Gwen (Davis) McMurtry


Deaconess Gwendaline Isabel McMurtry, B.A.
Surname as Student: Davis
Education: United Church Training School

Designated: 1944
Where: Saskatchewan Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1920 - Born, October 28, Balgonie, SK
  • 1944 - Married, December 2, 1944
  • 1947 - Disjoined, because of marriage
  • 1947 - Disjoined, because of marriage
  • 1992 - Died, July 20

  • 1943: Deaconess Candidate, Southminster United Church (Lethbridge), Lethbridge, AB
  • 1943: Deaconess Candidate
  • 1944: United Church Deaconess, Southminster United Church (Lethbridge), Lethbridge, AB
  • 1944: Deaconess, Southminster United Church (Lethbridge), Lethbridge, AB
  • 1945: United Church Deaconess allowed to continue in the Order while husband overseas on leave of absence, Oct 16, 2012, Silton SK
  • 1945: WMS Missionary at Large, Saskatoon, SK
  • 1946: WMS Missionary at Large, Saskatoon, SK
  • 1946-1947: Deaconess, Tugaske Pastoral Charge, Tugaske, SK
  • 1947: United Church Deaconess until July when husband returned, Tugaske Pastoral Charge, Tugaske, SK

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Even before her birth the church loomed large in Gwendaline Isabel Davis McMurtry’s story.  Her parents met at the Bible Training Institute in Glasgow, Scotland, about 1900. Her mother, Isabella Coote was born in Aughnacloy, Ireland, in 1880. Isa had a desire to be a missionary in China from an early age, but was told she wasn’t strong enough.  Gwen’s father, William (Will) Arthur Davis, was born in London, England, in 1878. They were married in London on August 9, 1904 and sailed for Canada the next day, making their way to the west coast. Irene was born in 1906, and Lucy in 1908, just as Will was enrolled in theology at Westminster Hall, Vancouver. He took courses in the summer and was in a congregation year round. Bill was born February, 1911 and Winnifred in April, 1912.  Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, Will moved his family to Saskatchewan in 1913. Will served a number of small towns, including Balgonie, where Gwen was born, October 28, 1920, when her mother was nearly 40.

Gwen was a much loved child and her memories of small town manse life in the communities of Lemberg, Birch Hills and Scott, Saskatchewan were positive.  She was a keen athlete, capable artist and a talented musician, traits that appeared early on.  Later in her life Gwen recalled some of her earliest memories:

my Christmas stocking, getting a red table and chair, …lying with my head on my mother’s lap in church,  singing songs with the evangelist at Regina College, … Children’s Day at school being asked to go on a Cub hike and when I didn’t want to, Mother saying I didn’ t have to, she was loving-I remember her hand on my head when I was sick, I slept with my mother from ages 5-12, she … believed dancing and cards were wrong, …my special relationship with my oldest sister Irene.

When Gwen was 10, Irene went to Toronto to attend the United Church Training School, the first of three Davis children to do that. As Irene was graduating the family moved to Drinkwater, another small Saskatchewan town where Gwen went to high school, graduating in 1937 from grade 11at the top of her class. She had also progressed well with her music, taking piano lessons from a teacher in Moose Jaw. Her parents moved to Craik where they spent three years, but Gwen was to spend time there only during holidays.  In September 1937, she went to the United Church’s Regina College to take her grade 12 and continue work for her ATCM in piano. She was not quite seventeen. This was during the depression and it was at great sacrifice to her family that Gwen went to college. They were proud of her and encouraging of her many gifts. In April, 1939, she received from her parents a two-dollar bill for a post-exam blowout. A letter from Irene, who by then was the wife of the Reverend Harvey Inglis and the mother of two young children, expresses regret for having no money for a birthday gift, and notes that she is enclosing a nearly new hanky as a remembrance anyway.[1]

