A summer spent on a Mission Field in northern Saskatchewan prompted Alison Andrews (later Yoshioka) to seek her first appointment as a Deaconess candidate in a rural community. The Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) obliged her, and in September 1948, she went to Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan, a one point Charge, as a Deaconess Candidate/WMS Associate Worker.
Northern Saskatchewan is a long way from Pictou County, Nova Scotia where Alison was raised. She was born April 27, 1921, in the Annapolis Valley into a Methodist family. Her maternal grandfather, immigrated from England and became a Methodist minister in Canada. Her parents were very active in the local church, participating in many leadership roles and modeling for Alison a life committed to church work. “I suppose in the back of my mind,[as a child], I wanted to be a missionary, I always had a bit of an interest in being a church worker. It was with the deepening of my faith that I knew that is what I wanted.” Alison reflected nearly 65 years after her first diaconal appointment.
Alison doesn’t recall knowing much about Deaconesses as a young person, people were more familiar with missionaries and ministers. It was during her War time service with the WRCNS, commonly known as the WRENs, that the idea of professional church work, perhaps as a Deaconess, took hold. Harriet Christie, on tour in Scotland to talk about vocations, came to speak to the WRENs about the possibility of church work when the war was over. For Alison the timing was right. “That is for me’,” she recalls deciding, “It was confirmation of what I believed God wanted me to do.” When her three and half years of wartime service ended, she returned to Canada, and in the fall of 1946 headed to Toronto to attend the United Church Training School.
That first Mission Field, in the summer of 1947, was in Henriburg, Saskatchewan. A week before her departure she took her new bicycle to Toronto Island and had her very first riding lesson. A few days later the bicycle was shipped out west and she followed. “It didn’t take long to get used to riding it, although with the sand and the gumbo, getting around was not too easy,” she declares with a chuckle. She continues, “The people were so grateful to have someone to look after their needs, provide some care, that they put up with me… It didn’t seem to matter that I was a woman, or that I was a [Deaconess] student, they were pretty used to having women, and lay ministers.”
When Alison returned to the Training School for her final year she was able to communicate her interest in rural ministry. “I knew I wanted to work as a local worker, in congregations. I didn’t want to be a missionary. This opportunity was there, to go to a joint WMS and Board of Home Missions appointment, [in Porcupine Plain, SK] and so I took it. I can’t remember now why I decided on being a Deaconess, but once I was designated I went to some of the meetings of the Deaconess Order. Prior to designation, my only opportunity to meet with other women church workers was at Conference. We were very isolated in the rural communities back then.”
The opportunity to serve in Saskatchewan came about for Alison because her predecessor, Isabel (Griffiths) Pike , also a Deaconess, had been disjoined from the Deaconess Order when she married Rev. William Pike of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Isabel and her husband established “The Sunday School of the Air” and later “Communion by Air”, programs that eventually spread to nearly 30 radio stations.
In Porcupine Plain, Alison lived in the vestry of the church which was a new building. Besides conducting Church Services and the occasional funeral, she taught Sunday School, had an Explorer Group and attended the Women’s Association. One special interest was visiting a 20 bed District Hospital, many of whose patients had no other visitors. She inherited an old Model A Ford, built before heaters were installed in cars! Fortunately, the car gave good service as she visited throughout the area and took monthly Services at Crooked River and one of the other “summer Mission Fields”, but after November the heavy snows made it impossible. The late 40s were snowy years in Saskatchewan and Alison had her share of road mishaps. On one occasion when she was stuck in the snow, she made her way to the closest farm house where she was met at the door with the words, “You must be the minister. Nobody else would come out in all this snow.”
