Agnes (Snyder) Blokland


Agnes Irene Blokland, B.A.
Surname as Student: Snyder
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1952
Where: Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1925 - Born

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At Agnes Blokland’s funeral a pew full of Diaconal Ministers bore witness to the loss of one of their own.  We chatted among ourselves prior to the service, mostly quiet remembrances of Agnes.  She had a warm smile. Even in her later years she was a striking figure, she had a kind of stature to her carriage.  She was a stalwart kind of woman.  Sometimes her life had not been easy, but she had taken things in stride.  Agnes was proud to be a Diaconal Minister (the contemporary language for the ministry rooted in the Deaconess Order). We were proud of this senior member of our community.  But after the funeral, the chatter among the “DUCCS in a row” (DUCC stands for Diakonia of the United Church and is pronounced duck) was less congenial.  If you didn’t know before that Agnes was a diaconal minister, you might have missed it.  The service was nice and the eulogizing commemorated her active volunteer ministry, in her congregation, at the food bank, but there was really nothing more than a passing acknowledgement of her diaconal status.  We were, well, shall we say, disappointed.

It didn’t seem right that yet once again Agnes’ diaconal vocation should be forgotten, after all, she had to fight hard to get it recognized in the first place.  Agnes’ journey to becoming a Diaconal Minister is not unique but it is unusual.  After graduation from the United Church Training School in 1952, she worked for nearly a decade as a “Woman Worker” for the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS).  In 1961, when she married, the rules of the WMS meant she could no longer work for them.  But WMS workers had no status or standing in the United Church structure and after the WMS folded, the women became completely invisible in the church’s records.  Years later Agnes fought for recognition in the United Church for what she had done, supported by friends and the congregation of Regent’s Park United Church.  She won that struggle and became a Deaconess.  This is her story:

Agnes Irene Snyder Blokland was born and raised on the family farm southeast of Manitou, Manitoba, a farm acquired by her English grandfather under the Free Land Homestead Act of 1872. As head of his family, he was given a one-quarter section and, after meeting certain conditions, assumed title. Like those of his day, he gave no consideration that these were the ancestral lands of the Ojibway who lived in the area.  His was a pioneer spirit and he settled his family in a new life where they prospered.

Agnes was born March 31, 1925 to James and Veda Snyder. Her parents were an important part of her growing up years. Her father was a farmer of Pennsylvania Dutch descent from Southern Ontario and her mother’s background was English. Agnes had only one sibling, Gladys (Baryluk).

The girls attended school in Manitou, from Elementary to Junior High to High School, travelling on the school ‘van’ – sometimes horse drawn, sometimes motorized and, on occasion, the had to walk. Living out in the country meant the Snyder sisters didn’t get involved in too many sporting activities, but church was important. They became involved in Mission Band, (the children’s program of the WMS), Youth Groups and Junior Choir.

Agnes attended Normal School and in the mid-1940s and became a country school teacher, teaching Grades 1-9 in two rural schools, and then in Ninga, in Southwestern Manitoba, teaching Grades 1-4. (Ninga School) It was in Ninga that Agnes attend a WMS meeting and soon after received her call to ministry. “It just seemed when I woke up in the morning [I knew that church work] is what I ought to be doing.” Agnes credits Rita Smith, of the WMS members, for encouraging her to apply to the United Church Training School (UCTS).

The UCTS required an applicant to pass a medical exam. Agnes had had tonsillitis three times the previous year and needed to have her tonsils removed before the school would accept her. Having a tonsillectomy was an expensive proposition and not one Agnes could afford on a teacher’s salary. So Rita Smith sponsored a fundraising event that enabled Agnes to have the operation and enter the school in 1950. When Agnes left for Toronto there was a feeling among friends and family in rural Manitoba that she would never return. With that in mind, Agnes was determined to come back, at least initially, to Manitoba.

