Wilma (Unwin) Cade


Wilma Cade, B.A., B.R.E., M.Div.
Surname as Student: Unwin
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1960
Designated: 1960
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1936 - Born
  • 1960 - Graduated
  • 1964 - Disjoined, because of marriage

  • 1960-1961: United Church Deaconess, Trinity United Church, Burlington, ON
  • 1961-1964: United Church Deaconess, Runnymede United Church, Toronto, ON

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Wilma Unwin was born in Princeton, British Columbia, on January 23, 1936. She was the only child of Eva Kilpatrick and Ernest Unwin.Her mother was one of the most significant women in their local congregation, and was in fact, in the early 1950s, the first fully active woman Elder at Penticton United Church. The few women Elders before Eva had only washed up the dishes, they didn’t serve the elements at communion. When the minister asked her to become an Elder, she informed him she wouldn’t take the role unless she would have all the rights and responsibilities …she wasn’t just going to be in the kitchen.

Wilma says that the minister probably guessed that this is what she would say and he wanted her to say it. Wilma concluded that, “my mom was a significant woman in church therefore I was a significant kid…that’s the way it works.” As a result the church was always important although Wilma’s father was not so keen. As a young man he almost went into the ministry, but his local church did not approve of the young minister that Ernest liked and when that minister was hounded out he never forgave the church for this and it ended his ideas of going into ministry.

Wilma’s childhood years included Mission Band and Explorers, significant church groups for girls, and the beginning place for intentional leadership development. Mrs. King was both her Explorer leader and Sunday School teacher and Wilma remembers her as a very gifted and capable woman. Wilma feels that her love for the mission of the church stems from these days. They studied what the church was doing in different parts of the world and they had a growing concept of the world church.

At age twelve, Wilma decided she had had enough of being Mrs. Unwin’s daughter, and she chose to join Girl Guides rather than CGIT (Canadian Girls in Training), the program offered at the United Church. However, she was unhappy with the Guiding program and leadership, so she ended up joining CGIT after all, but that particular group was floundering and it was not a great experience for Wilma either. It was church camp that made a meaningful difference for her.

At camp she had her first religious experience. During vespers at sunset over Lake Okanagan, as Wilma describes it, “I suddenly became aware of the presence of God and that God loved me and that I wanted to serve Him in the church and I remember being so startled and astonished that the things that I had been taught as a child were true….it just bowled me over.” She continued at camp throughout her teen years, and she remembers having at least one significant spiritual experience every summer.

As a young adult Wilma attended the University of British Columbia (UBC), receiving her B.A. in 1958, majoring in History and Sociology. Her minister encouraged her to get involved with the Student Christian Movement (SCM). Wilma says, “we thought we were really pretty radical – we were into social justice in a big way and we were out to save the world.” Wilma was significantly affected by her attendance as a delegate to the World Student Christian Federation’s Athens Quadrennials, in 1955 and 1959.

Through the learning opportunities and intercultural conversations at these events, Wilma came to a new understanding about colonialism. She realized that powerful empires have been exploiting weaker peoples for millennia, and thus she was able to stop feeling guilty for Britain’s role in colonization and move on to a more productive stance, with a desire to make change. She thought “poor God – here he has given us this marvelous creation, this wonderful world, and what do we do, we exploit each other and isn’t that sad, and I felt badly for God and badly for humanity.”

From the time she was twelve years old Wilma knew that she wanted to serve God. She had considered both social work and teaching, but she chose church work because it included aspects of both, but would also allow her to incorporate her strong religious convictions into her daily work. Following graduation from UBC in 1958, she entered the two year Deaconess Diploma program at the United Church Training School (UCTS) and concurrently went to Emmanuel College, earning a Bachelor of Religious Education. LINK TO PICTURE Cade, Wilma Emmanuel Grad 1960

Both of Wilma’s parents were opposed to her choice. Her father thought it was a waste of a perfectly good education and that she would never make enough money, an accurate assessment as Deaconesses were very poorly compensated, even by church standards. Her mother knew that the church expected Deaconesses to be meek and mild and that Wilma was outspoken and a rabble rouser who was out to change the church – all things that the church did not want in a woman. Wilma pointed out, Deaconesses were not always the kind of workers the church desired. She observes:

the image in the church was that a deaconess was a pious, narrow, good, boring woman, but my experience of deaconesses is that this is just not the case … they got done what needed to be done, and this has always been the spirit of the diaconal movement, we have not been the nice, tame women that the church really wanted.

While women could be ordained in the United Church as early as 1926, there were very few of them in this period. The first married woman wasn’t ordained until 1957. Wilma could have attended Union Theological College, in Vancouver, but she knew that the church was not fully “open” to women ministers. She saw Deaconess work as the only viable option for a young woman. Wilma has a good grasp on social analysis and she is forthright and blunt in her opinions. She is not naïve about the world. She knew that male ministers, who in her experience are easily threatened, were less threatened by Deaconesses than ordained women, at least at that time. She felt that obtaining her goals might be easier as a Deaconess.