Indeed, Alison was “the minister” despite what the church officially said about the work of Deaconesses. Promotional brochures from the period proclaimed Deaconesses could do any kind of church work except be “a minister”. Deaconesses were considered to be laity, not clergy, but in Alison’s work the only things that separated her from her Ordained brothers (and very few sisters) were the administration of the sacraments, and membership in Presbytery. The course of study at the Training School was designed to give women preparation for a broad range of ministry positions, including church administrators, medical missionaries, and in multiple staff positions as Christian Education Directors, necessitating a general approach. There was acknowledgement that some women would be alone in pastoral charge ministry but there was no focus on preparation for it. Alison shared, “We took Theology and some other course with the Emmanuel College [Seminary] students, and we had a course in Public Speaking, but not on preaching, I was really going on a wing and a prayer. We did have a good Bible Study course on the Synoptic Gospels taught by Mrs. [Jean] Hutchinson ( click here for more on the Sharman Method and Jean Hutchinson who taught it). It was invaluable for our understanding of Scripture, and for our developing faith …I don’t know if my theology was any different from the people [in Saskatchewan], I don’t remember a lot of theological discussions. I said what I believed, and the people were just mostly glad to have someone to be with them.” Alison enjoyed the work, even if she was learning along the way, with the exception of funerals. She said, “I dreaded funerals in Porcupine Plain. The undertaker had to come up near me to get water from the well and every time I saw him coming I was just praying that it wasn’t about a funeral!”
In this isolated part of northern Saskatchewan working ecumenically was important. Some of the most active members in the congregation were Anglican. An Anglican minister came from time to time for Communion Services. One memorable event was “Camp Paul”, so called because the 35 boys and girls, 9 to 14 years of age, came from the Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Anglican, United and Lutheran Churches. Alison was assisted by Anglican and United Church student ministers, a cook and a “Camp Mother” in running the camp. The conditions were rustic; only a small cookhouse with four bunk beds for the staff. It was a real venture of faith which worked out beautifully and “Camp Paul” became a very meaningful experience for all.
Alison had expressed her belief that because of the increase of young boys in the community, it was time for Porcupine Plain to have a male minister, and in 1949, a young male lay preacher arrived. Alison was appointed by the WMS to Smeaton, 70 km north, where for many years the WMS maintained the only hospital between Prince Albert and Nipawin, a distance of one hundred miles. Although there was an Ordained minister, Harvey Clarke, in Nipawin, and Alison could have concentrated on Christian Education in his Pastoral Charge and her own, distances made it necessary for Alison to “minister” to the four point Smeaton-Choiceland Charge. Her responsibilities included three Church Services a Sunday, as well as leading the Youth Group, assisting with Mission Band, some Bible Study and a junior choir. She led both the Girls’ Camp and Youth Camp on beautiful Candle Lake.
One memory that will always remain with Alison was the intense cold of the winter of 1949-50, with temperatures near -40°F for six weeks. The night the oil ran out her electric blanket literally saved her from freezing. Facing the harsh weather conditions of the prairies is said to build character and Alison’s experience confirmed that. The people of rural Saskatchewan proved to be “the salt of the earth”. Alison pays special tribute to Miss Catherine Bawtinheimer, the nurse in charge of the WMS hospital. Alone with a Nurses’ aid and cook, she was Health Nurse, Dietician, Obstetrician and Emergency Staff.
By the spring of 1950, the isolation was playing on Alison, and she had a strong urge to move to a town or city where she could concentrate on Christian Education and this was in her mind as she headed to Saskatoon for the Conference Annual Meeting. It was at this meeting that Alison was actual designated a Deaconess, because the frequent practice in the 1940s was for women to serve one or even two years in an appointment prior to being formally designated as a Deaconess.
During Conference, an opportunity opened unexpectedly. Rev. Ray Hord invited her to accept a position at Lakeview United Church in Regina, to work with him. In this era Deaconesses were officially employed by the Pastoral Charge, but they really worked for the minister who hired and supervised them. “It was not a ‘team’ situation in those days. The Deaconess was to be an assistant to the minister, some were pretty much left on their own to do what they wanted and others were closely directed by the minister. My experiences were pretty good, I got along with the ordained men I worked with, others were not so fortunate. I think in the 1950s few ministers were accustomed to having a Deaconess, and it would take time to adjust to this new situation. In Regina, we were so busy all the time, we didn’t worry about how we were getting along. I gave reports and we discussed things and this seemed to work out quite well. When I first got there I was the typist, like other Deaconesses who were expected to take on secretarial duties, and I spent a lot of time with the old mimeograph machine, but the congregation was growing so fast that they had to hire a full time secretary to keep up with the work.”