Agnes made the long trek to Toronto by train and arrived somewhat bewildered by the big city.  The United Church Training school had vacated its overly large building on St. Clair Avenue during the War and was in two facilities closer to the University of Toronto.  She lived in residence at 214 St. George Street, the first year. The second year found her sharing the ‘halfway house’ named so because it was part way between St. George and Bedford Road with five others: two second-year students Margarete Emminghaus and Ruth Saunders, and three first-year students, Willa Kernan, Nan Cameron (Grow)  and Florence Fitzpatrick (Poole). Agnes maintained a close connection to Margarete and Willa all her life.

Like many of her classmates, Agnes carried strong remembrances of the etiquette and cultural training that was part of the UCTS curriculum.  Miss (Eva) MacFarlane, the House Director, “was a dear lady, but she ruled with an iron hand” and she felt it was important for young women to learn how to do things like pour tea properly and how to dress with hats and gloves. This aspect of curriculum was controversial even in the early 1950s. Many of the students were well into their 20s, with previous careers as teachers, nurses or in business, and the lessons seemed patronizing.  It was even a source of tension among the staff.  Harriett Christie, Dean at the time Agnes was a student, and later a Deaconess and Principal, argued that good social grace was important in earning the often undervalued ministry of women workers and Deaconesses some recognition and status.  In day to day work the Deaconess worked among the poor and outcast, but upon occasion she needed to be present to those who held the purse strings, and to make an impression required the right bib and tucker.  Gwen (Davis) McMurtry, a student in 1941, (later in life Agnes and Gwen knew each other in Winnipeg) critiqued the decorum training, preferring the courses in theology, scripture, Christian education and pastoral care. But her husband Doug wondered if it “may have contributed to the grace with which she spoke and carried herself in all kinds of situations.”  Agnes, who was one of the few students from the prairies, recalled that she, “felt like a country school girl not quite as polished as some of the others.”  She entered into the role of preparing tea with a positive spirit and enjoyed being in the company of the other students.

A long practiced role for the diaconate, even in biblical times, was as a “go between”, making a bridge from one social class to another, and the role requires an ability to adapt to the situation, whatever it might be.  It was a role Agnes and many of classmates played.  Willa Kernan and Ruth Saunders, for example, drew on that skill throughout their long careers in Korea.  But for the students, with the pressures of a full course schedule and field work in the evenings and on weekends, the requirements chaffed. (UCTS students on a field trip)

Jean Hutchinson was the Principal, and she taught as well. Again, like so many of the other women, Agnes remembered specifically being taught a Synoptic Gospels course by “Mrs. Hutch” in one of the classrooms at 214 St. George Street.  The Sharman Course was based on Henry Burton Sharman’s Records of the Life of Jesus. Jean learned Sharman’s Socratic method of question and discussion, using the insights of psychology, especially of Carl Jung. She encouraged students to approach the scripture with questions and emphasized finding the political meaning for the contemporary context. It was experienced as liberating for the students, and contrasted with a more neo orthodox approach at Emmanuel College where the students also took theology courses.

Agnes’ first year field placement (1950-51) was at Wesley United Church in the inner city where she was involved with Canadian Girls in Training (CGIT) and the Sunday School. Her second year placement (1951-52) found her at St. Paul’s United, a more middle class setting, and again she was involved with young people. Between her first and second year, Agnes served her summer field (May—September) on a five point pastoral charge in the Glenella, Manitoba area, of which she said, “An Anglican family across the road kept me from starving both in body and soul.”  At the graduation ceremony (picture at Eglinton United Church) of Agnes’ class, the biggest one in the history of the school, (picture from United Church Observer) Mrs. Hutchinson “spoke on the comprehensiveness of the course of training which is given, not only by the staff of the School and Emmanuel College but by ministers, deaconesses and secretaries of Church Boards; by members of committees, Church members in a variety of professions, specialist in their own fields. The presence of CGIT and Explorer groups in the audience [of over 1,000] was evidence of the success of the students’ field work in these areas.”[1]

Her time at UCTS solidified Agnes’ sense of call born out of her Woman’s Missionary Society experience. After graduation in 1952 her determination to follow the call paid off and she was commissioned as a missionary and appointed by the WMS as the Community Worker at All People’s Mission (later called Stella Mission) in Winnipeg.  She was the “woman worker”, and soon discovered her duties were to do whatever the Superintendent, Rev. Hal Parker (also the Superintendent of St. Giles and Sutherland Missions), the Student Minister, George Millard, and the caretaker didn’t do!  But Agnes’ appointment in Winnipeg’s northend lasted for six years and over that time she learned how to assert her own presence.

