly Official Board of Elm Street Methodist Church.
REV. DAVID WREN, Chairman
R. C. HAMILTON, Rcc. Steward
There is no appointment listed for Margaret in 1925, neither is her name on the list of Methodist Deaconesses entering the United Church of Canada in 1926. Perhaps she was married and left the Order. However, it is possible that Margaret retired back to England, as she might have been 75 years old in 1925. The picture accompanying her introduction does not seem to be of a woman in her 70s but the picture may not have been contemporary. There is a burial record for Sister Margaret Saunders, Deaconess in the SS Mary and John Churchyard, Parish of Cowley, St. John in Oxford, England. The headstone dates are 1848 to 1931.
Biography written by Caryn Douglas, August 2012.