Lakeview was a wonderful new congregation, in a mushrooming new housing area, with a Sunday School of two hundred and a Christian Education building near completion. A Christian Education Director was needed. Mrs. Campion, Secretary to The Committee on the Deaconess Order took Alison’s request for reappointment to the Committee and they agreed.
Alison’s five years at Lakeview were the most rewarding of her career. She was responsible for the organization of the Christian Education Program, recruiting teachers and leaders, assisting them with resource materials and program planning, leadership training, parents’ meetings, liaison with the splendid Women’s Federation (pre UCW), and long-term planning with the continued expansion that was occurring. For Alisoin key words to describe this position are: ever increasing numbers, dedicated workers, enthusiasm, a fine spirit of togetherness and cooperation. The Sunday School grew from 200 to 800, with a corresponding increase in midweek Christian Education Groups. Special highlights were many. Alison recalls, “There was so much to do I couldn’t even really do much leadership training. I was mostly organizing, and recruiting, trying to coordinate the leaders with the program needs. Remember this was the 50s, women were at home and busy with children but they could give leadership in the afternoon and others could give leadership in the evening or on Sundays, so we always managed to fulfil the needs. I know things are different today, but it is a loss that there isn’t time for people to give the kind of leadership that they used to do.”
Lakeview congregation had been worshiping in the Church Hall while raising money and working out the plans for the Sanctuary. The sod was turned in the spring of 1955, and the building was completed in 1956, but by then Alison had moved back to Nova Scotia to be closer to her family. She felt proud of what she was able to hand over to her successor, another Deaconess, Grace Glenn. Grace happily embraced the work, and was “very grateful that God prodded, called and led me [from my work as a Public Health Nurse, to serve in the work of the Church.”* Grace held the position until her retirement in 1979.
In September 1955, Alison moved to First United Church in Truro, the oldest congregation in the United Church of Canada, dating back to 1760. The Christian Education Department was well established with a large number of experienced teachers and leaders. The strong missionary minded congregation had a young women’s Mission Circle and several Women’s Missionary Society Auxiliaries. There was also an active Women’s Association and a Social Committee. In this new setting, Alison was Coordinator in charge of the Senior Department of the Sunday School and led in Vacation Schools and C.G.I.T. camps. She enjoyed the new experience of conducting a 15 minute radio broadcast for children one Saturday a month on the local Ministerial’s “Morning Devotional Program”. Once a month, Alison displayed Christian books for children following the morning Service.
In the spring of 1956, she conducted a one week course in Recreational Leadership for the first “Winter Session” class at the Atlantic Christian Training Centre (ACTC, now known as Tatamagouche Centre). Alison’s parents had been very supportive of ACTC from its beginnings and in the fall of 1956, with over twenty students attending the winter course, they were appointed to be staff. Alison recalls, “They were there for two years, teaching courses, instructing in crafts, coordinating activities, counseling and being House Parents and all that entailed. They were exciting times and many new things were really underway.”
One of Alison’s major responsibilities at First United was a unique, challenging Young People’s Union group. Except for a small nucleus of local people, the members were students at the Provincial Teacher Training College and the Nova Scotia Agricultural College. This meant a large turnover in membership from year to year.
In January 1957, Alison was released from her regular duties to convene the local Inter-Church Committee for a Christian Vocations Conference which was held in First United. The Conference was a pilot project of the ecumenical National Christian Vocations Committee. The Maritimes had been selected for the project because the highest per capita percentage of full time Christian Workers came from that area. It proved to be an interesting and worthwhile venture.