When Agnes started work at Stella Mission, across the front of the building in stone was carved, All People’s Mission Stella Ave — a house of prayer for all people. It was one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg’s northend.  Much of the community was made up of immigrant families, many Eastern Europe, but others from places like Holland and Italy who had come to Canada after the War.  There was also a more recent move into the area, with a small, but growing number of Aboriginal people coming into the city from the Northern Ontario and Manitoba reserves. Agnes was working directly and indirectly with long time north end area Deaconesses like Aileen Gunn, Olive Shaw, Ida Pitt, Minnie Houston and Zaidee Stoddard.

Women working for the WMS wrote annual reports on their work, a selection of which were printed in Missionaries Reporting, a publication which was widely circulated to congregational WMS groups.  The reports were frequently written in a narrative style and were a brilliant communication strategy as they helped to develop relationships between the missionaries and the WMS women, who financed the WMS.  Agnes’ report in the 1956 Edition is in character with the relaxed narrative style.  It is like a letter from a favourite aunt.  Agnes was pragmatic, she wasn’t the type of person to paint the big conceptual picture.  She was focused on people and keenly observed their needs.  Her appreciation of each soul is evident in her writing.

Agnes worked in a team with an ordained minister, but except for leading the services when he was on holiday her work was in Christian Education and Outreach. Much of her time was given to children and youth.  Volunteers from other churches and from the community helped out.  She organized children’s mid-week and summer programming, as well as Sunday School and she led the Junior Choir.  She remembered Fresh Air Camp at Gimli, on Lake Winnipeg, where she had the responsibility for 90 teenage girls for 10 days of camp.  In 1956 Agnes writes, “In [Stella’s] work [this year], the greatest satisfaction we have had has been seeing the children with whom we work travel along the road to Christian citizenship.”

Agnes described the efforts to mount a Christmas pageant with the children in her report, “When the parts were assigned at the dress rehearsal, [our chosen Mary] a CGIT girl that is a scatterbrain – and I say that fondly [for] … her periods of concentration are very short, [had] a look of wonder spread over her face. Then her reaction was, “Where’s a piece of Kleenex?  I have to take off my lipstick.”  She made a very devout Madonna and charmed us all.”  Reading between the lines it is possible to get the sense of some of the young people that the Mission was working with, perhaps those who would not be on the most popular list in a middle class high school, but rather, those who needed the support and attention of women like Agnes who could give them a chance to shine.

The previous year the Explorers (for younger girls) held their meetings in the home of a girl who was “crippled”. In the fall they learned that their friend had died over the summer.  Agnes commented that the way the girls handled the news enabled the staff to be aware of “just how much the girls had gained from giving up some of their fun to share their meetings [with the sick child]”.  The opportunity for children and youth to be in groups organized by Stella, helped to deepen and broaden their experiences and gave them a community where they were accepted and challenged to accept others, regardless of differences.

Agnes also worked with adults.  The Mothers Club, while small in regular attenders made a significant contribution to the Mission.  Agnes details their activity, “They placed tile on the kitchen floor, bought some needed kitchen equipment, and a wonderful new four-speed record player.” Agnes proudly reported of the group that they chose the player over a sewing machine, agreeing to “buy something that every group can use.”

Older adults rounded out Agnes’ work in a continuation of the ministry of hospitality and simple care.  She took Seniors, many of them living alone and in poverty, to a week long summer camp, Oakglade Camp, held at Kirkfield Park, on what was then the outskirts of the city.  Agnes wrote, “These older people were very grateful and appreciate of every little thing that we did for them … I will never forget the glow on one lady’s face when she said … “It’s so nice to have someone to talk to in the morning when you are getting up, and breakfast tastes so much better when you have company.”  At Thanksgiving they arranged a day at camp for the Seniors, feeding everyone, even those looking unkempt and disheveled, a hot turkey dinner.  Agnes explained in her report, “We decided that since so many other organizations are interested in Christmas Cheer, we would [work with the] seniors in other months.”  This adaptive and responsive approach to ministry is a characteristic of a diaconal approach.

