Lydia McCullough


Lydia McCullough
Surname as Student: McCullough
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1960
Designated: 1960
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1929 - Born, December 10
  • 1985 - Died, January 12

  • 1960 - 1961: Deaconess, Collier Street United Church, Barrie, ON
  • 1961 - 1985: Director of Christian Education, St. James United Church, Montreal, QU, Montreal Presbytery

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Deaconess Lydia McCullough was known by many names; Legendary Lydia,[i] one of the Terrible Three,[ii] an “Old Fashioned Deac”,[iii] and a mother to the congregation of St. James United Church, Montréal.[iv]  An independent thinker, vivacious good-humoured spirit, and tireless advocate and worker in Christian education, outreach, and pastoral care, Lydia broke new ground locally and internationally in diaconal models of ministry and collegial networking.  Despite her sudden and untimely death at the age of 54, her legacy has lived on in the programs she fostered and inspired, and the many memorials in her name.

The Early Years

Lydia was born on a small working farm near Navan, Ontario, on December 10th, 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression.[v]  Growing up on the farm, she had six siblings; Mary, Ed, Frank, Jim, Wesley, and Letitia (nicknamed Tish) .[vi]  Their local church was Navan United Church, which still stands today as Navan-Vars United Church.[vii]  Proud of her rural roots, Lydia would return home to the family farm often once she had moved into Ottawa for work – when she could get a ride, as cars were scarce.  In Ottawa, she shared an apartment with a friend while working for the Bell Canada telephone company and adjusting to big city life.  One of the places where she found a home away from home was at McLeod Street Methodist Church.  A large Romanesque building built around 1890, McLeod Methodist Church was later sold and demolished after its amalgamation with Stewarton Presbyterian Church in 1961.[viii] The congregation is now known as Centretown United Church, upon further mergers in 2008.[ix]  It was her window into the world of the United Church’s Young People’s Union; a national organization of 18-25 year olds which operated from 1925-1964.[xi]

Young People’s Union

The YPU was fertile ground for Lydia’s development of faith, community, and leadership skills, and would ultimately set her on a course for ministry.  She became deeply involved in the YPU, along with her close friends, Doug Fleming and Dorothy Montgomery, known as the “Terrible Three”.  Doug recounts how there were no supervisors or mentors in the YPU, so the youth learned to organize themselves into activities such as drama leagues, bowling leagues, regional and national conventions and so on.  During the summers, Lydia was involved in the YPU Christian Youth Caravans; groups of youth who visited congregations and Aboriginal reserves to help run vacation bible schools across the country.  It was with the Caravan that she first visited Quebec on her own, learning to square dance with her arms behind her back and serving in a bilingual community.[xii]  Perhaps this was the spark that would lead her back to Quebec some years later.  With her farm roots, Lydia also participated in Rural Rallies, when the YPU was requested to give presentations about its programs among rural communities.


With all of her leadership experience, a close network of church people, and a religious fervor, few were surprised when Lydia made the choice to enter diaconal formation at the United Church Training School in Toronto in 1958.  There, she deepened her commitment to caring work, gained valuable skills, and a taste for diaconal community and collegiality.  She and her friends used to joke about UCTS being an “Angel Factory”, as Lydia thought herself too independent for that image.  She was in one of the first classes to graduate from the new UCTS building at 77 Charles Street, Toronto, and studied on the cusp of major shifts in theology, liturgy, and social movements. [xiii] After graduation and ‘designation’ as a Deaconess in 1960, Lydia moved to Barrie, Ontario, to work as a deaconess at Collier Street United Church (1960-61).[xiv]  It is unclear as to why she only stayed a year, but some say that her determined personality may have been a factor.[xv]  In any case, she was very excited when she accepted the call to become the Director of Christian Education at St. James United Church, in Montréal in 1961.