At the Maritime Conference, a motion was presented recommending that young women be admitted to the United Church Training School directly from High School, instead of the existing requirement for several years in a profession or post secondary education. For Alison, speaking against this motion as an experienced Deaconess provided an opportunity to outline to Conference some of the responsibilities and challenges for Deaconesses. Such work entailed the necessity for maturity, a well-grounded Christian faith and a comprehensive course of study in Theology and related subjects at the post graduate level. The Church was desperate to fill the huge demand for Christian Education staff, in itself an indication that they valued the work being done by the women, but at the same time, the work was often minimized and trivialized, with an operating assumption that ‘anyone could do it’. Often the work of the Deaconess did not have the same regard as that of “real” ministry, which is what the men and a few women at the time, did.
Alison might have continued at First United except for the proposal of marriage that came from Reverend Edward Yoshioka. Edward was a minister of the United Church, ordained in 1947. His first wife, Jean Preston, tragically died in 1956, leaving an infant son. Alison and Edward were married January 3, 1959 and Alison traded her role as Deaconess for that of Minister’s Wife. Alison doesn’t recall that Mrs. Campion asked for her Deaconess Pin back as she was disjoined from the Order, a practice experienced by other women, and she still has it. Alison was unaware that exemptions to the rule disjoining women upon marriage were being granted at that time, nor that the rule was being proposed to be ended in 1960 (which it was). “I was settling into marriage and hoping to have a family,” Alison reflected. “Women did stay at home, there was a two year old and I didn’t have the energy of a younger mother, I was nearly 40. I was okay with not working anymore.”
Ed was interested in serving outside Canada, Japan was considered, but with a young family it seemed that an English speaking country would be more appropriate than one where language study would be involved. Both Alison and Ed had known students from Trinidad when studying in Toronto, and eventually they chose Trinidad. After a year of serving the Toronto Nisei (second generation) Japanese Congregation, they went to Trinidad in 1961, with there two little boys, a four year old and a 3 month old. While they were there a third son arrived to join the family. Looking after 3 young children pretty much took all of Alison’s time and the heat and humidity took what little energy was leftover. They returned to Canada in 1964, into the upstairs apartment in Alison’s parental home, and Ed commuted to Halifax for a two year course in Clinical Pastoral Education at Dalhousie University.
From there it was to Cape Breton where Ed had a pastoral charge in a mining community. The next move, in 1968 was to a multi point charge in cottage country north of Toronto. In the summer it was expanded to eight preaching points, and Ed had a student assistant. The family found it interesting to live right beside the canal where boats were coming by all summer. Alison was still busy with her family, but did some visiting and was active in the UCW, and one year was President. She did things without a structured time commitment so she could fit it in around her children’s needs. Alison enjoyed being a mother, and visiting in such a widespread area kept Ed on the go, so she kept things going at home.
After two years there, the family moved to Oakville, Ontario, where Ed was in a Team Ministry and then in 1974 Ed accepted a call to Knox United Church, in Northwestern Ontario. With her children now older, Alison was able to devote more energy to a life outside the home. She has great satisfaction from her involvement with the Bible Study group she started there. It was a real influence within the congregation. She still is in contact with some of the participants, more than 35 years later. Alison explained, “I enjoyed that work, I could throw myself into it and I felt like I was accomplishing important things … Yes, I did have skills as an organizer, and at Christian education. It was a very busy congregation. I remember there were a lot of issues around Native people in the community. The Native women held a conference at the church, and the church women did the catering for it, we were trying to build relationships, not as advanced as they are doing [at Knox] now, but it was the beginning.”
“As a Japanese Canadian Ed found that congregations were often hesitant about calling a minister of a different race. Kenora was a diverse community, with probably 20 different cultural groups. … There were two Japanese Canadian teachers [in the community] and they helped to pave the way for Ed to be the minister in that town. Knox was welcoming because they had the experience with the Japanese teachers, Once Ed was known by the people in a congregation], he was always appreciated by the people, he was a excellent preacher and pastor, and a tireless visitor,” Alison explained. Alison doesn’t remember any negative experiences as a white woman being married to an Asian man. Ed’s first wife had a more difficult time, but it was closer to the War period and anti-Japanese sentiment was more pronounced.