Gwen’s husband Doug recalls, “As Gwen began her first year in Arts, which was in her second year at Regina College, and was choosing what subjects to take, she must have been considering preparing to take theology. In response to this suggestion, in a letter her father quotes Dr. R. J. McDonald, the Superintendent of Home Missions, as volunteering the advice that, “the Theological Course is not the best for you as the ministry is too hard for women.” [2]  The strongest advocates for the acceptance of women in ministry during this period were from the prairies, yet even there, the negative opinion had adamant proponents.  It wasn’t always rational either, as fear motivated many to cling to any excuse to keep women in their place.  Did Gwen’s father oppose women in ministry, or was he only trying to protect his daughter from ridicule and discrimination?

Nellie McClung, best known for her women’s suffrage campaigns, was also a champion for the ordination of women in the United Church.  From one of her speeches: “A discussion had arisen over the advisability of ordaining women for the ministry.  Said one Doctor of Divinity, “Women would have to be very attractive before they could qualify.”  It’s a good thing looks were not a qualification for men in the past.  If you don’t believe me, look around you at these delegates.  I’ll grant you they are intelligent men, excellent men, but you would never mistake it for a beauty show.”  Nellie’s wit was an essential tool in her work to tear down barriers for women.  In a public debate on the issue, a Calgary newspaper reported, “[Mrs. McClung’s] opponent, Dr. W. A. Lewis, had told a story from his own experience which demonstrated, he said, the difficulties for women in ministry.  On a certain occasion he had had to pull his horse and buggy out of a muddy slough without dirtying his suit before church.  When McClung had the chance, she retorted that women would have been practical enough to wear old slickers, and carry their good clothes in a bag.”[3]

Doug McMurtry continues in reflection on the vocational advice given Gwen by her father, “I can imagine the negative response “advice” like that would have received from Gwen in her later years, but at the time it was apparently enough to cause her to give up any thought of taking theology.”[4]  One wonders what role models Gwen might have looked to in shaping a dream to be in ordained ministry?  Ministry, through the act of ordination, only opened as a possibility for women in the United Church in 1934.  There were only two ordained women in 1938, when Gwen seems to have considered the vocation.[5] Had she met Lydia Gruchy, the first woman ordained in 1936?  Lydia had been in lay ministry in Saskatchewan Conference since finishing her theological degree at St. Andrew’s College in 1923, and was in Moose Jaw in 1938, not far from Regina.  Perhaps Lydia had visited Regina College, or been a leader in a young people’s program that Gwen had attended. Lydia’s ordination, and the debates leading up to the Church’s decision to ordain women, was a prominent news story of the day, with extensive coverage in public newspapers and magazines as well as in church publications.  It would have been a lively topic of conversation among Saskatchewan church folks.  Interesting, four years later, Gwen’s request to be considered for the Deaconess Order would have been received by Lydia, then employed as the Secretary for the Committee that oversaw the Order.

After two years at Regina College Gwen had completed grade 12, first year Arts, and two degrees in music, her ATCM and a L.Mus.  She was a well-rounded and well respected young woman.

Gwen moved to Saskatoon in 1939 to attend the University of Saskatchewan to complete her Arts degree. It was here that she met Doug McMurtry, also an Arts student, through their mutual involvement in the Student Christian Movement (SCM).  It wasn’t “love at first sight”, as Doug recalls.  Gwen was popular and busy and it took a while until she noticed Doug and he felt comfortable asking for some of her attention.  After completion of her degree in May 1941, Gwen worked for the YWCA in Saskatoon.  She continued this part time employment in the fall, while taking more courses at the University and assuming the position of President of the SCM.  Gwen wrote in her year-end report, “For myself, I should like to say thank you to each member of the cabinet and to all other SCMers, because their fellowship and help have made this one of the richest and happiest years of my life.” [6] But it was also a difficult year for Gwen.  In addition to the stress many people were experiencing as the war continued on, her mother was not well.  In September Gwen went to a SCM Conference in Ontario knowing her mother was very frail.  While she was there her mother died, but in keeping with her mother’s wishes, Gwen did not return home for the funeral.  She found it hard to deal with her grief, not having been part of the funeral and family time.  In November she experienced a break down. Doug was one of the people giving her pastoral support and within a few months they were officially in love.

