- 1879 - Born, November 19
- 1966 - Died, June 12
Clara Hild Ranton was born in Grey County, near Flesherton, Ontario on November 19, 1879.[i] Her grandparents were all Wesleyan Methodists and she was raised in a Methodist household. Her parents were Samuel Ranton and Emily Ada Taylor Leitch[ii] who married 9 January 1879, in Flesherton, Grey Co. Clara was the second of nine children.[iii]
Clara’s early life was spent in southwestern Ontario: London[iv] and St. Thomas[v]. Clara’s father was a school teacher for many years and a newspaper editor from 1882-1922.[vi] Clara’s maternal grandmother was very active in the Wesleyan Methodist Church and was always doing good for those who were ill or less fortunate.[vii]
Clara entered the Toronto (Methodist) Deaconess Home and Training School, probably in 1903 at the age of 24, and likely with the intention of becoming a Methodist Deaconess. Deaconess candidates at the time “were required to be between the ages of twenty and forty, have positive recommendations from their pastors, Sunday school superintendents and two influential Christian women of their church, a health certificate and a good common school education.”[viii] They were also required to complete the two year program of study at the Training School.
The Deaconess Home opened in Toronto in 1894 a year after the General Conference of the Methodist Church in Canada approved the organization of Deaconess homes by their Annual Conferences. “This decision opened the door for a small group of influential Toronto Methodists, including the [wealthy and influential] Massey family. These supporters had been greatly impressed by the emerging American Methodist deaconess movement and were eager to create such opportunities for young Canadian Methodist women. They were quick to encourage Toronto Conference to take up the deaconess cause. Toronto Conference subsequently approved the establishment of a Toronto deaconess home (to be a residence for deaconesses, students and probationers), a Board of Management to oversee the home’s good works and create a deaconess training program, and a Deaconess Aid Society to support the entire enterprise.”[ix]
Students were to observe the established rules and regulations of the superintendent, Jean Scott, a Deaconess who had been trained at the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions. The Chicago school was founded by Lucy Rider Meyer, an American Methodist who was a prime mover in the development of the Deaconess movement in both the United States and in Canada. (for more on Lucy and the Chicago School.) The Canadian home was modeled on the Chicago enterprise. Students paid no tuition, but were required to pay $3.00 a week room and board. The program “was to be a time of careful training. It included the training school’s designated course of study, an extended reading list and practical work done either through the Deaconess home or in a congregation.”[x] The curriculum included the systematic study of the Bible, the theology of the Methodist church, history of the Bible, church history and a short course in physiology and geography. The required reading list immersed the students in deaconess history and culture and women’s leadership in the Methodist church. It also provided basic information on the human body. [xi] Deaconesses were expected to be a mix of public health nurse, Christian educator, social worker and evangelist. The course of study reflects these four expectations.
The program at the school was also intended to enculturate the women into the Deaconesses life of devoted service. There was a great emphasis on humility and gratitude for what was being given them. Clara would have read these words in the handbook given each student, “It is earnestly hoped that students will appreciate the privileges of the School.” In addition to the courses, one afternoon a week was devoted to house to house visitation, Saturday were spent in one of the Industrial Schools, Sunday at one of the mission churches, teaching Sunday school. The students were reminded that no teachers or officers of the school received a salary, and they were expected in return, “to manifest the spirit of Christ” in response to this generosity. This culture established and reinforced by the School and the Order contributed to an ethos that invited subjugation and exploitation of the women and discouraged the women from advocating for their own reasonable needs.
Upon graduation from the Training School, Deaconess candidates were required to give at least two years of continuous probationary service before being accepted as a deaconess, although in many records the probationary Deaconesses are referred to as Deaconesses, and members of the congregations that they served did not seem to make a distinction.
Clara’s graduation in 1905, and subsequent appointment as a Probationary Deaconess at Centenary Methodist Church in Hamilton, Ontario coincided with the expansion of Deaconess work. Owing to the positive reception of Deaconesses in Toronto, by 1904 Deaconess work had been initiated in five other Canadian cities[xii].
In the Annual Report from the Deaconess Home for the year of Clara’s graduation (1905) W. Sparling, the Board chair, speaks of the Deaconess movement this way,
From each department comes a report of intense interest, for the work of deaconesses is not the task of hirelings, but the enthusiasm of devotees. They “must become all things to all men, that by all means they may save some.” They endeavor to touch people at all points by some method or other, to show them the practical and sympathetic side of religion, and by a constant and earnest entreaty seek to win them for Christ. They look upon “the world as their parish” and their first duty not to those who need them, but to those who need them most, irrespective of race or creed.