Wilma’s experiences during these college years reflect the gender standards of the time. She remembers having a heated argument with a fellow male student in a class at Emmanuel College, and he “looked at me with astonishment and said, ‘you thought that out amazingly well for a woman’.” She also remembers that as part of their training they got the very clear message that they would always be second class to men. Wilma believes that this grounding was what helped her to later survive in positions where she served on teams with a “Senior” male minister. She also remembers UCTS Principal, Harriet Christie would say to students, “I want to have a word … in love”.

Although she didn’t like it at the time, she is now grateful for the lesson she learned – that it’s not just what you say but how you say it. The students were taught that the church really didn’t understand women, but they were also taught by the staff at UCTS, that “we women were just great…we had a strong sense of the importance of women and the history of women in the church and what we were capable of doing.” She can still recall all the words of her favourite “Deaconess” hymn, sung during her years at UCTS – Lord of Light, Whose Name Outshineth. The hymn reflects the confidence being sewn into the women that they could be co-workers in the social gospel of peace and healing for all in this world.  (Click here to see UCTS 1959 Student Yearbook.)

After graduating from UCTS in 1960, Wilma’s first Deaconess position was as Christian Education Coordinator in a suburban, well to do, Ontario congregation. She left the position after “one of the worst years of my life.” Wilma and the minister’s wife, who was the one responsible for C.E. before Wilma was hired, did not see eye to eye. At her second appointment at Runnymede United Church, in a more working class neighbourhood in Toronto, Wilma was paid better, and got along well with both the Senior minister and his wife. It was here that she met, Peter Cade, whom she married in 1963.

It was this Senior minister though who was responsible for a significant change in Wilma’s life and ministry. Ordained ministers, who often hired and almost always supervised deaconesses in this time period were the ones who made the decisions about the Deaconess’s status. Wilma was disjoined in 1964 because of her marriage, even though the rule requiring women to leave the Deaconess Order, and their status as Deaconesses, had been repealed 4 years earlier. Wilma remembers:

[the Senior ordained minister in the congregation where I worked] explained to me that the church really didn’t think that women should carry on after they were married. I did carry on for a year, at least he said that was alright, so I did carry on for a year but then he told me I had to leave.

As a result, Wilma lost her job and her status as a Deaconess.

Wilma acknowledges that in the early 1960s it was assumed that women, at least middle class women, didn’t work if they were married, and especially once they had children. Wilma was committed to staying home with her children, convinced that it was the best way for children to be raised. Yet, she was really upset about having her Deaconess status removed because she had made such a huge investment in preparing herself for ministry. She didn’t think she would ever have a chance to work professionally again. Like many other disjoined Deaconesses, she refused to turn in her Deaconess pin. It was her act of defiance.

Wilma spent most of the next few years at home raising her 3 children.  As the children got older she went back to school – to Lakeshore Teacher’s College – because she assumed she would never have a chance to work in the church again. Although she never did pursue a teaching job, she was encouraged to find out that her brain had not atrophied, and she again had the self-confidence that she was still quite able to learn. In the 1970s a part-time opportunity for church work emerged, and Wilma became the Christian Education Director at Applewood United Church, in Mississauga. But after three years, when the congregation experienced financial difficulties, Wilma’s position was eliminated. She recalls getting the advice that if she were a Deaconess she would have more job security, so she returned to volunteer work and to gain more security, and she decided to seek reinstatement to the Deaconess Order. She applied to Toronto Conference, but as Wilma explained:

…they were very formal about it and said they didn’t reinstate people unless they had a salary, a position in the church, so doing all this work for free didn’t qualify, so … while I had time to jump through the hoops so I could get a salary … the church wouldn’t have me because I wasn’t being paid.

Wilma has some regret now that she didn’t advocate more vigorously for herself, but she was hurt by the rejection. She was able to get another part time Christian Education job, at St. James United Church in Etobicoke, Ontario where she served for 10 years. But it was far from an even playing field for lay workers in the church, even in the 1980s. She was paid half-time but without the housing allowance clergy received. This meant that she was making significantly less than others doing the same work. But as Wilma points out, congregations are frequently on the edge financially, and Christian Education is seen as the first “frill” that can be cut to save money. She found herself in the dilemma that many Diaconal Ministers have experienced — “if it’s your job that’s on the line then how can you put pressure on the church to pay you more?”

It was while she was at St. James, that Robin Sharp, who was a member of the Student Recruitment Committee at Emmanuel College, approached her with the idea of becoming Ordained. Robin suggested to her that jobs for Deaconesses in Christian Education were in decline, and Wilma realized this as well. So she entered Emmanuel College and studied part-time for about seven years. She loved the learning, she could choose the courses which she felt most called to. She was particularly interested in spirituality during these years, and she took several courses at the Jesuit school at Toronto School of Theology. The contrast of Catholic spiritual practice and Wilma’s life was clear! She identifies these as the craziest years of her life – working part-time, caring for 3 children, 2 dogs and a husband, all while going to school. In fact she gave up at one point, but she returned to the jumble, graduated and was ordained by Toronto Conference in 1987.