Gwen’s family was happy for her, even if Doug was a pacifist who refused military service.  Both being “PKs” (preacher’s kids), Doug and Gwen shared the experience of growing up immersed in the church.  They even shared a connection with the Deaconess school.  Doug’s mother, Ethel Douglas McMurtry(Biography link) attended the National Methodist Training School in 1917-1918, for a special one year program to prepare to be a minister’s wife. Gwen’s older sister, Irene, had graduated from the United Church Training School in 1932.  Irene went to the school intending to become a Deaconess, but that was before meeting Harvey Inglis.  He was at Emmanuel College, nearby the Training School, preparing for ordination.  Having to decide, at the point of her graduation, whether to marry or pursue a diaconal vocation as a single woman, she decided to marry, taking up instead the vocation of minister’s wife.  The number of women trained to be a Deaconess, who then become a minister’s wife was astounding[7].  Irene was also one of the women affected by the disjoining rule, but in an even less visible way than the women who were disjoined after Designation.

Gwen too had plans to attend the United Church Training School, with a view to becoming a Deaconess.  Interestingly, her family did not hold any objection to this plan for church work, when the demands and expectations on a Deaconess were as great as those for ordained personnel, and with a lot less income to make do on!  Many Deaconesses would have been thrilled with the luxury of a horse and buggy, as described by Rev. Lewis in his debate with Nellie McClung, to get them around their pastoral charges.  Deaconess candidate, Jessie McLeod, pictured here with her transportation, was grateful she had always been athletic when she landed in Success, Saskatchewan in 1946 for her summer field.  A year later, Alision Andrews Yoshioka’s summer field was in Henryburg, Saskatchewan.  A week before her departure from the United Church Training School, 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.”

Deaconesses worked in a wide array of situations, but many served pastoral charges, particularly those that were funded and staffed by the Woman’s Missionary Society.  These pastoral charges were typically in isolated, even remote locations.  The Deaconess, the only paid staff, carried out all the functions of “ministry”, except for conducting sacraments, just as Gwen eventually did in several communities.  All evidence to the contrary, the church insisted however, that Deaconesses were not ministers. Ministry was, in reality, the realm of men and while the labour of women was needed, and appreciated, systemic attitudes about women were slow to change.

In anticipation of entering the school in the fall of 1942, Gwen applied to serve a summer mission field, and was assigned to provide ministry to the small community of Talmage, near Weyburn, Saskatchewan.  Her work included leading worship, visiting and Christian education.  Like her sisters, her only means of transportation was a bicycle.  Regina Presbytery was suitably impressed with Gwen and her work and recommended her for studies and membership in the Order.  However, just prior to Gwen’s departure for Ontario, Doug borrowed $30 and bought her an engagement ring.  She accepted, continuing on to the school in the knowledge that she would not be allowed to be both a Deaconess and a married woman. One of the reasons Deaconess were not considered ministers was the understanding that ministry was a lifelong commitment and any act that placed one into ministry, like ordination, was irrevocable. A call to the vocation of minister was primary and could not be expressed in tandem with any other vocation.  That meant that the vocation of “wife and mother”, always yoked in the discussions of the day, could not be managed alongside a vocation to ministry.  Even though Deaconesses were not ministers officially, it would seem that the vocation was close enough to being ministry that theologically women could not exercise both at once.