St. James United Church, Montréal

St. James was, and is, a large vibrant urban core congregation in the heart of Montréal.  Lydia was preceded there by 10 other deaconesses between 1906 and 1946, and five other Directors of Christian Education.[xvi]  She also arrived on the heels of the congregation’s first ordained woman minister, Rev. Nettie Wilson Hoffman (also a Director of Christian Education).[xvii]  The congregation had not had a deaconess between 1946 and 1961 because of a shortage of available deaconesses and made the choice to fulfill its tradition of diaconal ministry through lay or ordained means.[xviii] Being in ministry at St James for 23 years, Lydia saw many changes, developments, and events.  She worked with 8 different ordained ministers and countless other personnel and lay members.  Of the position, she commented, “I never felt that I was just someone who was paid to minister professionally, and that this is a job to be done. … There is something about St. James that ‘gets in your blood’.”[xix]  This uniqueness of the congregation was shaped by its long history, its prominent status among the Presbytery, and the many famous events that took place there.  During Lydia’s time, these included the church being hijacked by a delegation of the Black Panther Party during a speech in order to raise money for their leader Bobby Seale to attend from Chicago, when he had not previously been invited.[xx]  Likewise, the Church hosted a speech by widowed Coretta Scott King (wife of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and one of the first Quebecois language demonstrations in the early 1960’s protesting an all-English cafe on the premises.[xxi]

Despite the decline in congregational membership, due in large part to the departure of English-speaking Montrealers during the 1960s and 70s, Lydia had a strong ministry of education, fellowship and outreach.  Quoted in the Montréal Gazette, a prominent English-language newspaper, in a 1980 article on the state of Sunday Schools, Lydia stated, “It will survive because it is still needed. … Circumstances have changed since the 18th century and the youth today don’t need the Sunday School to teach them to read and write, but they should know what the Bible teaches about God and His place in their lives and in the world, about religious and moral values and about their role in the community. … Our school at St. James is small, about 70 children who come from all over the city.  Most of them are black.  What we teach them is terribly important, especially about race relationships.”[xxii]  In addition to coordinating traditional children’s Sunday School programming, and occasional preaching and liturgical leadership,[xxiii] Lydia’s ministry grew and rejuvenated many innovative adult and youth programs at St. James.  She began a Couple’s Club, the Avant Garde group, a Supper Club, a fellowship meeting after the evening service,[xxiv] and a youth-run community café called the Coal Bin.  “The church’s young people cleaned out a space formerly used as a storage space for coal and turned it into a café called The Coal Bin where concerts and poetry readings were held for anyone who dropped in.”[xxv]  Lydia also revived the CGIT program and a youth drama troupe called the St James Players, which took religious plays on tour to the suburbs for Christian education and to raise money for the outreach programs at St. James.[xxvi]

In the late 1960s, St James took an innovative step and moved to the bi-nuclear organizational model, separating the board into one for congregational ministries (theoretically paid for by the congregation), and another for non-congregational / outreach programs (paid for by a foundation established by property revenues).[xxvii]  As a deaconess, Lydia was a bridge between these two arms of the St James community.  St. James operated a food bank, fully supported by a thrift shop,[xxviii] collaborated with other downtown churches and organizations to offer summer day camps, Meals on Wheels, and Golden Age groups.[xxix] It also supported the Saint Michael’s Mission which served meals in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church.[xxx]  This collaboration was a hallmark of Lydia’s ministry.[xxxi]  Not only did she initiate many programs with area churches, she also initiated extensive networks with non-religious community organizations (such as the Yellow Door and Milton Parc Community Housing[xxxii]) and the McGill School of Social Work.[xxxiii]  In the latter stages of her ministry, the needs of the urban core population were increasing – due in part to psychiatric de-institutionalization, racism, and increased poverty – and Lydia spoke of sadly needing to lock the doors of the church.[xxxiv]  Lydia found herself overwhelmed by the number of homeless people stopping in to get meal tickets, and crisis-oriented outreach work was consuming all of her ministry time when she had been hired as a Christian Education director.[xxxv]  Something had to be done.  In the fall of 1984, Mary Currie – retired social worker and active member at St James – and Lydia teamed up and presented a proposal to the board to hire a social worker consultant to do an initial assessment of the situation and make suggestions for action. [xxxvi]  Veteran social worker and activist, Lucia Kowaluk, was hired in 1985 to do just that, funded by a then-anonymous gift by Currie.  After 3 months of observations, she designed a daytime drop-in centre that still meets today (though has moved to a different location).[xxxvii]  The drop-in centre was initially funded 100% by the provincial government and staffed by social workers.[xxxviii] This dynamic is in the spirit of a long-standing trend of diaconal ministry being transferred into the public realm, in concert with professional social workers who trace their roots to some of the same founding women.  This project may also have reflected some of Lydia’s NDP leanings, her spirit of attempting new things and trying to get other people involved, too.[xxxix]

