Jean (Boal) Crabtree


Jean Margaret Crabtree
Surname as Student: Boal
Surname at Birth: Stewart
Education: Centre for Christian Studies
Graduation Year: 1971
Designated: 1971
Where: Toronto Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1935 - Born

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Jean Margaret Stewart was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1936.  She is the eldest child of James and Alice (nee McClean) Stewart.  She grew up during World War II, in a community divided between the Protestants, families like hers, and the Catholics, yet sharing a common enemy with air raids and bomb shelters being part of her everyday life.  It was a scary time but she and the other children loved to share the stories about what was happening in the area. Along with her mother, aunt and cousins, Jean left the city for a short time to stay with relatives when the bombing risk was heightened.  Her father, a labourer in the shipyard, had to remain behind.  That worry added to her fears.  After the war there was less work for labourers and Jean’s father lost his job, eventually able to find work as a night watchman.  It was only upon reflection that Jean came to understand that her family, and the neighbouring families, were poor. 

The wartime anxieties were not the only ones in Jean’s childhood. Both of her sisters, Florence and Audrey, died as children.  One sister, still a toddler, died suddenly when Jean was seven, then, when Jean was 15 her 8 year old sister was found to have a brain tumour. She was sent, along with her mother, to a hospital in England and there seen by a specialist, but there was nothing to do except keep her comfortable. This was very hard for Jean’s parents, especially her mother.  Her parents had a fourth child, born a few years later, this time a boy, James Jr.

Despite these tensions, Jean had some of the normal experiences of growing up.  She was very keen on Brownies, held in the Methodist Church.  She continued in the Guiding movement right through to Rangers.  Jean remembers the joy of going to her first week-long Girl Guide camp, on the outskirts of Belfast.  They had a great big tent and the weather was awful, but none the less it was an exciting opportunity for adventure. 

At fourteen years of age Jean was awarded a scholarship to attend a school that would prepare her to enter university. However, the school was quite a distance from home and required that she travel by bus.  She realized that the expenses associated with travelling to school were too much for her family, so she told them that she decided not to pursue additional education.  Instead she got a fulltime job doing data entry unto keypunch cards.  It was only at this point in her life that she “met” someone who was Catholic.  Developing a friendship, almost a forbidden thing, as they walked home from work, Jean learned her friend’s father was the head of the notorious Crumlin Road prison.  The Victorian-era facility held many IRA men.  Jean and her friend shared stories about their churches. The more they talked the more Jean realized that being Catholic wasn’t all that much different than being Protestant.

After moving to a new job, Jean met Arthur (Art) Boal, a draftsman. Their first date was to the cinema, a secret she had to keep from her parents, since they believed that the cinema was ‘of the devil’.  Jean and Art married in March, 1955 when Jean was 19.  While they saved to purchase a home, they lived with Jean’s parents. 

Art’s parents had met in Toronto just before the depression.  His mother was Scottish and his father was Irish.  When neither of them could find work in Toronto they returned to Ireland but Jessie, Jean’s mother-in-law, was always talking about Canada.  This influenced the young couple, ready for adventure, to decide to make their home in Canada. In November 1955, they traveled by ship from Belfast to Liverpool then to Glasgow and on to Montreal where they settled.  Art got a job in Montreal within a week and Jean returned to her work doing data entry. 

Several dramatic things happened in the first years in Canada.  The arrival of two children narrowed the focus of Jean’s life to her home.  At the same time Art felt a call to ministry, a broadening of his scope of vision.  The wrinkle was the lack of money to support the family while Art studied. Through some fortunate connections Art was able to get a weekend supply position near Cornwall, Ontario and started at Queen’s in Kingston in 1960. Art left Newington each Sunday afternoon after services, headed to Kingston, and returned Friday evening. The two-point pastoral charge expected that the minister’s wife would ‘know things’, so Jean began to teach herself things about church leadership. When Art returned home she would present things to him so he could make the final decision, but she was contributing a lot to the work. It was at that time that the United Church was bringing in the “New Curriculum”, an exciting project of Christian Education for people of all ages.  Jean and Art were asked to read over the lessons and give feedback.  They were so excited about that!  It was clear that Jean, too, was feeling a call to church work, but her desires had to wait until the time was right.  While in the Cornwall area, they had their next two children in 1961 and 1962.  Jean and Art made plans that they would seek a church in Toronto after Art served his obligatory settlement time, so Jean could attend Covenant College and become a Deaconess.

Art was settled in a four-point pastoral charge in Climax, Saskatchewan in July 1966.  He and Jean and their four children moved into the manse, an old house with cracks in the walls that let the prairie wind right on in.  The congregation was used to receiving a newly ordained minister every two years; no one ever stayed. As a result, by and large, they were not very welcoming.  Jean and Art felt like outsiders.

Then tragedy again struck in Jean’s life.  It was decided that their second daughter Valerie and her father should have their tonsils removed.  Everything went fine with Valerie but not for Art.  He died on the operating table.  This was May 1967, less than a year after being settled.  Although the people had not appeared friendly, everyone came out for the funeral and there were more people than the church could hold.  The Catholic Church set up a speaker system to accommodate the overflow. Art’s parents, who came for the funeral were grateful for the help of the Catholics, but wanted to make sure that none of the family in Ireland heard that they held part of the service in a Catholic Church.