Looking back on this era it takes imagination to understand what it was like for the women who felt a pull towards serving God through church work as a Deaconess and marriage.  Many of the women who received the education to become a Deaconess, but married, before or after designation, accepted it as the natural course of things.  Jean (Baynton) Shilton, who became a Deaconess just as Gwen was entering the school in 1942 , upon reflection in 2006 wrote, “[As a Deaconess] who married in 1945, I was one of the women affected by the “disjoining rule”… While I thought the rule was quaint and mildly amusing, I had no sense of being treated unjustly by the church.  I shared the common assumption in those days that marriage was a full-time job for a woman and since I would no longer be working as a deaconess it was no hardship to lose the designation. … Viewed from the perspective of 2006 the rule looks discriminatory, but in 1945 I did not experience it as so.”[8]

As Jean Shilton points out, the work of maintaining a family, without daycare facilities, and without processed foods, electric appliances, even running water, required significant domestic labour.  Women at home, particularly with young children, were busy.  Women, at least middle and upper class women, were also responsible for the infrastructure and staffing for social and recreational institutions.  The amount of volunteer time and energy committed by these women enabled strong community and civic institutions, both directly and because their domestic labour freed up men for community involvement in addition to being in the paid work force.  But not all women were satisfied with the limited roles prescribed for them.  Marjorie Watson (Powles) was a classmate of Gwen’s at the Training School.  Like so many others, she married a minister a few years after finishing her course.  In her autobiography she writes, “When [I married Cyril in 1945] I had been working steadily for over ten years … during the war it had been patriotic for married women to work, but the day the war ended, we were expected to retire to our kitchens, and leave the jobs for the men. … I spent an inordinate amount of time entertaining and doing laundry under inconvenient circumstances, I was also bored!”[9]

As Gwen prepared to go east, she couldn’t have known that the foundation of the normative lifestyle for married women had cracks in it.  Wartime allowed women to move into the public sphere and take on responsibilities previously out of reach, sparking a coming of age process for women. Questions about the roles of men and women in society were on the agenda of even conservative organizations very soon after the war period. And on the economic front, emerging technological changes were about to dramatically redefine the nature of work and workers.

Doug, entering Theology in 1942, expected to be assigned to alternative service as a conscientious objector at any time.  As it turned out, this didn’t happen but he did have to leave school to nurse his very ill mother.  For the remainder of the school year he took Theology courses by correspondence.  In Toronto, Gwen enjoyed her studies and the experience of being in residence with other women.  She found the “orthodox theological climate at Emmanuel College”, where the women took some of their courses, to be too conservative for her SCM and pacifist influenced theology.  She made a good friend of Marjorie Watson (Powles), with whom she shared a passion for the SCM.  Like many of her classmates, Gwen had critique of the etiquette and hospitality aspect of the Training School curriculum, preferring the courses in theology, scripture, Christian education and pastoral care.  Doug wonders though, if the “may have contributed to the grace with which she spoke and carried herself in all kinds of situations.”[10]

With a previous degree, Gwen was only required to do one year at the Training School, so she graduated in May, 1943.  As a candidate for the Deaconess Order, she took a position with the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS) as assistant to the minister at Southminster Church in Lethbridge. With a ruling that theological students were exempt from alternative service requirements, and Doug’s younger sister at home with his mother, he went on a fast track to finish his theological degree in Saskatoon.  It was in Saskatoon, at the annual meeting of Saskatchewan Conference in June 1944, that Gwen was designated as a Deaconess. Although engaged to Doug at the time, no objection was raised by the Committee on the Deaconess Order, even though she was upfront that she would be marrying. This was not unusual, as the whole system was predicated on Deaconess work being temporary, but in the absence of many men who were serving in the war, the openness to Deaconesses, even if term, was even greater.

In the meantime, Doug had decided to apply to serve with the Friends’ (Quakers) Ambulance Unit in China.  While not obligated to do alternative service in a work camp in Canada, assisting with the Friends work would be a meaningful way to demonstrate his commitment to peace. Gwen and Doug decided to be married before he went to China.  Doug was ordained September 1, 1944 and settled to Smeaton, Saskatchewan.  He only remained there for a few months as he was called to serve with the Friends in November.  With only days to prepare, Gwen and Doug married on December 2, 1944.  Doug doesn’t remember much about the service, but “I am sure Gwen didn’t promise to obey!”, he proclaimed.

