Shirley Johnston was a “furlough” baby, born in Winnipeg, Manitoba to missionary parents while they were on leave from Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931. “I was only nine months old when the whole family, including my brother Dick, returned to Manchuria,” she explained. When she was six they returned to Winnipeg, again on leave, and she had her first year of real school. Shirley’s mother, a trained teacher, home schooled them up until then. They returned to China in 1937 but by 1941, as the hostilities were increasing, it was recommended that foreign women and children leave, so Shirley and her brother returned to Canada with their mother. Her father stayed behind, was interned, and spent 2 years as a prisoner of war. Shirley doesn’t remember all that much now about her years in China. “I remember mostly the little things, such as sitting on the wall of the mission compound and watching the Buddhist funerals go by,” she said. “Then there were the rats. In the winter of 1939 we had an epidemic of bubonic plague. The Japanese ruled that ration cards and travel certificates would only be allocated in return for the tails of dead rats which carried the plague.”
After two years in Rossland B.C. as the minister’s daughter, Shirley’s family settled in Winnipeg, where her teen years were filled with church activities at Westminster United Church. At age 19 she completed a BSc degree at the University of Manitoba and took a chemist’s appointment with the Department of National Defense in Montreal, working in the quality control of munitions. At Erskine American United Church she met Deaconess Margaret Thompson. Despite Shirley’s immersion in church life, she hadn’t met any United Church Deaconesses. The possibility of becoming a Deaconess emerged in her thinking. She had considered ministry in the past; with her father an ordained minister she knew about church work, but there wasn’t a call to preaching. “I wanted to do youth and children’s work, I wanted to make a career out of the work I was busy doing as a volunteer. It wasn’t a blinding light call, but a recognition that this was the place I could be. … Sure, what I was doing was ministry; at least now I’d say that, but we didn’t have that language, I don’t remember using those words then. Ministers preached, ran congregations. What was important for me was the work, Christian Education, not being a Deaconess. I guess I chose to be a Deaconess because I wanted to join the organization [of Deaconesses], like I might belong to a chemists’ group. It was more about joining that group, not about a special vocation, it wasn’t a spiritual decision. The Order was the structure, that is all. My parents were happy, although my dad said, ‘Who is going to marry a Deaconess?’”
In 1954, Shirley entered the Bachelor of Religious Education program at United Church Training School. This program, open to women with a prior degree, was offered cooperatively with Emmanuel College. Nothing stands out particularly for Shirley from her days at UCTS. “I took it as it came, theology had been talked about at home. In Winnipeg Mrs. Freeman, Lois Wilson’s mother, had introduced us to Fire Upon the Earth in CGIT; it presented church history in a way that opened us up to new ideas. That had a role in my theological development well before the Training School.”
Following graduation and designation as a Deaconess by Montreal and Ottawa Conference in 1956, Shirley was appointed to Queen Mary Road United Church in Hampstead, Montreal as the Director of Christian Education. It was a busy job, with lots of children in programs. The fellowship of other Montreal area Deaconesses, Sara Harrison and Margaret Quigley, was a great support.
Then, as Shirley describes it, “My past caught up with me and I began to think about overseas work. I really felt I must serve God myself and not just be satisfied with letting people like my father do it for me. … I looked at the places available and Northern Rhodesia [now Zambia] appealed to me because of the mining that was there and I had a scientific background.” The Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) sent her to work among the miners in the copper belt city of Luanshya in 1958. Her first year was spent trying to learn the complex language, but as her capacity increased she began work among the women “doing whatever needed doing. For example, I worked with the African women who had sewing skills and helped set up sewing classes. It was all in response to what the women said that they wanted. I would meet with the women and listen to them. It was a time of rapid change and it was a hard time for the parents. The kids were going to High School, in English, and the parents were illiterate. Culture was shifting so fast, as well as all the political change that was happening. … I was busy trying to figure out how to work with the local leadership rather than supplanting it. My father was an influence in this regard. China was way ahead of other missions; missionaries there had given over to indigenous leadership decades before.”
For her furlough year Shirley returned to North America in the fall of 1963, and began a Master of Religious Education program at Princeton. Although the work of the WMS was now under the umbrella of the United Church Board of Mission, its influence was still felt. As Shirley remembers, “The WMS expected women to be getting upgrading on their furlough year. You could see it was their way of developing leadership and keeping women contemporary. Since I had started a BRE, they thought it would be good for me to further my education, and I didn’t object.” But after only a few weeks on campus, Shirley met David Simmers, a Presbyterian minister from New Zealand. By Christmas they were engaged, and, realizing that David’s 6 month course on University Chaplaincy was ending and that he was to return to New Zealand, they married on February 4, 1964. “I didn’t find the course challenging enough to keep me from following David,” Shirley reflected. She resigned from the United Church Deaconess Order, but, “I was sure that I would continue to use the skills and interest I had for Christian Education.”
With 4 children born in the next five years, the home front was the focus for Shirley. Once her children were in school she was ready to return to paid work. In 1974 she undertook part time Christian Education work with the Department of Parish Development and Mission in the Presbyterian Church. Through this work she came to know the Presbyterian Church well. She moved next to the Churches’ Education Commission where the task was to develop the religious instruction curriculum for implementation in the public school system. She was also facilitator for their Adult Theological Education program.
During this period, as Shirley was moving back into church leadership, David was increasingly influenced by the writings of radical theologians like New Zealand’s Lloyd Geering, and came to feel uncomfortable in the role of parish minister. In 1981 he got a position in the policy area of government social services. Shirley shared some of his views but now felt able to take on a parish, and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. She recalls that, when they told their children of her decision to be ordained, they gasped, “Not TWO of you!”
The New Zealand church recognized Shirley’s education from Emmanuel College and UCTS, and her years of experience in ministry, and she was ordained without the need for further study. Her parish work after ordination was with union or cooperative parishes – small ecumenical congregations, where lay leadership was essential. Much of her work was in developing local leaders.
Both she and David are retired now, living in Wellington where they enjoy their local grandchildren, and visiting their daughters, one in Australia and two in Canada. They attend the local Presbyterian church, but, as Shirley says, “we are WELL retired now, we don’t do much in the way of leadership.”
When asked if she has any regrets, Shirley is confident in her response. “No. I don’t get tied up looking back, I’m not tied to the past. I have served God faithfully, not perfectly, but that isn’t God’s expectation. I have done what I could.”
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, based on an interview with Shirley Simmers and newspaper articles from the 1960s. April 2012