Ella (Snyder) Comfort
- 1873 - Born
Ella Margaret Snyder Comfort had a short ministry, but she worked with some of the most vulnerable people in Canada, as was typical of the early Methodist Deaconesses in Canada. Ella was born April 21, 1873 on her parents homestead in Erin Township, near Guelph, Ontario. She was the youngest of the eight children born to German Methodists, Isaac and Elizabeth Leslie. She and her family were members of what was known as the Brick Church, Siloam Methodist, in Wellington County.
It could be inferred from Ella’s obituary that she stayed on the farm to support her parents, but after her parents had died[i], at the age of 38, (in 1911), Ella entered the Methodist National Training Home in Toronto to undertake the 2 year program of study to become a Methodist Deaconess. Deaconess candidates at the time “were required to be between the ages of twenty and forty, have positive recommendations from their pastors, Sunday school superintendents and two influential Christian women of their church, a health certificate and a good common school education.”[ii] Ella just squeaked in under the wire! It is entirely speculation, but it is possible to imagine that Ella had long had a dream of serving the church as a Deaconess. The Canadian Methodist Deaconess Order was begun in 1894, just at the time that a young woman would be fashioning dreams of a career. There were several women from Ella’s district who entered the program in its first 20 years and if Ella was active in the church she may well have known them and their work. The program largely attracted young women, although she wasn’t the only mature woman in the class, still, the emphasis in the curriculum was on formation for young women. Other women, well into the mid 1900s, comment on how the often patronizing approach in some of the instruction bristled with women who had been independent, perhaps having raised children (in the case of widows) or, as in the case of Ella, probably managed a farm home with aging parents to care for.
The Deaconess program “was to be a time of careful training. It included the training school’s designated course of study, an extended reading list and practical work done either through the Deaconess home or in a congregation.”[iii] The curriculum included the systematic study of the Bible, the theology of the Methodist church, history of the Bible, church history and a short course in physiology and geography. The required reading list immersed the students in deaconess history and culture and women’s leadership in the Methodist church. It also provided basic information on the human body. [iv] Deaconesses were expected to be a mix of public health nurse, Christian educator, social worker and evangelist. The course of study reflects these four expectations.
The program at the school was also intended to enculturate the women into the Deaconesses life of devoted service. There was a great emphasis on humility and gratitude for what was being given them. Ella would have read these words in the handbook given each student, “It is earnestly hoped that students will appreciate the privileges of the School.” In addition to the courses, one afternoon a week was devoted to house to house visitation, Saturdays were spent in one of the Industrial Schools, Sunday at one of the mission churches, teaching Sunday school. The students were reminded that no teachers or officers of the school received a salary, and they were expected in return, “to manifest the spirit of Christ” in response to this generosity. This culture established and reinforced by the School and the Order contributed to an ethos that invited subjugation and exploitation of the women and discouraged the women from advocating for their own reasonable needs.
Ella graduated in the spring of 1913 and began right away in her first appointment, officially as a Probationary Deaconess, at the Old Brewery Mission in inner city Montreal. The mission, literally the site of a former brewery, was the centre of social outreach in the midst of grueling poverty, the underside of the modern industrial age. The Mission still exists today, although now a secular institution.
At the inception of the Deaconess Order, the model borrowed heavily from the American Methodist approach, in particular the influence of Lucy Rider Meyer, founder of the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions, which opened in 1885. The Methodists were clear to indicate that the women were taking no life long vows of obedience or celibacy, as they were overtly fearful of appearing “papist”. However, like Catholic sisters, the idea was for women to live in community, in the Deaconess Home. They were not to be paid a salary, but given their room and board, a small personal stipend and a commitment that they would be looked after for the remainder of their lives, as long as they worked to the age of retirement.
The first Deaconess Home in Toronto was followed by Homes in Hamilton, Montreal and Winnipeg. Ella would have been resident in the Montreal Home, where she would have been accountable to the Superintendent. Even where Deaconesses worked for individual congregations, or agencies like the Old Brewery Mission, and were under the direction of the pastor, he was accountable to the Superintendent of the Home and any salary paid to her went to the Home or Order. The flaw in this model was that the expansion geographically of the work in Canada was not accompanied by the development of Homes, which were expensive and impractical where there were only a small number of workers. But most importantly, the women were unhappy with the system, citing exploitation with too much work, too little remuneration and not enough freedom.
One Deaconess Home Superintendent wrote, “Surely the Deaconesses, who are constantly associated with sickness, sorrow and suffering humanity, need such a place to come to at the close of a weary day, and there find inspiration and recuperation.”[v] But it seems like the Homes did not always meet these expectations, as they were the site of a ministry as well and throughout this period Deaconesses worked directly for the Home, in addition to their responsibilities with the employing ministry. As the Superintendent’s reports demonstrate the women were involved in house visits, distribution of tracts and Bibles, distributing food, clothing, bedding and furniture, and helping people to find work. Meals were provided from the Home and annual Christmas parties for children and for mothers were held. Sunday school and mid week groups were regular activities, again for both children and adults. All this on top of heavy work loads dealing daily with people living in desperate poverty. In 1923, after the Deaconesses threatened to abandon the Order, an annual salary was instituted and the women began to find their own accommodations, although the Homes continued for a number of years, and frequently women living in the same city would room with one another. The community aspect of living together was a part of the model that the women appreciated, giving them a sense of identity, family and personal support. When the Homes decline, the sense of identity as a Deaconess definitely declines as well.