In the forced relocation of Japanese Canadians from the British Columbia coast in 1942, Ed’s parents moved to Lethbridge, Alberta, where they ministered to Japanese families who had also been relocated. Ed at this time was in the first year of a degree program at the University of British Colombia. He, and all the other Japanese Canadian students were forced to leave the University and move inland, far away from the coast. As a United Church minister’s son, and as a potential ministerial candidate, he was able to transfer to the University of Toronto to continue his education, due to the intervention of sympathetic officials at the Victoria University. Ed was an outstanding student and he was awarded the Prince of Wales Gold Medal and a number of scholarships. He obtained his Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1955. Just recently UBC has apologized for their treatment of the Japanese Canadian students. (See the Yearbook UBC produced when it awarded degrees to the displaced students and visit the website. Lily Uyeda was a Deaconess who was also among the students displaced.)
Their final move together, in 1986, was to Pointe Claire, Quebec, an English community near Montreal. It was the time of the first referendum and tensions were running high. Alison remembers it as a stressful time. Because of Quebec’s language laws, their two younger sons had to go to Albert College in Belleville, Ontario to complete their education. Their oldest son was in his final year at the University of Toronto. One very meaningful part of their ministry in Pointe Claire was the congregation’s sponsorship of refugees from Laos after the Vietnam War. A vital part of this project was the donation of funds from the neighbouring English speaking Roman Catholic Church, which enabled Valois United Church to support a second family. Alison remembers, “The husband and wife of the first family had been very anxious about the wife’s sister and her family, who were still in a refugee camp in Thailand. What a relief it was to them when the sister arrived, with her mother, her husband and seven children! The donation from the Roman Catholic Church was the beginning of a relationship which led to a serious of remarkable stories involving this newcomer family.”
In February 1988, just months before he was to retire, Ed was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He died two years later, after being cared for by Alison and their two sons.
After Ed’s death, Alison moved back to Pictou County, into her mother’s house so she could look after her. She didn’t expect that her mother would live to be 104, blessed with a good mind up to the end. Returning home provoked an identity crisis for Alison, she wasn’t the young “Alison Andrews”, she wasn’t the minister’s wife, she wasn’t the Deaconess who had had a ministry of her own, but she found her place in the community. Alison’s ‘home church’, Pictou United, is a very active congregation, with many opportunities for service. From the beginnign she participated in all the regular and special services and activities of the congregation, as well as many of the congregation’s outreach projects. She especially appreciated the Bible Study Group and membership in the UCW brought her many new friends. In her own Unit, for the first few years she was in charge of Programs, then Worship for several years, and most recently Visitation and Friendship. Alison visits shut-ins and sends out or delivers cards for all occasions. Alison found over the years that her studies at the Training School and her work as a Deaconess had provided good preparation for whatever type of service she might undertake.
Now in her 90s she says, “I don’t want to be an old lady, but I have to admit that sometimes I am. I am blessed with good health and I try to keep active. I am in my own home and it is work to keep it up. I keep my mind alive, that is a key to staying active. I follow politics closely and I write a lot of letters, on issues human rights issues, like [the housing crisis in the First Nations community of] Attawapiskat.” Alison also enjoys researching family history and travel with family members.
The church is still central in Alison’s life, although she is not able to participate as fully as in earlier years. Even at age 92 Alison attended a week of camp at the United Church’s Camp Berwick, which her ancestors helped to found in 1872. The Camp, held each summer, is a very special event, filled with the memories Alison has collected over a life time of attendance.
Alison thinks back fondly on her special friends from the Training School and her Deaconess days; Deaconesses like classmates Margery Stelck and Margaret Fulton, and co-workers Inez (Morrison) Flemington and Jean (Swan) Parker. “My friends are all gone now, but I’m glad that our work is being remembered. I loved my work in the church and my chance to serve God in that way.”
This biography is written by Caryn Douglas, drawing on an autobiographical piece Alison wrote in 1988 for The Newsletter, Spring 1988, The Association of Professional Church Workers of the Anglican and United Churches and interviews in January 11, 2012 and August 2013.
*From The Newsletter, Spring 1988, p 58.