During this time Agnes lived in the neighourhood, in the upstairs suite of a Jewish widow, Ethel Goldstein.  While living in the north end would have been an economical choice, it was also a political choice. In the 1950s many “Anglos” would not have been comfortable living among “Non-Anglo Saxons”, as the immigrant population was still frequently referred to.  Margaret Martin (Elder) shared the apartment with Agnes for a few years after arriving in Winnipeg in 1958 with an appointment to Indian Work. Margaret appreciated the support that Agnes, with her local knowledge and compassionate attitude provided to her.  Her first night on the job she had a call from a native man who was talking suicide. He was discouraged because he couldn’t find work, when he showed up to apply for the position as soon as they saw he was Indian the job was ‘taken’. She and Agnes worked to find him a job and support him to get his confidence back.  One night she was called to a home near Selkirk and Main, one of the roughest areas of the north end. On her way back to the bus stop a police officer pulled her over and said, “this is no place for you lady.” She replied, “you are wrong officer, it is exactly the place I should be.”[2]

During her furlough year, 1958-59, Agnes studied at United College (now University of Winnipeg) and with an additional year’s leave she obtained her Arts degree.  She was next appointed to the Teulon Girls Residence in 1960.  This was the first year Aboriginal students lived in the residence.  The residence had served families of northern missionaries and isolated farmers so their children could attend high school.  Now that transportation was improved and more local schools were opened, its use was in decline.  But the state of education on Reserves had not improved as much and for Aboriginal children to receive a high school education they had to leave their communities.   Agnes and the part-time cook tried to make the residence as home like as possible while the ten young women under their charge attended the local high school. The Inspector heard rumors from staff at the Portage Ia Prairie Residential School that Agnes’ girls had no responsibilities. Agnes assured him the girls looked after their own clothes, had a roster for setting the table and helping with washing dishes and on Saturday mornings, a ‘Job Jar’ from which to choose dusting, washing the kitchen floor, cleaning the washrooms, etc.  But Agnes was conscious of the diversity of experiences for Aboriginal children in residence during that period of time and she knew her approach was not shared by everyone.  Two of the girls kept in touch with Agnes until her death over 40 years later.

But Agnes wanted to have the experience of raising her own family and found that chance when she met Bill Blokland, a dairy farmer who had recently decided to retire from farming and moved to the city where he worked as a caretaker.   Agnes and Bill were married in June, 1961 and she moved back into Winnipeg.

Agnes wasn’t too worried, at the time, about her status within the WMS. She had chosen to get married and as she explained, ‘that was that.’  From the vantage point of today it is easy to forget that options for women were much more restricted in the 1960s.  It was only in 1960 that the rule restricting the Deaconess Order to single women was removed, although the practice was still being widely enforced well into the mid 1960s.  In 1957, the first married woman was ordained, but only against the strong advice of the Moderator of the day, concerned about such an unnatural act given the candidate, Elinor Leard, was “a married woman with three children.”  It was expected that women, at least middle class women, would stay at home, particularly once they had children.  Within a decade, with the rise of the 2nd wave of modern feminism, more critique was voiced, and enacted, but in 1961 women might have resented the constrictions of the culture, but most were not revolting against it.  It wasn’t until their two children were in their teens and Agnes was contemplating a return to church work that she discovered she had no status.  When she started to inquire what she needed to do in order to get some recognition, she was told to find an Ordained Minister to verify she had worked in the church! That comment angered her, but, it also fueled her desire to get justice.  She submitted to the long, slow process of going back and doing the interview process again.  Deaconess/Diaconal Minister Verna McKay, designated in 1960, does not recall being aware of the rules that deprived women of their status until her friend Agnes sought reinstatement this reinstatement in the late 1970s. Verna was angry with the church that Agnes had to begin all over again with the process of assessing her call and appropriateness for ministry. At that time ordained ministers who had not been in active ministry for extended periods of time were not required to undergo this scrutiny. “[Agnes] had to go through a discernment committee and I just couldn’t believe it. … Agnes had been commissioned [as a missionary] in 1952, and I remember thinking, how can it be that the church would require this of her again?” But Verna recalls that Agnes complied, “Making a scene about it wasn’t Agnes, and besides, the church had the power.”[3]