Gwen did resign from her position at Lethbridge however, and considered herself disjoined from the Deaconess Order. She sent correspondence to Tena Campion, the Secretary to the Deaconess Order advising the Deaconess Committee, of her actions. However in January, 1945, when Mrs Campion reported the marriage, the Deaconess Committee discussed the case and decided that:

since Mrs. McMurtry’s husband would be serving in China with “The Friends Ambulance Unit” and considering the fine work she has been doing in Lethbridge that she be continued as a member of the Deaconess Order with the hope that she would soon be able to resume her work in Canada.[11]

Gwen accepted the proposal, and was reinstated in her Lethbridge position, and given leave to accompany him to the two week orientation in Toronto. But instead of returning to Lethbridge as expected, the Friends made it possible for her to continue with Doug to the United States for further training.  She asked Southminster in Lethbridge for a two month leave of absence, but it was denied, so she resigned.

With Doug’s departure to China, Gwen returned home to Silton, Saskatchewan where she found her father, Will, quite unwell. She stepped in and assumed many of his worship and pastoral duties until summer 1945.  The congregation acknowledged Gwen’s work with a gift of $25.[12]  Will was at the retirement age, but accepted another call, even though he was very frail and only up to part time work.  Gwen and her sister Wyn, moved with their father to Tugaske, near Moose Jaw.

Gwen supported her father, in a kind of team ministry for a few months, as he was not well enough to handle the half time position.  He did the preaching and some of the pastoral work, she led CGIT and other children’s programs, Bible study, and the choir. Gwen investigated going to China to join Doug, but that proved not to be possible, and with no salary coming in she was truly in need of a job.  Her days were filled, but not in a meaningful way, and she missed Doug.  In her diary she wrote, “Wish Doug were here.  Sometimes I think I can last 2 years, other times it seems interminable.  Stayed up late after the others to read 1,2 Thess [alonians] and commentary.”[13] She wrote to Mrs. Campion, Secretary of the Deaconess Order explaining her need.  Gwen and her family were well connected in the United Church, and many knew of her need.  She received a letter from Dr. McDonald, the Superintendent of Home Missions, (the same man with the advice about women in ministry) explaining that there was a desperate need in what must have been non congregational work.  She wrote in her diary, on August 6, 1945, “I feel the urgent need that exists but doubt whether I will do it.  Would rather gain greater experience for when Doug & I are on a rural charge together.”  There are several other similar references in her words about working together with Doug, sharing in ministry, perhaps in the way that she was sharing the responsibilities with her father.  Gwen did later participate in volunteer congregational leadership where Doug worked.  Her recorded thoughts would indicate that she at least anticipated that it would be more of a mutual ministry than her supporting his work.  Unfortunately, there are no documents revealing her thoughts later in her life.

Gwen must have communicated her interest in congregational ministry to Dr. McDonald, for a week later she accompanied him to visit two vacant charges on the eastern side of Saskatchewan but she worried that they were too far from her father.  Gwen’s angst is obvious in her diary.  A second entry for August 6 records the dropping of the first atomic bomb in Japan.  Her worry for Doug as the scene in Pacific is shifting is noted.  She is also worried about her father, friends are losing sons to the war, she is missing Doug and she is down to her last $2.  She seems unable to decide what to do.

