- 1929 - Born, March 25
- 2013 - Died, January 21
Elinor G. Cox was born in Victoria, British Columbia, March 25, 1929, into a large, boisterous and fiercely loyal Scottish family. According to family mythology, Elinor’s grandmother, Nana, brought her 12 children over to Canada in 1906 with just the clothes on their backs and the porridge pot. She wanted to give her children the opportunity to pursue an education. This matriarch instilled in her clan the importance of helping others who had less. She is also remembered as an advocate for the democratic process, with an interest in getting people out to vote. Raised in this feisty and very political family, tiny, asthmatic Elinor learned not to shy away from standing up for those in need and for what she believed in.[i]
As a young girl Elinor loved to sing, and it was singing in the church choir that she credited with awakening in her a love of God which drew her into ministry. Choral singing remained a vital part of spiritual expression for her and gave her great satisfaction. So too did her work for those marginalized, a passion she maintained all of her 83 years.
After public school, Elinor took a secretarial course and worked in business in Victoria and Calgary. Her interest in the church though wasn’t satisfied by the amount of time she could give as a volunteer, so she responded to a call to pursue a church vocation. In 1956, a year after completing her senior matriculation at the University of Victoria, Elinor moved to Toronto to enter The United Church Training School.
Elinor’s boisterous upbringing may have resulted in a challenge when she encountered the culture at the Training School, also broadly known as the “Angel Factory”. It can be difficult from the perspective of the 21st century to appreciate what the 1950s were like for women in Canada, or perhaps better said, “ladies” in Canada. These were the days when part of the objective of the Training School was to equip students with social skills so that they could move comfortably with grace in the church’s halls of power. Harriet Christie, the Principal, was adamant; etiquette was an essential skill for women’s ministry, despite critique from within the school community. All the women were subject to the instruction, even 27 year old Elinor. The Student Yearbook, which in 1958 was edited by Elinor, notes that, “at the snack this evening, U.C.T.S. observed the result of etiquette lessons demonstrated at a previous ‘Principal’s Hour’.” To be fair, the snack time was a send up on the lessons, starring one of Elinor’s more outrageous classmates, Dorothy Naylor.
Elinor joined the Emmanuel College Chapel Choir, which was composed of students from UCTS and the College, located next door, which taught theology and educated primarily men for ordained ministry. Following a service in in a nearby congregation, where the choir sang, a social hour was held where “a sharp panel of students, including Joan Steadman and Elinor Cox, took the natural lead and presented a discussion on the theme of fulltime church work.” [ii]
The Yearbook reports another activity for the class of women, who “adorned with hats and gloves”, had tea at Emmanuel College. Of course, outings with Emmanuel students provided a particularly “interesting” venue for displaying social grace, the kind of social grace a young minister might be seeking in a wife.
Elinor was one of the women who participated in the diamond rink prank, (See description from the Yearbook) orchestrated by Dorothy Naylor, which is almost iconic in the memory of the school. Dorothy arrived back after the Christmas break with a fist full of dime store diamond rings which she distributed among her classmates. Wearing them to the dinner table, everyone played along with the joke, which was well appreciated in the way that humour often is when it hugs the border of funny and painful.
Deaconesses who married were forced to leave the Order; disjoined was the term applied to the action revoking their status and ending their employment. In reflection, women affected acknowledge it was the character of the times, yet it still evoked in many resentment at what they had to give up. The women can also see now how the inherent sexism of the time impacted women’s ministries negatively. Elinor’s hope that her post choir presentation might, “hit a note of interest in full time church work in at least some of the young people who were present”[iii] would likely have been stirred by the crisis created by the constant loss of women from the Order. This loss diminished the Order’s strength and the importance of the ministry of deaconesses, contributing to poor wages and working conditions based on an assumption that it was only temporary work for young pre-married girls. The single women, who like Elinor, served the church for decades[iv] were invisible in many regards. Jean Angus, who was a Deaconess from 1953 until she was ordained in 1977, who also never married, expressed another aspect of this phenomenon.