In 1977 Agnes  was made a Deaconess by Manitoba Conference. In 1962, when the WMS was ended and their work transferred to the Boards of World and Home Mission within the United Church structure, WMS workers, who were not already Deaconesses, were given the option to join the Order.[4]   Thirty women made that decision, largely motivated by a desire to be connected with a community of accountability, and, with some realistic fears that they would be otherwise lost.  Agnes had not started out with a vocational call to Diaconal Ministry, but taking the same course as her sisters had twenty years earlier she entered the Order as the only way for status and recognition.  Agnes however, embraced this new vocational identity, she took the mantel on with purpose not only as a means to an end.  The next year many changes occurred for diaconal ministry in the United Church, including adoption of the gender neutral term Diaconal Minister. Agnes recalled “I remember being horrified when I heard that we were going to have a name change. I thought, “Oh no! Not more interviews! I just did this!”

Agnes never took another professional position in the church, but rather she became a very active volunteer at Regents Park United Church, lending her hand to virtually all aspects of its work and witness.  She also was involved in the Education and Students Committee in Winnipeg Presbytery and the Conference, where she especially kept a watchful eye over the diaconal ministry candidates and provided education for the committee on diaconal ministry.  In the last decade of her life she served as a Learning Facilitator and Mentor for two diaconal candidates, Ken DeLisle and Juanita (Smith) Lowe.

Agnes also committed a lot of energy to the Food Bank and Winnipeg Harvest, returning to the roots of her first call to ministry and to the work of mission and outreach. Agnes was grateful for the opportunity she was given a few years before her death to return to Stella Mission (now called North End Stella Community Ministry) to speak about the work that she had done there.

After interviewing Agnes in 2003, Juanita (Smith) Lowe reflected that “Agnes’ understanding of ministry is best summed up by the words, ‘What does the Lord require of you but, to seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)  Agnes has sought to walk humbly by providing care and companionship in her interactions with [people on the margins]: a Jewish widow and her children, Aboriginal students and members of CGIT, Explorers, youth groups …  Agnes learned to respect the ways of others, to admire the strengths and recognize limitations of individuals and communities of people. She listens carefully and acts with justice and compassion when the need arises. She has stood in solidarity with students at interviews and through the personal challenges life has brought them. Agnes has expressed her commitment to the church — within its walls and outside of them — through her way of being in the world, [leading] by example and through her humility and grace.”

Agnes died February 10, 2005 after a brief struggle with cancer.  She was predeceased by her husband in 1999 and left to mourn her loss were her two children, Nancy and Jim and her granddaughter Kara.  In her obituary her family  wrote, “We will always remember her for her sense of humour, her long-lasting friendships, her organization and quiet determination.”

This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, drawing on a biography written as an assignment for the Centre for Christian Studies by Juanita Smith (Lowe) in 2003, two years before Agnes’ death.  Additional information came from her obituary, interviews with people who knew Agnes and other primary research.  2012.

[1] United Church Observer, Volume 14, No. 7, June 1, 1952.

[2] Interview with Margaret Elder, 2009.

[3] Caryn Douglas, A Story of Lost Opportunity: The Apology To Deaconesses Disjoined by The United Church of Canada, DMin Thesis, St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton, 2009, p 101.

[4] Options for women graduating from the United Church Training School included becoming a Deaconess or taking up a position as a woman worker with the WMS. However, the WMS also employed many Deaconesses, and there were women without Deaconess status who worked as uncategorized lay workers in congregations and in church structures such as the General Council offices.