Jean (Swan) Parker


Jean Mackenzie Parker, BA, BEd
Surname as Student: Swan
Other Surname: Parker
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1946
Designated: 1947
Where: Maritime Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1923 - Born

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Jean Swan Parker was a well-respected diaconal minister.  She had a varied career and excelled at each aspect of ministry she undertook.  Throughout her life she was a learner and encouraged learning in others.  Nancy Hardy, a colleague of Jean’s in the 1980s identified her as one of the “wise women” of the church.

In 1988 Jean wrote the following autobiography for inclusion in a special edition of the Newsletter of the Association of Professional Church Workers.  It is presented here with a few edits to provide clarification and context.

I was born June 15, 1923 in Mackenzie Corner, New Brunswick and grew up in Fredericton.  Like many United Church Maritimers I attended the United Church’s Mount Allison University in Sackville. In the fall of 1945, following graduation with a Bachelor’s degree, I became a student at the United Church Training School in Toronto as part of the largest class in its history to that date.

It was an unusual year in that World War II had just ended, and so our class was a mix of recent University graduates, women who had been working in war industry, others who had been in the Armed Services, and pacifists who had worked with refugees and internees during the.war period. I well remember, too, the day nylon stockings first went on sale to the public and the lineups to get your two allotted pairs at Eaton’s College Street store! And the ration books, which were still a necessity for Eva McFarlane, the dietitian at the Training School.  She was able to make varied and nutritious meals despite the limited food available. It was the first year of Mrs. Jean Hutchinson’s principalship, and a great and exciting time it was, for we were all learning and growing together. A brave, new, peaceful world awaited us!

Because I had an undergraduate degree I was only required to take one year at the Training School, unlike others who attended for two years.  My first appointment as a church professional was in First United Church in Truro, Nova Scotia in 1946. The first year my duties were to be part-time church secretary and part time Director of Christian Education. Today’s diaconal ministers would shun such an arrangement, but to me it was a lifesaver. I knew how to be a good secretary and therein lay my confidence. I was scared stiff of my role as Director of Christian Education. However, l learned fast and by the second year the congregation decided they needed me as a full time Christian educator.  I was designated as a Deaconess in May by Maritime Conference.

After two happy and growing years in Truro, I was appointed by the Woman’s Missionary Society to be a missionary in Japan. This had long been my goal, but the destination had changed from China to Japan because of the revolution in China. I was sent to Yale University in 1948 to study Japanese at the Institute of Far Eastern Languages for a year. Since the Professor of Christian Education at Yale Divinity School had recently returned from an extended visit to postwar Japan on behalf of the National Council of Churches in the U.S.A., it seemed logical to audit one or two of his courses at the Divinity School. It was great to have a break from straight language study and also to be back in the C.E. field, especially since the course was on curriculum development. It was very state of the art training for the time.

Yale was a poor place to send single young women at that time when there were ten men to every woman, and the young Americans seemed to like Canadian girls especially.  Anyway, I succumbed to one and had to go through the excruciating experience of visiting Mrs. Taylor, of the W.M.S. when she was attending meetings in New York, and confess that I had become engaged and would not be going to Japan. She was most kind and understanding.  She also proved very helpful when the marriage broke up six years later.

In the meantime, I had gone to North Carolina as a minister’s wife, borne a son and grown up in a hurry. In retrospect, I think I would not have changed that period of my life! When I returned to Canada with my four year old son, I was, of course, no longer a member of the Deaconess Order (married women were excluded in those days, disjoined from the Order when married) and suspected that I would not be acceptable in church work because of my questionable marital status. However, the church surprised me again, and I was taken on staff at the Atlantic Christian Training Centre in Tatamagouche, N.S.

The four years there, first as secretary, then as Program Staff Associate, were the best possible ‘continuing education’ and ‘in service training’ I could possibly have had. Those were the early years of the Centres, when we had five month long winter courses and short courses in leadership training and congregational development programs summer, spring and fall. It was an exciting and productive time!

I have long been of the opinion that it is an advantage for anyone in professional ministry to have experience in work outside the church environment.  Except for the lack of portable pensions, I still think that periodically ministers should engage in non-Church supported occupations. Thus for the next five years, I spent three years as Program Secretary in Y.M./Y.W.C.A. and two years teaching English and History in a High School.

Then I was nominated to a position in the Board of Colleges (later the Division of Ministry Personnel and Education) of the national church. The nomination was a real surprise to me, and my permission had not been requested; but after the various interviews, it seemed like both a challenge and an opportunity, and I received the appointment in 1965, just after completion of my Bachelor of Education degree from the University of New Brunswick.

Those were years of change in the national church; our name was changed five time during my ten years there.  But it was a great experience in colleagueship both within the National Office and with the people and courts of the church right across the country. I covet such an experience for every member of the Order of Ministry, and for many lay people.  But of course, there aren’t that many jobs available, however, there would be more frequent opportunities if there were a time Order of Ministry positions in the national church. I firmly believe that ten years should be the limit, and when my ten years approached I submitted my resignation.

With a small legacy from an aunt, some help from the Kaufman Scholarship and my allotted Continuing Education allowance, I took the one year Diploma Course in Pastoral and Social Studies at St. Mary’s College, the Faculty of Divinity at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. (My son was now 24 years old and able to be on his own.) This was a year beyond compare both personally and professionally, and I became ‘refitted’ for congregational work. (See picture of Jean in 1975)

The next two years, 1976-78, were spent as part of a team of three in the Sackville Larger Parish near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Another learning and growing experience, with both joy and pain, as the Larger Parish dissolved into three separate pastoral charges and we three staff members all resigned to allow this to happen. (See United Church Observer Article about the Parish)

Then, in 1987, I was invited to return to Toronto to share in the leadership of Deer Park with Rev. Gordon Nodwell.  My work began with a focus on pastoral care but expanded over the years, reflected in a change of title from Pastoral Associate to Associate Minister.  I worked with the church school, led Bible study, examined and chose curriculum for all ages.  My work also included efforts with the Church and Society Committee, promoting the Mission and Service work and fund as well as local outreach.One advantage of being in Toronto was that I could supervise diaconal students from the Centre for Christian Studies.  The congregation welcomed the students and I found great satisfaction in being able share what I had learned.  The training that CCS gave the supervisors was a continuing source of growth for me, and kept me informed about changes in diaconal ministry.

After ten superb years of involvement in the life of this congregation, I now look forward to retirement at the end of June, 1988, and hope to have time for other interests and pursuits that have been somewhat neglected.”

In her retirement some of the neglected pursuits included more church committee work!  She was on several National church committees as well as work at the Presbytery level.  However, her hoped for years of retirement disappeared when she discovered cancer.  She died April 17, 1993 at the age of 69.

Jean was a life long learner, and fostered an enthusiasm for learning in people she worked with.  In her 1985 Pastoral Letter to the Deer Park community she wrote, “The church has a message and a process by which it attempts to help people of every age find meaning for their lives and in our world … Without meaning there is no joy.”  Jean made meaning out of the experiences life presented her with and brought much joy.


This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, based on the autobiography in the 1988 Historic Issue of the Newsletter of the Association of Professional Church Workers in the Anglican and United Churches, and biographical material gathered by Pam Byers for an assignment at the Centre for Christian Studies in 2007.