Jean and her four children had to vacate the manse because the church was going to get a new minister in July!  The grieving widow moved back to Ontario.  By this time Jean’s parents had moved to Canada.  Her father too had a call to ministry, first serving with the Free Methodist Church, and then transferring to the United Church.  Jean and her children stayed with her family until insurance money enabled her to purchase her own home in Iroquois, Ontario.    Jean’s daughter, Pamela says of her mother, “She is an amazing woman.  I remember that growing up, I didn’t even know she was going to school and working – she was so resilient and strong and just kept the four of us going and looking back I only have admiration for all she did for us to keep our lives rich and ‘normal’.” [1]

Jean became involved in the local congregation, and shared with the minister her call to be a Deaconess. But he encouraged her to consider ordination.  He was concerned with her being able to find a job as a Deaconess that would provide for a family of four, a fear which was not unfounded. Deaconesses had no job security and were not nearly as well paid as ordained ministers.  In a 1975 United Church Observer article Jean is quoted saying:

“In the back of your mind you feel if hard times come, deaconesses may go.” If a woman considering the options of minister or deaconess training asked her for advice, Mrs. Boal says she would lean heavily towards ordination.[2]

Jean had the support to pursue ordination from her Presbytery and Conference, but did not get the necessary approval from the National Church for the short course, the only option for her because she didn’t have an undergraduate degree, short of returning to university for a Bachelor’s degree before even beginning theology.  After discussions with Lottie Franklin (Hearne), a Deaconess in Cornwall, and another woman in Church House who worked with Deaconesses, Jean decided to go to Covenant College (renamed the Centre for Christian Studies in 1970).  She entered the school in 1969.

Instead of a more conventional field placement, due to Jean’s fairly broad experience in the church, she was able to take a course in chaplaincy at Toronto General Hospital.  There she discovered a strong sense of call to this ministry.  She took additional training in chaplaincy at Sick Children’s hospital the following semester. 

The Deaconess Order, while in the throes of significant change, was still a lay order and not subject to settlement. This meant that the women had to secure their own job after graduation and designation.  Jean applied for a position in Winnipeg as a hospital visitor, and without a face to face interview, she was offered the job.  But the risk of relocating her whole family without having even met anyone was too great. A part time ministry doing home and hospital visitations at St. Andrew’s, Toronto, where Jean had been attending, opened up and she accepted it.  Shortly after, a half time chaplaincy position at Women’s College Hospital came along.  When the hospital offered her full time work in 1973 she accepted and resigned from St. Andrew’s.  

Being a single parent while working full time was demanding, but Jean was energetic and committed to the church.  Letting her name stand, she was elected to the position of chair of Toronto Area Presbytery, the first woman in the position.  Jean remembers this as being fun and an opportunity to learn a great deal about the church from the gifts offered by the Presbytery’s members.  She attended General Council in 1974, speaking up for the rights of women. (See 1974 Observer article.)  Jean was concerned about those on the margins.

In 1975, Jean was interviewed for what turned out to be a large spread in the Globe and Mail. As a result of the article Jean received a call from a teacher inviting her to come and speak to his class.  They agreed to meet to discuss the session, one thing led to another and in 1977 Jean married Bas Crabtree.  Jean continued at Women’s College Hospital, returning to study, this time at Emmanuel College and she was ordained June 1, 1983. 

Jean recalls that during the early 1980s as the AIDS epidemic was emerging there were powerful learnings in her work with young gay men. (Jean circa late 1980s)  In a newspaper article[3] of the time, Jean explained, “I think there are three things that people have trouble dealing with: their sexuality, a terminal illness and people that are not like them.  That all comes together with people with AIDS.”  Jean began visiting with the men, in a team with a psychiatrist.  The men knew that many of the staff members were afraid of them, so Jean and her colleague always began the visit by shaking hands.  It was a simple but profound gesture, not unlike Jesus touching a leper. (Jean with nurses.) Jean was instrumental in creating a “bereavement team” concept at Women’s College, a new idea, which drew some attention in chaplaincy networks. (Article Jean wrote for United Church Mandate Magazine on the death of a baby)

Jean’s daughter, Pamela recalled a story from her mother’s WCH days:

When she worked at Women’s College, the Queen Mum visited in 1981.  We had heard the story many times, but never had “proof!”  … I wrote to WCH and asked them for details … they sent photos of the Queen Mum in the preemie nursery at WCH and my mother vividly remembers the event!  She was not in any of the photos, but she said the nurses convinced her to sit outside the preemie nursery to see the royalty when she visited.”  (See Photo)

Bas was offered a package for early retirement.  Not wanting to have the kind of regrets she heard expressed by the people she visited, Jean also decided to retire in 1993 to spend more time with Bas.

Through retirement, Jean and Bas lived in Oakville and Burlington and enjoyed renovating and spending time in two different cottages they owned – one in Lake Erie and one in Port Colborne. During the summer months, the cottage excursions were a special part of their life and they spent as much time as was practical away from the city and relaxing in the comfort of the cottage surroundings. As Autumn-weather settled in, they would plan trips to far-off destinations while they awaited the return of cottage-friendly Spring and Summer weather.

They traveled extensively through their retirement years, often venturing off to pursue Bas’ interests in researching and even meeting some of his most admired personalities.  They traveled to England, France, Portugal, Spain, and Greece as well as many other national and international destinations.

In October, 2011, Bas died suddenly and Jean once again began the adjustment of being widowed.  She moved to North Vancouver, British Columbia in August 2012 and has settled there, becoming an active member in her church community. (Jean in 2013)

This profile was compiled May 2013 by Caryn Douglas based on material gathered in an interview conducted by Vicky Aldersley, November 8, 2010 for an assignment at the Centre for Christian Studies.  Many thanks to Pamela Hollington, Jean’s daughter, for reviewing the biography with her mother.

[1] Pamela Hollington email correspondence, May 2013.
[2] Muriel Duncan, “You haven’t made it until we’ve all made it …”, The United Church Observer, March, 1975, p 13
[3] “A Chaplain’s perspective on AIDS”, an undated, unattributed newspaper article in Jean’s private papers, circa 1983.