Minnie J. (M.J.) Houston


Minnie Jane Houston
Surname as Student: Houston
Education: Manitoba College
Graduation Year: 1922
Designated: November 11, 1924
Denomination: Presbyterian Church of Canada, United Church of Canada

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Minnie Jane Houston came to Canada from Northern Ireland in 1905 and with her family settled in the district of Percy, Saskatchewan, near Kisbey, where she graduated from High School and later from Normal School in Regina. She taught for several years before moving to Winnipeg in 1920 to take the Deaconess Training Course at Manitoba College.

In 1908, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, gathered in Winnipeg, established a Deaconess Order. The impetuous came from interests in Toronto, and from the Synod of Manitoba, which asked the church “to take steps to set apart an order of women who shall be known as Deaconesses, who shall serve the church as nurses, visitors, dispensers of charity, and in any other way that may prove to be desirable”.[i]

The Presbytery of Toronto had asked the General Assembly to grant approval for the creation of a Deaconess program to add to the existing programs at the Ewart Training Home, which had been established in 1897. The Toronto institution was reaffirmed as the official training institution for Missionaries and affirmed as the site for Deaconess preparation in the Presbyterian Church. The Home was subsequently renamed the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Home to reflect its broadened mandate.

The Home remained the only training program until a rival was created in Winnipeg in 1920.  Manitoba College, incorporated in 1874 as part of the Home Missions work the Presbyterian Church, had a long history of providing education in the west. From the early 1890s Manitoba College worked cooperatively with the Methodist Wesley College. In order to prevent duplication of services and in the spirit of ecumenical co-operation, Manitoba College stopped teaching arts to focus solely on Theology, and Wesley College shifted to primarily Arts in 1914.[ii]

It is not entirely clear why Manitoba College moved to establish the Deaconess Program.  Declining numbers of men taking the theological program for ordination was likely a factor.  The school needed a new source of students. Strong support for the Deaconess Order, and for women’s participation in society by The Rev. John Mackay, Principal of the school, was another likely factor.

From inception in 1919 to deployment in 1920, the Program “referred to as the “Women’s Department – for the training of women as home and foreign missionaries, social service workers, Deaconesses and church secretaries”[iii]” was underway.  It was a two year course of six months each and followed the same basic framework as the Theology course, although the woman’s program was more condensed rooted in the belief that Deaconess training need not be as academic or theological.  Deaconess work was viewed as more practical, and because so many women married and left the order, short term.[iv] The program continued until 1939.

Minnie entered the program in its first year, and was in the first graduating class.  There was no charge for tuition for the program, but Minnie would have paid a fee of $1.00 for registration and an additional charge of $3.50 for associated organizations. In 1921 a Ladies’ Residence was purchased at 35 Kennedy Street to accommodate twenty-two deaconess students, other female students or Deaconesses. This residence was overseen by Miss Edna Sutherland, the Dean of Women and teacher of all Vocal Interpretation at Manitoba College. She also resided in the house. The cost for residing at 35 Kennedy was a reduced rate of $5.50 per week for students in the Women’s course.[v] It is quite likely that Minnie lived there.

The Presbyterian Church Order, unlikely that of the Methodist Order, did not require Deaconesses to live in a Home together. Rather, the women were to receive remuneration based on what was necessary for comfort and health, along with a provision for old age, all in a manner similar to that offered missionaries. A Deaconess could retire from service for reasons of infirmity or age with the sanction of the Committee in charge of Deaconess Work.  She was to receive a fifty dollar annuity after ten years’ service with five dollars for each additional year of service up to forty with no annuity exceeding $200. This amount proved to be completely inadequate. If the Deaconess married, her annuity was cancelled. It was also clear that Deaconess designation was not to be regarded as ordination, nor as a pledge of perpetual service. Each worker was free to retire from her work with notice to the Committee.

In 1922, on completion of her training, she was appointed by the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church to Robertson House.  She served there a remarkable 34 years, until her death.  In November 1924, after two years as a Student Deaconess, the Presbytery of Winnipeg was proud to designate her as a Deaconess.  In 1925 she joined the United Church and continued with Robertson House, now a United Church mission.

Robertson House, located in Winnipeg’s famous north end, served a primarily Ukrainian immigrant population, in what was called non-Anglo Saxon work. At the 4th  Conference of the Association of United Church Deaconess, held in Toronto in June, 1930, Minnie was one of three presenters on the topic.

The work of the deaconess among the non Anglo-saxons was presented by Miss Minnie Houston, Robertson House, Winnipeg.  Miss Barbara Henderson told of her work among the non-Anglo Saxons in Port Arthur and spoke of the contribution they are making to Canadian life.  She stressed the importance of understanding their background – their home, political and religious life – in order that we may help them now to become Christian in all their life.  Miss Myrtle McArthur of Pine River, MB, told of her work with the non Anglo-saxons in rural communities where she ministers to six small villages.  She pictured their great need and loneliness, especially that of the mothers, who in many cases, cannot speak English, and who find their only friend in the missionary.”

Beginning around the time of Confederation, a dominant narrative that shaped the vision of Canadian Protestants was that of creating “his dominion” in Canada.  In the vision was a homogeneous Anglo-Saxon culture, expressed politically in democracy and religiously in evangelical Protestant Christianity. The vision was not limited though to Canadian soil; it was accompanied with a moral imperative to spread this Canadian version of Christian civilization throughout the world.