An invitation from the Coleville Pastoral Charge in west central Saskatchewan attracts her attention.  They are offering an annual salary of $1500, a manse, plus transportation, but she is concerned that the charge is “inaccessible and there is no electricity.”  Gwen then gets a call from the local WMS in Saskatoon that there is an opening for a Missionary at Large.  In an uncharacteristic note of determination she writes, “Decided to try for M at L” after speaking to the woman in Saskatoon and learning that the job would be similar to what she had done in Lethbridge, and that it would not necessarily be a long appointment.  She also noted in her diary that it would be good to be back in Saskatoon, and one can assume, to be with friends.  Gwen seemed lonely.  She wired right away to Mrs. Campion asking her to speak to Mrs. Loveys, the WMS Personnel Secretary.   She was very surprised to get a prompt response from Mrs. Campion discouraging her and urging her instead to find “congregational or mission work” for which Mrs. Campion thought she was better suited.  Yet four days later she got a letter from Mrs. Campion saying she had passed her name to the WMS.  Gwen wrote in her diary, “I had almost made up my mind that I would like, even prefer to go to Coleville – but this other job may be just the thing.”  On October 12 she received a letter from Mrs. Loveys offering her the Missionary at Large position.  Gwen writes, “the salary is disappointing — $800 plus $200 room rent and, $120 expenses, just what that is, I don’t know.  I have a job!”

It wasn’t at all unusual for women workers to earn less than men in the church.  The WMS salary package, nearly 50% less than that being offered by a pastoral charge, reflects the systemic nature of the imbalance. Assumptions that married women workers were supported by a husband’s wage, or the inaccurate assessment that widowed or single women had no family to support, justified low wages.  Also undergirding the low wage scale for Deaconesses and for WMS workers was the prevailing attitude that these positions were temporary, and filled mostly by young women.  Women would get married and be supported then.  Women who served for their entire careers were chronically underpaid and had little or no pension.

Unfortunately the position turned out to be very disappointing for Gwen.  Even on her first day on the job she was skeptical, as she writes, “I am disappointed that there is not R[eligious] E[ducation] work in connection with my job. [which had been a major part of her Lethbridge assignment]. I only hope that it works out well.  I have my doubts!” The work was not well defined and her attempts to make it more effective were thwarted by the WMS Committee who had oversight.  In addition to visiting in the Tuberculosis Sanatorium, Gwen was to visit in areas of Saskatoon without a United Church presence and encourage people to attend one or another of the existing United Churches.  She had an office at St. Thomas Wesley United Church, where she found a supportive colleague in Rev. Bob Elliott.  He and Gwen agreed that a better strategy would be for her to be attached to St. Thomas Wesley and do church outreach in that developing area of the city.  This proposal was not accepted, however.

It is hard to know whether any position would have made Gwen happy.  Her disappointment with the position in Saskatoon was immediate. Even on her first day her attitude is critical. Less than two weeks into it she wrote, “I am not much use here.  Went to S[unday]. S[chool]. [I didn’t like the way it was being led.] I don’t get a chance to do anything … I have no authority in this job.”  Perhaps Mrs. Campion was right that she was better suited to pastoral ministry, or perhaps it was truly a difficult situation where change was not going to be possible.  Gwen is young, talented, well connected and physically healthy but her spirit seemed dampened by the uncertainty around her and her energy to make the job her own was probably low.  The extent pages of her diary end on November 16, 1945, so it is not possible to know how she felt as the position continued, but her willingness to leave it in less than a year indicate that there wasn’t much change.

In August 1946, Gwen’s father Will died suddenly.  When she returned to Tugaske to help her sister clear things out of the manse, the Church Board asked her if she would accept the now vacant position, and serve as their minister.  As Doug explains, Gwen was happy to resign from the work in Saskatoon and instead of clearing out the manse, she moved in.

With the death of their father, Gwen’s sister Wyn, who had dutifully stayed at home nursing first their mother and then their father, was free to pursue her wish to become a Deaconess. She enrolled immediately in the United Church Training School program and departed for Toronto.  She graduated two years later, became a Deaconess and served 5 rural pastoral charges, until her retirement in 1965.  Wyn married John Henderson, a retired, bachelor farmer in 1962.  They had no children. She died at the age of 92 in 2004. (To see Wyn’s Profile)

Gwen’s ministry was well received by the people at Tugaske.  She lead in worship at Tugaske and neighbouring Bridgeford, visited in homes, met with the Church boards, led both choir and CGIT (a group for girls).  She was able to process her grief over her father’s death in a community who also shared in her loss.  When news came that Doug would be returning to Canada in April 1947, they gladly allowed her to travel to Vancouver to meet him, especially since it was negotiated that Doug would step in and assume the role of minister when the couple returned.