Wilma considered her move from Deaconess to Ordained Minister as a lateral shift, her understanding of service was no different after ordination than it had been in her years as a Deaconess and a volunteer. She believes that Christ is intimately connected with the church – that we serve him and God in whatever capacity we have. Wilma always felt called to teach and preach and found it a lot easier to work in the church as an Ordained Minister. Her experience was that both ministers and lay people were suspicious of Deaconesses/Diaconal Ministers, but people in the church more readily accepted the authority of those who were ordained. But Wilma also thinks things were easier for her this time around because she was an older woman, and ironically, married. Wilma explained, “It was dreadful being a single woman in the church … people would come up to me on the street and say ‘we do so hope you’ll meet some nice young man.’ “

So, while marrying resulted in Wilma’s loss of status, when she was mature and married, it enabled her ministry. It is another example of the insidiousness of sexism in the practice of ministry. It became still easier for her when she later served as a retired minister in small congregations, “because they were always so very grateful to have a any minister”, she observed.

Wilma still struggles with the methods by which the United Church of Canada made decisions regarding sexuality during the 1980s. She seriously studied the church’s 1984 document on sexuality. She understood that the document said that people must make a decision between inclination and action, and that while people could be inclined to homosexuality, it was what they did about it that was important. Wilma believed that this applied to heterosexual behaviours as well, and that the church was not paying appropriate attention to these issues either. The greatest harm in Wilma’s eyes though, was how the issue of sexuality was dealt with in the ensuing years. There remains a deep sense of loss and grief resulting from her perception that the church manipulated the discussions on the issue of admitting gay and lesbian people into ministry in 1988 and denied the time necessary for appropriate debate. Wilma knew that in order to be heard, it was important to speak as part of a community. She felt so strongly about how the church had handled things that she became a member of the Community of Concern, an organization opposed to the directions the United Church was taking. She was one of very few women who joined, and it was an action that put her in direct opposition to most of her colleagues and friends. Wilma is still angry over how the church bullied congregations and cold-shouldered high profile members of the Community of Concern during those years. She remains exceedingly upset by what happened – she believes that in an effort to enact justice for one group of people, grave injustices were done to others.

In 2006, the United Church issued a formally apology to the Deaconesses who had been effected by the disjoining rule. LINK TO VIDEO HOLY MATRIMONY UNHOLY DISJOINING In a service held by the General Council Executive, the church confessed its wrongdoings and lack of vision, expressing its regret for the policies and practices that denied gifts and employment. Elizabeth Eberhart Moffat, the preacher drew to mind the United Church tradition of acknowledging “we stand corrected”, but she cautioned, “lest we become known only as the church of the next apology, let us also remind ourselves of the temptations of a cheap grace, which revels in drama and false pride.”1

Wilma, along with Marion Kirkwood, Ruth Lang, and Joan Willis, were present to represent the disjoined women. Wilma spoke on behalf of the women and she powerfully voiced the truth. The other women present were appreciative of her courage and forthrightness as she named the injustices done in the past and challenged the church to see the continuing injustices today. From her address: (Wilma Cade Response to Disjoining Apology 2006, full text)

I remembered the grief, the anger. All of my friends have had very bitter experiences in the church. About 25 years ago the deaconesses were gathered for some decision making at Cedar Glen. What astonished and distressed many was the outpouring of pain, the feelings of rejection and marginalization. Many professional women returned to earlier careers. Most gave countless hours of quality leadership for free.

She also gave thanks for the women and drew attention to the contribution that they made, and are still making, to the church.
As I have recalled the work done by my classmates in Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, India, the Caribbean, and Canada, I am proud to be part of this ministry. As I reflect on the contribution to our Church made by those who received no remuneration, I give thanks for their sacrifice and devotion.

Wilma has always found significant sustenance in her personal relationship with Christ and she has a strong attachment to God as “Daddy”. The strength of this attachment she attributes to her very strong attachment to her own father. She has had many mystical experiences which have fed her spirit, sustained her faith and supported her in her work. She is also most grateful for her husband’s substantial support which helped her through the long hours and great stresses of work in the church.

Wilma said that, “after fifty years I was astonished that I survived. … A further observation I have made about women in ministry is that yes, a woman can do well in the United Church if she is very intelligent, hard-working, attractive, and charming. If she does not possess all these virtues she may not be so successful. The fact that a few women shine does not mean that we now have a level playing field.” But Wilma’s closing words are of gratitude, “It was a privilege to serve God in the church and I met a lot of wonderful people. It’s been a joy.” (Wilma in 2011)

This profile includes information from a profile written by Debra Kigar, in December 2010 and from information collected by Caryn Douglas A Story of Lost Opportunity: The Apology to Deaconesses Disjoined by The United Church of Canada , and Holy Matrimony, UnHoly Disjoining The Story of United Church Deaconesses dismissed from ministry because they married, a video based on the 2006 Apology of the United Church. (LINK HERE)