Eleanor (McDougall) Russ
- 1939 - Born
On June 11, 1939 I was given a double blessing. Maybe it was a call from God. I was born just a few months before that fated day to Harold and Helen (Gilmaier) McDougall, in Amsterdam, New York. It was my mother’s home town. My father had come from Canada to work for the New York Power and Light Company as an electrician. We were Methodists and it was in the Forest Avenue Methodist Church that my future was cast.
Being baptized that day were the children of two different McDougall families. My family: mother, father and 3 year old sister Violet watched as the minister took me in his arms and trusting his memory he solemnly declared, “Barbara Jean, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Mom nudged Dad. Dad said nothing. The minister moved on.
At the end of the line, was the other McDougall family. The minister took the baby in his arms and this time glanced at his notes. “Barbara Jean?” he puzzled in confusion. Realizing his mistake he returned, and rebaptized me, “Eleanor Joyce”. God’s seal was definitely set upon me that day, and really for my whole life afterward.
My formal religious training began when I was three and I started Sunday School. I had wanted to go with my sister earlier, but Sunday school was only offered for 3 years of age and up. My mother promised me that I could go the Sunday after I turned three. And she kept her promise. That Sunday after I turned three, it was bitter cold, it would have been reasonable to stay home, but my parents wrapped me up against the cold wind and walked me to church. This was the war period, and because of that we were unable to drive our car in the winter. The only difficult memory I have from my otherwise pleasant childhood is the air raid sirens at night; scary for a young child.
Palm Sunday, 1949, the year I was 10, I was confirmed in that same Methodist Church. Three months later we left Amsterdam to return to Canada and my father’s home farm in New Dublin, Ontario, just north of Brockville.
The church, now New Dublin United Church, continued to be a central focus of my life. Along with my sister Violet, I learned from Mrs. Landon in Sunday School, where my mother also taught. There was a sense of history about us all the time, as we attended the same one room school where my father was educated. In 1950, my younger sister Beverly was born. My dad had hoped that he could find work near the farm and build it up, but he couldn’t find employment. He took a job in Toronto before my sister was born, and came home every other weekend. In 1952, we left the farm and moved to Willowdale, now part of Toronto, to be together as a family.
Lansing United Church was a welcoming place. One day, when I was in grade 10, a Deaconess spoke in Church, the first seed was planted. I asked my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Scott, about Deaconesses. To my eternal gratitude she took me to an open house at The United Church Training School to have a tour and talk to some of the students. One of the graduates spent a couple of hours talking to us. I can’t recall now who she was, she was heading to Africa to be a missionary. She was likely unaware of the influence she had on my life. Again I was blessed, another seed was planted.
I realize that I had been formed well in a strong faith. It was in October of 1954 that Hurricane Hazel struck the Toronto region. Walking home from school in the torrential rain I came to a bridge over what was usually a lazy little stream. The roaring river it had become was knee deep over the bridge and I was frightened. Reciting the 23rd Psalm, learned in my confirmation class, I made my way across the bridge and safely home. I knew that I was not alone at that moment, and had a home with God wherever I was. Later, I also realized that it was the first time learned scripture had come to my aid. That insight made a lasting impression. It was also about this time that I made a commitment to myself that I would stay in Sunday School until I was 18. No one wants to be the oldest in Sunday School, so I thought I would be! We had a strong bible class in my 18th year. I then left that class to teach a grade 2 Sunday school class along with the nursery where I was already a volunteer.
In 1958, I graduated from Earl Haig Collegiate and entered Toronto Teachers College. A year later, following graduation, I began teaching for the North York School Board. With the letter appointing me came a grave awareness of my responsibility for these young lives. But I remember thinking, “God will be with me.”
In my first summer vacation I attended a Christian Ashram[i] at Albert College in Belleville Ontario, where I had a profoundly deep spiritual experience. From Brother E. Stanley Jones I learned that God accepts us as we are. God doesn’t wait for us to walk up that ladder of perfection and when we get to the top, accept us. God comes to the bottom of the ladder, so to speak, accepts us as we are and then helps us up the ladder to grow in grace.
Also influential during the Ashram was Sister Mary Webster. I asked her if she was always so effervescent, sharing with her my own experience of being inspired at places like Five Oaks[ii] but unable to sustain that energy. I recall her saying, “That’s because you’re trying to do it on your own. See that wire out there? It’s not doing any work, it’s the power moving through it that does the work. I have one hand in the hand of God and the other hand with the people. It’s the Holy Spirit moving through me that is doing all the work, so I don’t tire.” I left that Ashram knowing that whatever God called me to do God would enable me to do.
I went home and started a Young People’s group at Nobleton United Church (we had moved to Nobleton, just north of Toronto in 1958). My vocation as church leader had begun. Following my second year of teaching, I spent the summer at Queen’s University and in the fall of 1961 entered the United Church Training School, renamed Covenant College while I was there, with a plan to become a Deaconess. The seeds had taken root.
One of the biggest adventures in faith was my Summer Mission field in Newfoundland as the Director of Caravanning, training Vacation Bible School teachers and then travelling with them to ports along the east coast. Newfoundland was much more remote then and travel was sometimes by come and by chance. It was an experience that makes for great stories and reminds me of the adaptability and energy of youth!
During my second year at UCTS I began to make plans for my future. I settled on working with a Chinese congregation in Saskatoon. With the support of the Board of Home Missions arrangements were made for me to attend language training at Yale University after graduation. Before that plan could be enacted though, a second year theology student at Emmanuel College, Ken Russ, asked me out. It didn’t take many dates for the two of us to realize that I was being called in a different direction.