Even laying the rhetoric of the Edwardian period aside, the words of the Chair elucidate the pedestaled expectations for Deaconesses. It is no wonder that the women were frequently referred to as angels! His words also point to the persistent reality that diaconal ministry is an earthly and pragmatic kind of ministry. Regardless of the theoretical theology, Deaconesses were intent on addressing the pain and suffering in this world, incarnating the hands and feet of Christ in practical and useful ways.
As a “Visiting Deaconess” at Centenary Clara would have conducted such a practical ministry with responsibilities for outreach and pastoral care on behalf of the congregation, both with the members of the congregation, but perhaps with a greater emphasis on work among disadvantaged people in the city, and most likely primarily with women and children. Clara worked under Rev. Dr. Rose who began at Centenary in 1904. Prior to that he had been at the largest Canadian Methodist Church in Canada – St James, Montreal. Perhaps his connection with Montreal led to Clara’s move to that congregation in the summer of 1908.
Beyond the customary two years of probationary status, Clara served for four years in this category before being licensed in 1909 by Montreal-Ottawa Conference.[xiii]
Clara moved back and forth between Montreal and Hamilton Conference for a period of time. After two years at St. James, she served for two more at Dominion Square, Montreal, then moved back to Hamilton Conference where she served at Norfolk Methodist Church, Guelph (1914-1916).
Clara made a shift from congregational based work in 1917 when she became the Superintendent of Hamilton Deaconess Home, a role she filled until 1920. The Hamilton Home was the second Methodist Deaconess Home in Canada, established in 1902. It was the basis of the Deaconess operation within Hamilton Conference. The Homes were modeled on the American Settlement Houses, centres for outreach into marginalized communities.[xiv] In 1907 it is reported that, “Year by year [the Home] has gained the co-operation of the churches, and not only those interested in the inauguration of the movement, but also those who doubted, are now led to praise God for the enthusiasm that has established the work in our midst, and for the great good that has been accomplished… the Church work is most effective in reaching the poor, the needy, the discouraged and erring ones[xv]”. Clara would have been very familiar with the operation of the Home since the Deaconesses working in the city lived in residence there, certainly in the early years. In making a case for a larger facility in 1907, then Superintendent Marie McCartney wrote, “Surely the Deaconesses, who are constantly associated with sickness, sorrow and suffering humanity, need such a place to come to at the close of a weary day, and there find inspiration and recuperation.”[xvi] The new home however, was not a reality until 1911 when the property at 279 Main Street East was purchased. When it was formally dedicated on November 18, 1911, it was fully paid for. “This splendid and well-appointed residence with its many rooms and good equipment, with some alterations and additions, will make an ideal home for the Deaconesses, and afford opportunity for neighborhood work among women and girls”[xvii]. The dreams of alterations and additions were not realized immediately however. To ease the pressure for an addition, classes for women and girls were held in the parlours of First Methodist Church.
The Deaconess Home was a ministry as well and throughout this period Deaconesses worked directly for the Home. However, in addition to their responsibilities with the employing congregation, the other Hamilton based Deaconesses were required to attend to duties on behalf of the Home. As the Superintendent’s reports demonstrate the women were involved in house visits, distribution of tracts and Bibles, distributing food, clothing, bedding and furniture, and helping people to find work. Meals were provided from the Home and an annual Christmas parties for children and for mothers were held. Sunday school and mid week groups were regular activities, again for both children and adults.
During the time that Clara was the Superintendent of the Hamilton Home the following women were under her care:
From Hamilton Conference Deaconess Report, p. 28
From Hamilton Conference Deaconess Report 1914-1915, p. 24 and Secretary’s Deaconess Work Report, 1915-1916, p. 14-15
Two new deaconesses, five in total for the Conference
From Secretary’s Deaconess Work Report, p. 13:
Clara returned to congregational based ministry in 1920 as the Deaconess at Trinity Methodist (later United) Church, in Toronto. She served this congregation in until the fall of 1927 when she went on a medical leave.