There have been three Ukrainian immigrations to Canada, the first and largest immigration began in 1891 and ended with the coming of the First World War in 1914; the second between 1922 to 1939 and, the third, smaller one, began in 1946.

The majority of the immigrants in the first wave were farmers, populating small towns across the prairie, but a sizeable community was established in Winnipeg.  After the War, little farmland was available and the urban Ukrainian population grew. Minnie began at Robertson House just 3 years after the famous 1919 General Strike.  The strike brought to the fore deeply held prejudices and pitted Anglo Canadians of all classes against the mostly lower incomed “foreigners”.  Those negative views of Slavic people were still sharp in the 1920s, and were hardly dulled over the next 40 years.

The work undertaken by the women and men in Winnipeg’s north end was conditioned by its context.  Assumptions that “foreigners” needed to be Canadianized, that is, made to be like British protestants, underpinned the work.  Yet, the workers crossed over the tracks daily into the north end, befriended the people they found there and treated them with compassion and dignity.  They also advocated for change in social, economic and political structures to address the systemic barriers that the newcomers faced.  As the century progressed and more and more aboriginal people came into the area, the same dynamic resulted.

The workers are easily criticized for not doing enough to shift the United Church’s official theology and practices toward “work among the non-Anglo-Saxons”, which often lagged behind the attitudes enacted on the front lines.  The criticism is fair, but, it is also easy to comprehend why it did not happen.  Like social justice ministries of this era, the workers were overwhelmed responding, out of a charity model, to the huge need of people living in poverty, frequently with inadequate resources.  Some attempts to call the denomination to account were launched, but, again, like efforts today, did little to effect change in a dramatic way.

Just a glance through the archival record from Robertson House reveals that Minnie Houston was loved by the people she ministered among.  Her death was a great loss to the community, as well as to the church. Minnie died in her sleep on March 24th, 1956. She had suffered a heart attack in November of the previous year, but had returned home at Christmas.  Just a few days before her death the doctor had been pleased with her progress and she was talking of returning to work.

In the April 1956 edition of The Robertson Broadcaster, Deaconess Zaidee Stoddard wrote these words:

The years at Robertson have born much fruit and Miss Houston rejoiced to see so many of her Young People grow up and take their place in the life and work of the Church, not only in Winnipeg but in other cities and towns across Canada. Members of the Ruala Club who spent so much of their time at Robertson House and Church during the depression will never forget the understanding friend and wise counsellor she proved to be. Through all these years Miss Houston’s special field of work was with the Young People but she was equally at home with junior girls and boys (The Explorers and Tyros) as well as with adults, and members of the White Shield Club found in her a sympathetic and trusted friend.

Minnie was a valued member of the Robertson Study Group [later renamed the Minnie Houston Study Group] and the Violet Burt Woman’s Missionary Society and the recently organized the Robertson Memorial W.A. In whatever group she found herself, Miss Houston’s advice was always sought and greatly appreciated. Her Irish wit and keen sense of humor, her fine capabilities coupled with a deep and sincere Christian faith and experience made her an outstanding and effective worker.

Miss Houston was devoted to her work and never spared herself visiting the sick and the “shut-ins” regardless of weather conditions and her own limited strength, taking upon herself many extra duties as the need arose. Her cheerful voice over the phone we all knew and even during her illness she taxed her strength to talk with her friends in this way. The Broadcaster was one of Miss Houston’s achievements, which she edited almost since its beginning in 1925, and along with the copy of the Broadcaster, went an added little note to former members now living at the Coast or other parts of Canada.

Another special interest was the Fresh Air Camp Work and every year since her appointment to Robertson she spent part of the summer at Camp Robertson, Gimli, as Matron and latterly for the whole season. She will long be remembered by members of Camp Staff, Party Leaders and Campers for she had the happy faculty of making each one feel at home and all part of one big family.

Miss Houston was a member of the Fresh Air Camps Board, of the Children’s Work Committee of Presbytery, President of the Fellowship of Professional Women Workers and a member of the Business and Professional Women’s Club. She was also a representative to the Welfare Council and Manitoba Camping Association. In all these organizations she played an important part, and she also gave of her time and energy to Community Chest and Red Cross Campaigns.

The Funeral Service held in Robertson Memorial Church on Wednesday, March 28, was attended by a large congregation, even though blizzard conditions prevailed. Surviving are three brothers, Samuel and William in Kisbey, Sask. and Andrew in Winnipeg with whom she made her home.

We will miss her greatly but rejoice that she was spared to give so many years of fine Christian service to this Church and community and we know her influence will continue on through years to come. Z.F.S.


This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, February 2013.

[i] Training Deaconesses the Manitoba Way  p 5, “Report of Committee on an Order of Deaconesses” in The Acts and Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada 1908, 312-315.

[ii] Training Deaconesses the Manitoba Way, p 6.

[iii] Training Deaconesses the Manitoba Way, p 7. 

[iv] Mary Anne MacFarlane’s thesis “A Tale of Handmaidens”, deals extensively with these issues.

[v] Training Deaconesses the Manitoba Way, p 9.