It is possible that as Ella left Montreal to return to Ontario in 1915 she had just been licensed as a full Deaconess or that she experienced that liturgical ceremony upon arrival. Full membership in the Methodist Order only came after at least two years of probationary status according to the rules of the Order, however there are many examples of women being fully licensed upon graduation, so it is not clear what happened to Ella. By the mid 1910s, the Deaconess Appointment Lists do not constantly distinguish between Probationary and Licensed Deaconesses. Probationary Deaconesses were afforded all of the privileges of membership: they wore the uniform, resided in the Deaconess Home and were addressed in correspondence as a Deaconess. Certainly, those who were receiving their ministrations were unaware of the status differential. In a May 1918 edition of her hometown newspaper it is reported that “Miss Ella Snyder, deaconess, Toronto, has been awarded the Deaconess Gold Pin. This was presented to Miss Snyder and nine other deaconesses at the commencement exercises of the Methodist National Training School last week. Rev. Dr. Chown presided.” Perhaps she only officially became a Deaconess in 1918, or this may have been the first year that the pin was given out. Research is currently underway in to the Deaconess Uniform and Pins, and that might give some insight into why she received a pin at this date.[vi]
Ella joined a large team of Deaconesses and other staff at the Fred Victor Mission, just east of Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. Begun in 1886, the mission was the largest Methodist outreach in the city and employed a large number of Deaconesses. Many of the students had a placement at the Mission as part of their training. The Fred Victor Mission continues today as a ministry of the United Church, but it is largely too, a secular enterprise. (See Fred Victor Mission History)
Two years was the length of time Ella served at Fred Victor as well, and in 1917, she moved across the country to Edmonton, joining the staff of the Methodist Rescue Home. Rescue Homes were an early version of a women’s shelter. They provided refugee for women escaping domestic violence, runaway teens, prostitutes and unwed mothers. Ella was only in Edmonton for one year, and according to the Acton (Ontario) Free Press, “Miss Ella Snyder, deaconess, who has been a member of the staff of the Rescue Home at Edmonton for the past year has returned to the east for an extended visit”. [vii] It is quite an extended visit; she never leaves, and she never functions as a Deaconess again. From 1919 until 1924 she is “on a leave of absence” according to the Deaconess Appointment List. The leave could have been for illness, further study, or home ties, a term applied when a woman had to be at home to nurse an ill relative or support a bachelor brother or widower father. As single women, who were not earning a salary, they were the ones called home. But, since Ella had already done that for her parents, another reason is more likely. Perhaps her extended visit home was to recover from an illness or to enhance her skills. Ella had been through a lot of change over the years from 1911 to 1917, living in 4 new cities in 6 years alone would be taxing. She may have needed a rest. One also wonders why her time in each ministry position was so short, although it is worth noting that the official expectations of the Order were that women would only be in any one position for 3 years. This rule was frequently broken, and completely abandoned near the time of Ella’s entry, having proven to be impractical and expensive, but debate about long and short term appointments continues in the 1920s.
The fourth possible reason for a leave of absence was to take work outside of the church. It is possible that Ella found a social work position, for example, given the nature of her five years of active ministry this would be no surprise. For one thing, social workers were paid better than Deaconesses, and by the 1920s, social work as a profession distinct from church work was coming in to its own. Secular agencies and governments were hiring social workers while at the same time the positions available for church social workers began to decline. The request for a leave was assessed annually by the National Deaconess Committee. If it looked like a woman was not going to return to work directly in the church, or if her work had no church connection, her status as a Deaconess was usually revoked.
Whether Ella resigned or was removed from the Order in 1924 is not clear. She is not on the list of women coming from the Methodist Church into the United Church Order when it is established in 1926. Even if she had been retained on the List, her career would have come to an end when she married. The Deaconess Order was only for single women, or widows. Once a woman married, and undertook her primary vocation of wife, and mother, as was expected, she was “disjoined”. The rules of the Order in 1918 are clear: when a woman leaves the Order, she is to return her pin. Many women, well into the 1950s, tell stories of their refusal to return their pin. It was a small act of protest against the loss of recognition, felt especially sharply when women married and then became trained volunteers that the church was happy to exploit. Did Ella pass back that gold Deaconess pin?
Ella married Hubert A. Comfort, a farmer from St. Ann’s, near St. Catharines’, Ontario. Hubert, born in Ontario about 1883, had a first marriage to Lillias Ann Lane in 1907 and they had one son, Keith. Lillias died in 1926 of ovarian cancer. It is possible that Hubert married Ella in 1931, as her obituary says she lived on the Comfort farm for 32 years (her death was in 1963).
After marriage Ella was an active member of Silverdale United Church and took leadership in the Woman’s Missionary Society group in the congregation. She was a life member of the Rosedene Women’s Institute.
The Acton Free Press carried Ella’s obituary as an article: a small town newspaper, but other death notices are not presented in this way, suggesting that Ella was well known and respected. She died October 26, 1963, at St. Joesph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario in her 91st year after an illness of a few weeks. She is buried in Lane’s Cemetery, St. Ann’s, Ontario. Her husband died sometime around February 1, 1967.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, January 2013.
[i] From her obituary, Acton Free Press, November 14, 1963.
[ii] Sherri-Lynne McConnell, “Canadian Deaconess and Missionary Education For Women Training To Live The Social Gospel: The Methodist National Training School and The Presbyterian Deaconess And Missionary Training Home, 1893-1926”, MA Thesis, University of Winnipeg, 2003, p 37. By 1918 the age had been lowered to 35.
[v] 1906-1907 Hamilton Conference, Annual Report of the Deaconess Aid Society, Fifth Annual Report, p. 61.
[vi] Sharilynn Upsdell is researching a thesis on Diaconal Pins and Identity. It is not clear yet when the Methodists started to give women pins, it could be that 1918 was the first year.
[vii] Acton Free Press, December 2, 1937, reporting on news from 20 years before.