In Doug’s recounting of this time in their lives he commented, “It is one of my deepest regrets that I never spoke to Gwen about how she felt about it until many years later, and one of my deepest shames that it never occurred to me at the time that she would have any feelings, any feelings at all, about me taking over her work.”[14]  In Doug’s memory, Gwen never expressed any resentment or grief.  The rigid roles for men and women, in this immediate post war period, were well in place in rural Saskatchewan, even among people who had invited a woman to be their minister at a time when it was not common.  As Jean Shilton reflected, it is a jarring story now, but in the mid 1940s it was just the way it was. Toward the end of Gwen’s life, she became a strong advocate for women’s equality.  Perhaps her own experiences helped her in coming to see the destructive nature of sexism.

When the Deaconess Committee became aware of Doug’s return to Canada in 1947 they “agreed that Mrs. McMurtry be apprised of the ruling as found in the Constitution and that she be now disjoined from the Order.”[15] Again, Doug did not recall his wife being angry at having to relinquish her status again. The option of marriage and vocation for women was just not possible, although the church had the power to make it possible arbitrarily when it served its needs! Doug was certain Gwen relished the time during which she could break the rules as the first married United Church Deaconess, and do the work she had been trained to do and had a calling for.

Gwen was the only woman allowed to function as a Deaconess while married, until the rule began to change in the late 1950s.  The minutes of the Deaconess Committee do not record any of the rationale for their decision to allow her to be continued in the Order.  There was a shortage of personnel to serve the needs of the church because of the war.  That could have influenced the decision making, although there were critical shortages of Deaconess in the 1950s during the heyday of the baby boom filled Sunday schools and the church resisted a change to allow married women to serve then.  Gwen was a very talented and capable minister, perhaps the quality of her work influenced some, not wanting to see her talents lost to the church.  It is important to note, however, that Gwen could have been employed by a pastoral charge even without the status of a Deaconess.  Often forgotten in the discussions about disjoining is the fact that the church employed married “lay” women.  Tena Campion, for example, who was the head of the Deaconess Order in 1947, was married.

Gwen assumed the role of minister’s wife and house wife.  She led the choir and youth groups. She assisted in worship leadership upon occasion.  Life in rural Saskatchewan had its rustic charm: the manse had no running water and the coal furnace was stoked by hand, and, winter transportation consisted of a toboggan pulled by a horse. Gwen gave birth to three children: David (1949), Norah (1951) and, then in Wolseley, Michael (1955).  David developed severe epilepsy, with frequent seizures, a situation that was very stressful for Gwen, trying to care for two small children. Fortunately, they were able to take him to the Mayo Clinic in New York where a special diet was prescribed which cured him of the seizures.

In 1957 the family moved to Melville, a town of 5,000.  Gwen continued to manage the household and volunteered in the church, notably overseeing the CGIT program for 75 girls.  She also taught music theory.  The next move, in 1963, took the family to Grenfell, but Doug worked on the nearby Round Lake Reserve.  For the first time Gwen was not the “minister’s wife” but could be involved in the congregation as a regular, although theologically educated, member.  She taught Sunday school and led CGIT.  She was active in the wider church at the Prairie Christian Training Centre and in Saskatchewan Conference. She also helped Doug with the children’s programs and women’s groups at Round Lake.  She continued to take music students in her home.