(Lydia presenting a motion on Angola at General Council 1964)

National and International Diaconal Community

Lydia’s ministry and influence extended far beyond the congregation and the local community. In 1968, while a deaconess at St. James United Church in Montréal, Lydia was asked to attend a North American gathering of deaconesses at Racine, Wisconsin, on behalf of the Fellowship of Deaconesses and Other Professional Women Workers of the United Church.  It is said that at that meeting, Lydia “caught a vision of the value and support possible from an interdenominational group which would include members from Canada and the United States.”[xl]  This vision would take her far, far beyond her small-town roots, and she relished the connections.   At the second conference gathering, named “Called to Holy Obedience Now” in Valparaiso, Indiana, June 28 – July 1, 1971, the decision was made to change the name of the group to “North American Diakonia.”[xli]  In addition to the name change, they formally became a regional branch of Diakonia, the World Assembly of Diaconal Associations, in order to host the International Assembly in New York in 1972.[xlii]  Lydia was the first representative of the Canadian Fellowship association on the Central Committee of N.A.D. (later called Diakonia of the Americas) until 1978, when Margaret Fulton was named to the committee.[xliii]  During her time as Canadian representative, Lydia and fellow deaconess Ruth Hudgins hosted the Third NAD Conference in Lennoxville, Quebec, June 24-27, 1974, called “Diaconal Ministry Now”.[xliv]  This conference requested the Central Committee prioritize reaching out to deaconesses in South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean, which ultimately lead to the 1978 name change to “DIAKONIA of the Americas” (DOTA) as an expression of the desire to include diaconates in South and Central America and the Caribbean.[xlv]

Lydia was elected President of the Central Committee of D.O.T.A. in 1976 and continued in that capacity until 1983.[xlvi]  As President, she represented the Central Committee on the International Executive and aided with the planning for the International World Diakonia Assemblies at Bielefeld in 1975, at Manila in 1979, and at Coventry in 1983.[xlvii]  “Lydia was well-loved by members of the Central Committee with whom she worked and by the International Executive. She gave extra time unstintingly to the Diaconal Associations, taking her holidays at times to coincide with meetings in the U.S.A. or Europe.”[xlviii]  In addition to this international work, Lydia continued to be involved at the North American level, presided at Lake Junaluska in 1977 and Calgary in 1981.[xlix]  She was an incredible advocate for diaconal identity and encourager of collaborative networking.  Along with her colleagues, Lydia set the stage for the formation of DUCC in 1984,[l] through her efforts to bring people together across differences and built on common visions.

 End of Life

Unfortunately, Lydia never saw the St. James Drop-In Centre come to fruition, with her sudden death in 1985. Lydia was a Type 2 Diabetic. She entered a Montreal hospital on January 6, for planned surgery to unblock the main artery in one leg. The day after the operation was performed one of her lungs collapsed. This was rectified, but her heart was unable to stand the strain of the second procedure. On January 12, 1985, Lydia went into cardiac arrest, and she died at age 55.  As her long-time friend and fellow deaconess Margaret Fulton noted, it was a sad to lose a sister with such a caring heart in this manner. [li]  There was a memorial service for her at St. James United, in Montréal presided over by former minister V.H. Fiddes, and a funeral in her hometown of Navan where she was buried.  Thousands of people had been touched by Lydia’s ministry and many struggled to find ways to adequately honour and memorialize her.  Former employees of the St James Drop-in Centre established a separate organization called Chambreclerc, which developed supervised low-cost housing.[lii]  In recognition of the Year of the Homeless in 1989, they designed two new buildings and dedicated one to Lydia.[liii]  The United Theological College, located at McGill, also began a memorial in her name; The Lydia McCullough Memorial Award for Church History, given out each year at convocation.[liv]  Lastly, Doug Fleming and a small group of her friends from Ottawa-YPU began a private memorial fund to support young people going into full-time service with the church.  The fund, which ran until 2004, supported a presbytery youth minister, a summer camp, weekend conferences for young people, a youth trip to El Salvador, and helped many individuals to pursue their love of ministry.[lv]

Lydia was known affectionately as a “nut who was never stuck in a rut,”[lvi] who always cared deeply for the people she worked with and knew, whether on the street, in the pew, or halfway across the world.  In the words of deaconess Margaret Fulton, “Her humour, her joy in service, her devotion to God, her commitment to the deaconess purpose ‘For Jesus’ Sake,’ were attributes from which we all gained inspiration and resolve to continue in our areas of service. Thanks be to God for her life!”[lvii]  Amen!