Many of my classmates might have laughed when word got around about Ken and I. It was a very common phenomenon that UCTS women married Emmanuel men. Too often church people saw the Training School as a place for women to get a “MRS”, and Deaconess Training as preparation for volunteer church work as a minister’s wife. I knew that the education and the work of Deaconesses had more integrity than that. At any rate, I declared at a study group meeting that I wasn’t at UCTS to marry an Emmanuel man. Ken was in the room at the time!
Harriet Christie, the Principal, suggested I work closer to home so that I could get to know Ken better and she encouraged me to follow my original love of working with Native people. I graduated from Covenant College, May 14, 1963. Designation into the Deaconess Order of the United Church took place under the authority of Toronto Conference at Asbury and West United Church, May 31, 1963.
I applied for a teaching position at Christian Island United Church Indian Day School.
In September, my friend drove me to Cedar Point where we boarded the R.A. Hoey ferry for Christian Island. She stayed with me for only a short while then had to leave with the departing ferry. I walked to the dock with her. Later she told me that when the ferry pulled away she hated leaving me there alone.
Alone? As I walked from the dock toward the school and church I once again heard the words, “I will be with you.” I knew that I was not alone.
As a teacher I was employed by the Federal government but the Board of Home Missions also appointed me as a Deaconess in the United Church there. It was the first of several opportunities I had to minister with Aboriginal people. At the end of the school year, on July 18, 1964, Ken and I were married at Nobleton United Church. A week later we left for Carrot River, Saskatchewan, where Ken had his first ministry appointment and we began more than 40 years of ministry together.
In the early 1960s the women’s movement was in its infancy. Attitudes and expectations were changing, but only beginning. Official rules about married women working were gone, but it was still a norm for women to step aside from their career to support their husbands. I was able to work alongside Ken, but also had my independent ministry. I was also fortunate that I did not lose my Deaconess status, unlike the women just a few years before me.
We were four years in Saskatchewan, followed by pastorates in Ontario: Jordan Station and Hamilton (Zion). During this time we adopted three children, Carlene, William and Christina. It was a full and rich time. While in Jordan Station I pastored Thorold South United Church for two years and in Hamilton worked half time with Ken.
Next it was a move to Stirling, Ontario. I finished my B.A., worked with Rev. Peter Wyatt at Port Hope United Church and took theological courses at Queen’s towards ordination. I had been filling in pulpits here and there and doing pastoral work at several places, including Trinity United Church, Cannington, until they called a minister, doing interim ministry. But, because I was Diaconal, at that time and in that region of the church, I wasn’t considered eligible to be called. I really enjoyed pastoral ministry so came to the decision that I would need to be ordained if I were to have a permanent position. I was ordained May 13, 1984, 21 years after entering ministry. I thought of myself then as an “Ordained Deaconess”. I still feel that way. I didn’t leave behind my diaconal formation and my love and skill for teaching with my new title. But new doors were opened. I was called to the Quinte Pastoral Charge (Deseronto and Melrose United Churches) where I had been filling in.
In 1986 Ken and I were called as Team Ministers to Fairview United Church in Brantford, Ontario, initially half time each. After two years Ken became full time. I also conducted a pastoral care ministry at the John Noble Home for the Aged. I continued doing fill in ministries, including a period at Southwest Norfolk Pastoral Charge awaiting the arrival of Hugh and Janet MacDonald, Oakland Pastoral Charge, awaiting the arrival of Con Estoesta, and a period at Grand River on the Six Nations Reserve, while they awaited the arrival of Jake Noganosh.
Then in 1990, Ken was called to Southhampton-Mount Hope Pastoral Charge and I accepted a call to the neighbouring Saugeen Pastoral Charge, on the Saugeen First Nation. (Eleanor with Marilyn Root from Saugeen) My longest pastorate was among these welcoming people. I retired in 2004, enriched and deepened by the teachings I absorbed there.
Ken and I had just really begun our retired lives when he died suddenly in 2005. Widowhood took some adjustment. In 2006, I stepped out of retirement to minister at the Cape Croker First Nation Community, near Wiarton. Since then my work has been voluntary.
Who am I now? For 41 years I was a wife, a minister’s wife, an active “Ordained Deaconess”. I am not these things any longer. But I still have a ministry.
I am a child of God, a mother, grandmother, a companion to human and canine friends. (see Eleanor with her dog Susie) I have many interests. Music for example; playing clarinet in a Community Band and hoping to learn the Celtic harp. Holistic health is another interest. I have training in Reiki and Therapeutic Touch, and I am a licensed Brain Gym instructor/consultant. I provided leadership in this activity with all ages. I have worked with ministry students through the Francis Sandy Theological Centre (now the Sandy Saulteaux Spiritual Centre) where I was made a Companion of the Centre and I have served as an Elder in learning circles.
A decision to return to eastern Ontario and build a new house, on a lot Ken and I bought before his death, has kept me busy, clearing out my house and sorting through a lifetime of memories. I remain grateful that God has not abandoned me: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”
This biography was compiled in April 2014 by Caryn Douglas from reflections written by Eleanor in 2011, 2013 and 2014, along with phone calls with Caryn Douglas.
[i] A movement began in India came to Canada in the 1940s. Using the traditional concepts of Hindi spiritual practice with a focus on Jesus as the teacher, the purpose is to deepen reflection and spirituality. The movement continues. http://www.estanleyjonesfoundation.com/about-esj/history-of-the-christian-ashrams/
[ii] Five Oaks is a residential education/retreat Centre near Paris, Ontario.