There were mixed feelings about the girls who got married, like they were jumping ship. At the [annual Deaconess Order] meetings you would hear the news of who was getting married and you would think, just a bit, what a waste of their training … the old girls like me were left, we had each other.[v]
While Elinor never married, she did raise a nephew, the son of one of her brothers who died young. Her diaconal colleagues also were like a family to her and she was intentional about connections. She attended many national gatherings and participated in Saskatchewan Conference events on a regular basis. She and Diaconal Minister, Anne Grigg, became very close friends.
Harriet Christie was perhaps the most vocal advocate for the removal of the disjoining rule, which finally occurred in 1960. In the 1950s, Harriet was in the first trickle of what was to become the second wave of feminism. The juxtaposition of her “finishing school” demands, with her strongly articulated demands to address sexism, named then as the changing role of women in society, demonstrate the complexity of individuals and the issues.
It is hard to say if Harriet left a mark on Elinor. She was not identified as a feminist, by herself or others, yet Elinor, like Harriet could be a fierce advocate for those she perceived to be marginalized. This line from a story she wrote based on the biblical narrative of the Bent Over Woman, demonstrates the passion that was within the outwardly quiet woman: “To hell with you all, and your religious wrangling. If you will not come, Sara will dance in the streets alone.”[vi]
The 1958 Yearbook roast to Elinor is affectionate:Our big sis is the editor of this. She’s a redhead from the West, Sings a lot when at her best. Wets her whistle with a C.G.I.T. kiss These things we know; she really likes to sleep. Has a hot house hobby, For her file she’ll get a trophy. When she leaves us, we are sure to weep a heap.
Upon her graduation, Elinor was designated a Deaconess, in 1982, she became Diaconal Minister, when the United Church evolved the Deaconess Order into a new expression for women and men. In a presentation on diaconal ministry she gave at Anne Grigg’s funeral in 2005, she concluded, “Diaconal ministry is one of a variety of educational roads offered by the United Church, and we prize the one we have chosen.”
Elinor had a varied experience of ministry, but she strongly identified as a Christian Educator, particularly in the earlier years of her ministry. Her entry into congregational ministry was at the height of the heady days of the boom of church attendance in Canada. The post war baby boom was populating Sunday schools literally by the thousands and the demand for workers insatiable.
She held positions as Christian Education Director in Kindersley, Saskatchewan, Scarboro United, Calgary, Knox United in Agincourt, Ontario and Norwood, John Black and St. Andrew’s River Heights United Churches in Winnipeg.
Elinor’s first year at St. Andrew’s River Heights (1974), an upper middle class congregation, she worked with a team of 12 church school supervisors, in a program for 250 children up to grade 8. By 1976 it had grown to 290. Elinor took on the Junior High aged group, with a Sunday evening “varied program” including the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, a folk mass at the Catholic Church, and a visit to a synagogue. She described her work priorities as support to the lay people doing the group leadership and curriculum and resource development. She initiated new programs for the church school and for groups like Scouting and Guiding.
In three years of the four years that Elinor was the Deaconess in the congregation she raised a concern in her report to the annual meeting about the number of families in the area without any church affiliation. While her work in this area is not documented, her repetition of the concern suggests she was engaged in outreach work in some way. One example which was documented, was the initiation of a Junior Congregation for the entire summer period, which she co-led with a lay woman. One objective was to provide activities for those “not at the cottage during the summer months.” In the largely affluent and privileged community, it would be understood that among those not at the cottage would be children of lesser means and opportunity than most of their neighbours. In this way, Elinor was living out her interest in advocating for those who were disadvantaged in some way.
The Chair of the Christian Education of Children Committee wrote, “A new depth has been added to our endeavours under [Miss Cox’s] counsel, with her knowledge and experience providing support for teachers, leaders and committee members.[vii] Just prior to arriving at St. Andrew’s River Heights, Elinor had spent a year at The Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia. Her currency with the burgeoning field of adult education probably enhanced her work in leadership development. The Chair a few years later wrote that, “Her encouragement and enthusiasm has contributed much to the enthusiasm and confidence of teachers and group leaders.”[viii] Enthusiasm is something Elinor possessed most of her life.