This biography was researched and written by Marcie Gibson, for an assignment at the Centre for Christian Studies, December 2012.  For a pdf version click here.

[i] Doug Fleming, personal friend of Lydia McCullough.  Telephone interview, November 27, 2012.

[ii] Doug Fleming.

[iii] Ginny Coleman, diaconal friend of Lydia McCullough.  Telephone interview, December 12, 2012.

[iv] “St. James United 1925-2004, the church behind the commercial buildings”, photo of Lydia McCullough, St. James United Church, accessed October 30, 2012, http:/


[v] Doug Fleming.

[vi] Doug Fleming.

[vii] “Navan-Vars United Church – Photos”, accessed November 20, 2012,

[viii] “Church Mergers and Movers,” URBsite, accessed November 20, 2012,

[ix] “Centretown United Church,” accessed November 20, 2012,

[x] Doug Fleming.

[xi] Doug Fleming.

[xii] Doug Fleming.

[xiii] Gwyn Griffith, Weaving a Changing Tapestry: The Story of the Centre for Christian Studies and its Predecessors (Canada:, 2009), 49, 67.

[xiv] Collier Street United Church is still a vibrant congregation today.  They were contacted for more information, but no immediate information was found and all of their archives are housed centrally in Toronto at this time.

[xv] Doug Fleming.

[xvi] Nathan H. Mair, The People of St. James, Montréal 1803-1984 (Montréal: Publisher unknown, 1984), 153.

[xvii] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church” (lecture presented to the Quebec Religious Heritage Foundation, 2009), as accessed October 15, 2012, download St-James-heritage_long.pdf.

[xviii] Mair, 99.

[xix] Ibid., viii, Forward by Lydia McCullough.

[xx] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Kenneth Cleator, “Sunday school surviving crisis – clergy,” Montréal Gazette, Saturday September 20, 1980, 16


[xxiii] As suggested by the newspaper ad beside the above article, which featured information on the Sunday service that week,  “A Church that Cares” Miss Lydia McCullough. Also mentioned in interview with Doug Fleming.

[xxiv] Mair, 109.

[xxv] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[xxvi] Robert Bull, congregational historian of St. James United Church.  Telephone interview November 28, 2012.

[xxvii] Mair, 144.

[xxviii] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[xxix] Mair, 120.

[xxx] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[xxxi] Mair, 120.

[xxxii] hyperlink:,

[xxxiii] Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[xxxiv] Doug Fleming.

[xxxv] Lucia Kowaluk, community activist and St. James staff. Telephone interview, December 5th, 2012.  Also mentioned by Doug Fleming.

[xxxvi] Robert Bull, interview.

[xxxvii] Robert Bull, “The St. James Drop-In Centre; Bridging the Gap,” in The Clarion/Le Clarion, Synod Montréal & Ottawa Conference newsletter, September 2006, 1, accessed October 2, 2012,

[xxxviii] Lucia Kowaluk.

[xxxix] Doug Fleming.

[xl] Margaret Fulton, “Lydia McCullough,”  The Newsletter, of the Association of Professional Church Workers Anglican Church of Canada & United Church of Canada, Spring 1988, 111.


[xlii] Margaret Fulton.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] “History of DOTAC,” DIAKOINIA of the Americas and Caribbean, accessed December 10, 2012,  DOTA was changed to DOTAC at a conference in Kingston, Jamaica in 1989 to make explicit reference to the Caribbean.

[xlvi] Margaret Fulton.

[xlvii] Ibid.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Linda M. Ervin, diaconal colleague of Lydia McCullough, email communication, November 28, 2012.

[li] Margaret Fulton.

[lii]  Robert Bull, “The living heritage of St. James United Church”.

[liii] Lucia Kowaluk.

[liv] “Awards and Acknowledgments Convocation 2007,”Passages: Newsletter of the United Theological College/ Le Seminaire Uni, Spring 2007, accessed October 28, 2012,  Personal communication with UTC reveals that they have no known records of the award’s beginning or of Lydia McCullough.

[lv] Doug Fleming.

[lvi] Doug Fleming.

[lvii] Margaret Fulton.