Doug’s experience with First Nation people led to an invitation to become Home Mission Superintendent in 1966 (later reorganized to Conference Personnel Minister), working out of Winnipeg with the northern First Nations congregations.  The move to the city afforded Gwen many opportunities in the church and community for her interests and skills.  Doug was away extensively, leaving Gwen to be the primary parent, but with their children now in high school, she had much more time and became very active at Windsor Park United Church, again as a member, not in the shadow of her minister husband. She enjoyed a weekly volunteering role with children’s programming at the Museum of Man and Nature.  As the children left home, Gwen, as Doug recalls, “had the time and energy and the need to find herself and expand her powers in a new way.  Mainly through the continuing education groups at the University of Winnipeg she struggled with new ideas and new possibilities for her life.  … she explored returning to the work force … but the result was she felt comfortable to continue to offer her gifts as a volunteer in the church [and community].”[16] Doug is confident though that she was happy with her life as church volunteer and that she knew she had skills that were valued and needed by the church at that time.  It was in this period, around 1976 or 1977, that it was made known that women who were disjoined could apply to have their status reinstated.  As Doug recalls, Gwen considered it but felt she had left that identity behind.  She was also sure that she was not going to return to the paid work force, so the credential was not necessary.  Shortly after the United Church formerly apologized to the disjoined deaconesses and their families in 2006, Doug received a letter of apology from the then Moderator, David Giuliano.  Doug wondered if this type of effort had been made in the 1970’s if Gwen would have thought differently, but he also acknowledged that Gwen was just on the edge of a profound change in her thinking about women’s issues. If that awakening had come earlier, she again might have reacted differently.

Doug explains, “When in 1978, I returned to the pastorate at Immanuel United Church, Gwen (pictured in 1979) found a stimulating community, particularly in her women’s study group, and was soon immersed with me in many aspects of the congregation’s ministry, while continuing outside interests.  Also at this time she became involved in the early life of the women’s movement which was coming alive in the church. This became another means by which she came into a fuller understanding of herself as a woman – a Christian woman – and through which she gained in personal strength and self-confidence.  This gain allowed her to share her strength and understandings with others, which she freely did.  Without intending to do so, she became the one at Immanuel to whom awakening women, both young and older, looked for wisdom and support.”[17]

In March of 1992, Gwen (pictured in 1991) experienced some severe back pain.  A diagnosis of cancer in her spine, already spread to several organs, was received by friends and family with shock and deep sadness.  She died on July 20, with her daughter Norah and Doug by her side.

This biography is written by Caryn Douglas, April 2012 drawing on the resources cited and conversations over a 3 year period with Doug McMurtry.

1 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren p 15.

2 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren p 16.

3 Patricia Wotton, With Love, Lydia The Story of Canada’s First Woman Ordained Minister, D&P Wotton, 2012. P135.

4 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren p 16.

5 Lydia Gruchy, 1936, Saskatchewan, Reba Hern, 1938, Ontario.

6 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren, p 20.

7 This is an area of research that remains to be explored in detail.

8 Letter from Jean Shilton to Rev. Dr. Bruce Gregersen, General Council, March 16, 2006,  in response to an invitation to attend a Service of Apology to Disjoined Women at the General Council Executive Meeting, April 2006.

9 Marjorie Agnes Powles, To a Strange Land, Artemis Press, Dundas, Ontario, 1993, p 54.

10 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren p 25.

11 The United Church of Canada Archives (Toronto) Fonds 501. Minutes of the Committee on Deaconess Work, January 24, 1945. Series 206 82.292C Box 1-6.

12 Doug McMurtry, Recollections for my Grandchildren p 41.

13 Gwen McMurtry, Personal Papers, Daily Diary May 21, 1945 to November 16, 1945. All other references to Gwen’s own words are from this source.

14 Interview with Doug McMurtry, January 4, 2012.

15 The United Church of Canada Archives (Toronto) Fonds 501. Minutes of the Committee on Deaconess Work, May 20, 1947. Series 206 82.292C Box 1-6.

16 Doug McMurtry, unpublished paper, Overall reflections on life with Gwen, 1993

17 Doug McMurtry, unpublished paper, Overall reflections on life with Gwen, 1993