Elinor had good support in her position, but it was not always an easy place for her to work. Joanne Kury, now a Diaconal Minister, was a young adult at St. Andrew’s River Heights during the time. She remembers Elinor as, “a remarkable women, with strong convictions, but she was quiet.”[ix] The real power lay with the Senior Minister and the men who occupied positions on the Board and structurally the attitude toward women was often patronizing. Joanne experienced that as a young Chair of the Outreach Committee and she witnessed Elinor experiencing the same. This experience was not uncommon for Deaconesses in congregations. Quite often it was larger congregations, with more affluence, who could afford to employ a full time Deaconess. The stature of these congregations lent itself to very hierarchical models of authority and decision making. Even into the 1970s, Deaconesses were frequently accountable to the minister, who supervised their work. Elinor left after 4 years, the same year as the relatively new Associate Minister, Dal McCrindle left. He and Elinor long remained friends.
In 1979, after just two years serving another suburban Winnipeg congregation, she took a position as the only ministry staff at Northminster United Church in the northern Manitoba mining town of Flin Flon. This one year supply marked a change in the emphasis of her work, as she followed this appointment with 6 years as the only minister in the Imperial Pastoral Charge in Saskatchewan.
In 1986, as she was preparing to leave Imperial, she wrote,
I have shared in a variety of expressions of ministry: as a CE Director, in a team ministry; working with groups of lay people in planning informal worship on a regular basis; as the only Order of Ministry person on a 1 point and 3 point charge. I have also been involved in developing curriculum material for Church School. It is my desire to get back into a team or shared ministry with more time for work in Christian Education, yet also being involved with other areas of congregational life.
Elinor was able to find that mix in a team at Estevan, in the southeast corner of Saskatchewan, where she moved with her then 17 year old nephew. But that position only lasted for one year. In 1987 she resumed solo ministry with the people at Kelvington-Lintlaw Pastoral Charge, where she remained until her retirement in 1991.
In retirement in Moose Jaw, Elinor employed her enthusiasm in many volunteer activities and creative ventures. She became known around as a writer, and she joined the Prairie Pens writing group, and wrote stories and a lot of poetry. She tutored reading students and joined a Grandmothers to Grandmothers group (The Stephen Lewis Foundation). But the church was the main centre of her activity. She worked in the Parson’s Pantry, attended bible study, knit prayer shawls, belonged to the Outreach Committee and sometimes led services, funerals and weddings. She frequented courses at the Prairie Christian Training Centre (later Calling Lakes). She liked to learn. (Picture of Elinor in 2000)
Elinor was very committed to community. In 1986 she wrote, “I feel that I am continually growing in faith – based on a biblical perspective of connecting my daily life and world affairs. Individuals should be encouraged to develop a growing personal faith through worship, study groups and personal contacts, and through reflection on the world around them. The Christian community is important to the individual’s faith journey.”
At her funeral it was said of her, “In a way, Elinor was the epitome of the conscience of our church family. Her passions were always noble; her enthusiasm at its greatest for causes of the less fortunate. A church needs a conscience like that.”
The last few years were ones of declining health. A significant hearing loss made it more difficult for her to participate in the life of her congregation, but it didn’t stop her from pushing to the edges of her capacity. The development of lymphoma left her with pain, but she endured it stoically. Elinor died January 21, 2013.
“I believe that God is at work in the world through people, in spite of the way in which some see the world going today. There is hope in God’s saving redemption.”[x]
[i] From Elinor’s funeral eulogy
[iv] See A Tale of Deaconesses in the United Church of Canada: 1925 to 1964 Mary Anne MacFarlane, MA Thesis, U of Toronto, 1987.
[v] Jean Angus, interview by Caryn Douglas, February 25, 2006.
[vi] The Bent Over Woman, by Elinor Cox, written during a writing program at Prairie Christian Training Centre in 1993.
[vii] St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church, Winnipeg, 1973 Annual Report.
[viii] St. Andrew’s River Heights United Church, Winnipeg, 1974 Annual Report.
[ix] Telephone interview March 13, 2013, Winnipeg.
[x] Written by Elinor.