Clara played an active role in the community of Deaconesses. She was the Presider at the first Methodist Deaconess Association Conference held in 1923. Although the record is silent about the reason for the establishment of a Deaconess Association, it may well have been motivated by interest among the women in advocating for better working conditions and recognition. In her history of the Deaconess Order, A Tale of Handmaidens MAKE A LINK, Mary Anne MacFarlane details the concerns facing these early Deaconesses. In 1922, twenty-slx of the forty-three active informed the General Conference that, deaconess work was “steadily losing ground” compared to other occupations for women. The conditions they were protesting including long work hours, unreasonable expectations, including the work in a congregation or social setting and then additional expectations of time supporting the ministry of the Deaconess Home, lack of recognition and representation in the church courts where decisions about Deaconesses were made, low pay and inadequate pensions. They went so far as to request that if the Church was not prepared to rectify the situation immediately, the Order should be disbanded. The Commission established by the Church confirmed the experiences of the women, and outlined recommendations “to develop …a well-educated, skilled work force enjoying more self government, a broad mandate, and a greater degree of support from the church.”[xviii] But little headway was made on the recommendations although the minimum annual salary was raised to $780.00, as women were no longer required to live in a Deaconess Home.
Clara was the Corresponding Secretary of the newly formed United Church Deaconess Association in 1926[xix]. In 1939 she was on the Executive of the Association and presented a paper at an Executive meeting on December 7, 1939, “Miss Ranton gave a paper on The Jew and Art and Music”, the third paper presented by Executive members over the year which focused on Jews. (The other papers were by Leah Bratt, “ ‘The Jew and his contribution to Service’ which was thoroughly enjoyed and [she] recommended the book Jewish Contribution to Civilization,” and Miss Carr’s presentation on ‘The Jew and Contribution to Literature’.) One can only speculate on this focus given the political climate leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
Clara retired in 1933, and came out of retirement for involvement in part-time Deaconess work at Rosemount United Church, Montreal during 1934. It is possible that her retirement was a result of poor health and that the part time position was either a test to see if she could resume work, as she was only 54 years old. It would take more research to verify this, however. By 1939[xx] she had moved back to Toronto.
Clara lived for 33 years after her retirement. Her last years were at the United Church’s Ina Grafton Gage Home, in East York before her death at age 87, on June 13, 1966. Clara is buried in the Deaconess Plot the Deaconess Plot at the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto[xxi].
[i] Ontario Birth Records
[ii] Samuel Ranton (b. 19 March 1849, Middlesex Co., Ontario; d. 11 February 1922, Stratford, Ontario) and Emily Ada Taylor Leitch ( b. 10 November 1854, London, England, d. ?)
[iii] Her siblings were: Marion Belle (m. Cockburn) b. 1875; Egbert b. 1881; Robert 1882-1933; Samuel b. 1885; Elizabeth b. 1887; Wilfred 1889-1891; John b. 1892; Pearl b. 1894. Birth and Death Records of Ontario, Census 1881, 1891, 1901
[iv] Ontario Census 1881
[v] Ontario Census 1891
[vi] Marriage Record, Census 1881, 1891, 1901, Death Certificate
[vii] Obituary, from her file at United Church National Archives
[viii] Sherri-Lynne McConnell, “Canadian Deaconess and Missionary Education For Women Training To Live The Social Gospel: The Methodist National Training School and The Presbyterian Deaconess And Missionary Training Home, 1893-1926”, MA Thesis, University of Winnipeg, 2003, p 37.
[ix] Sherri-Lynne McConnell, “Canadian Deaconess and Missionary Education For Women Training To Live The Social Gospel: The Methodist National Training School and The Presbyterian Deaconess And Missionary Training Home, 1893-1926”, MA Thesis, University of Winnipeg, 2003, p 33.
[xii] Ibid, p. 4.
[xiii] Sources on her length of probationary status vary.
[xiv] See Eleanor Stebner, The Women of Hull House, State University of New York Press, 1997 for an examination of one such Settlement House begun by Jane Addams.
[xv] 1906-1907 Hamilton Conference, Annual Report of the Deaconess Aid Society, Fifth Annual Report, p. 61.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 61.
[xvii] Report of the Board of Management, 1910-1911, p. 41.
[xviii] Mary Anne MacFarlance A Tale of Handmaidens: Deaconesses in the United Church of Canada, 1925 to 1964, MA Thesis, University of Toronto 1987, p 18.
[xix] Report of the First Conference of the Deaconesses of the United Church of Canada, 1926. https://uccdeaconesshistory.ca/wp-content/uploads/biopics/1926-Report-of-the-First-Conference-of-Deaconesses-in-the-UCC.pdf
[xx] 7 Dec 1939, Clara gave a paper on “The Jew and Art and Music” to Deaconess Association (C. Douglas’ notes)
[xxi] The plot was purchased by the Order to provide a place for women who had no family connections, more common because they were single than in other situations. Plot 7, Section 24, Lot 7 – North – Lower – “J”