In 2009, I was reinstated by London Conference as a retired Diaconal Minister in good standing. Why had my name been put on the Discontinued List in the 1980s? Well, it was at my request, as I wasn’t working in the church in a paid position and hadn’t been for some time, because of marrying and raising a family. By the time I was able to accept a position, there were no vacancies in Oxford presbytery. Instead, I returned to my original profession, that of a teacher, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) for five years. But let me go back …..
I grew up in Montreal, living in Snowden, Quebec for thirteen years with my brother and parents and then Lachine, finishing high school there in 1952. We had gone to Queen Mary Road United as children and I well recall the Christmas pageants and flannel-graph stories in Sunday school, as well as singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” with great gusto in the church basement. In Summerlea United, Lachine, I became involved in Young People’s (YPU), during the time I was teaching and living at home, after being away at Teacher’s College in St. Anne de Bellevue for two years. At the church there, I began to teach Sunday school, as well. One of my classmates was Baptist and we started to have prayer in the residence, also going to a BYPU camp that summer. I began to question my faith and went through a period of self-examination. I was a “late-bloomer” in being a rebellious teen-ager in her twenties! My parents were patient by-standers and always supportive.
There were a number of role models or mentors who were deaconesses in Montreal at that time: Marg Quigley, Sarah Harrison, and Lily Uyeda – their joy in serving the church spoke volumes. Meanwhile, I was struggling teaching Grade Three, having 38 children in my first year! I was being pulled more and more to Christian Education opportunities. Still teaching for two more years, my involvement as Faith and Evangelism convener in the Presbytery YPU and other activities in the church, including ecumenical groups, led me to a commitment to full-time service in the church.
I graduated from what was The United Church Training School in 1959 and was designated as a Deaconess at Montreal & Ottawa Conference annual meeting the same year. During our course of study, there was opportunity to learn about various avenues of service: working under the Home Mission Board or going overseas, doing Christian Education or rural work, etc. There was also the WMS at that time and some graduates were commissioned to serve in a specific country. We could choose between being designated or not. When Mrs. Tena Campion, the Secretary for the Deaconess Order was asked what the advantages of becoming a deaconess were, someone usually piped up that “there was always the plot.” The Deaconess Order maintained a burial plot in a Toronto cemetery, originating in the days when the Methodists, in lieu of a salary to Deaconesses, promised to look after them until their death: literally! I felt that if I were going to work in a congregation, like Mary Jane Young had done when my parents were in YPU at St. James United in Montreal in the 1930s, I would like to do it with the church’s blessing. Being a Deaconess was synonymous with being a church worker, for me.
I had accepted a position as assistant to the minister, Rev. Harold Burgess, in Cornwall, Ontario, where I stayed two years. It was a “mixed bag”, doing everything from work in the church office (there was no secretary) to CE to visiting in homes and hospitals, even going along as an escort for a female young offender once, driving to Toronto in the back seat of a police cruiser and arriving in the small hours of the morning at a nunnery! It was a good foundation of experience but I wanted to be more involved in Christian Education, so accepted a position as Director of CE at Southminster United Church, Ottawa in 1961, where I stayed for four years before returning to teaching, this time at L’Institut Francais Evangelique, a French Protestant school in Montreal, then under the Home Mission Board of the UCC. I could remain a Deaconess in this position and have a little breathing space. My job at Southminster seemed at times to be working with two bosses looking over my shoulder – both the minister and his wife had been active in Christian Education in previous positions and found it hard to “let go”. I enjoyed working with the children in Sunday and mid-week groups and their leaders very much. It was the time of the “New Curriculum” and there was great excitement and enthusiasm, as we learned as we went along. Once my mind was made up, however, I made my decision to leave, even though I was cautioned by some “not to leave the ship”. I didn’t feel that I was – I was just taking a break and accepting a different challenge. And a challenge it was! Living in residence with a staff largely made up of teachers from France and teaching English, health and history from Gr. 4 – 9 certainly brought me face to face with a different mix of human beings from what I had faced in a congregational setting. Miss Boucher, the principal, became my “Mother Superior”. Yes, I was still a Deaconess, but now I was a Deaconess “in love” and ready to move on.
I had met Ernst Gugeler while in Ottawa and we continued to see one another, marrying in October of 1966, knowing that we would be going to Nepal the following year. Ernst’s twin brother was working as the business manager of a technical institute under The United Mission to Nepal and wrote of their need for a mechanical design engineer. Ernst had just started a job at Boeing helicopter division in Arnprior, outside of Ottawa, but his excitement over doing something where third world technology was needed won out. When he proposed, it was “I wonder how you would feel about marrying me and going to Nepal?” If I wanted one, I had to do the other – and I did! We applied to the United Church, were interviewed by members of the board, had medicals, etc. and were commissioned in March 1967 along with other outgoing missionaries, in Lindsay, Ontario. There was still a Linguistics course in Toronto in June and an Orientation Course at Westminster College, London, Ontario. to attend, before leaving in September by ship from Montreal to Rotterdam. After a month in Germany with relatives, we flew to Nepal, arriving in Kathmandu, at the Mission Home, on October 31 for four months language study and orientation to a new culture.
I was pregnant with our first child, Joy, who was born in June. Nothing could have prepared me for the changes in climate and primitive living that faced us in Butwal, which was to be our home for the next four years. There was lots of help along the way, however, from the international and interdenominational community, on the mission compound and in the other UMN projects. Tansen was one of these and was where there was a mission hospital and a place to stay for the hot season returning to Butwal after the monsoon season in September. The husbands had a long 6 hour trek to reach their families, making it only possible every three weeks, but otherwise the children who stayed in Butwal suffered from Prickly Heat and boils.
While in Nepal I did some teaching of English to the trainees – young Nepali apprentices who lived in hostels attached to each family dwelling. Our common verandah became the classroom and lessons were at 6 am, before going to the various workshops in the technical institute. I also took my turn in leading in worship for our English service on Sunday evening in homes on the compound. Saturday was the Hindu holy day, so there was a Nepali service in the village church to which some of the missionaries went. Most of us took the one-day holiday to ourselves. We also had three weeks holiday a year, sometimes going to India but mostly going where the heat was less noticeable because of being near the sea. Before we had Peter, in 1971, we took a holiday in Gorkha, where Dr. Helen Huston, another UC missionary, was at a small hospital where Ernst had designed and supervised the manufacturing of fifteen steel frame beds. The area is known as Am Pipal and the Anapurna range of mountains is truly breathtaking, so different from the flat Terai area of Butwal.
Did I still feel that I was a deaconess in Nepal? No, although I tried to use my training and experience, certainly. I was still “becoming the person God wanted me to be”, as the CGIT purpose read. It was mostly the men in Butwal who were the missionaries or overseas workers. With the exception of the wife of the director of the technical institute, who was proficient in the Nepali language, from their many years in Nepal and the wife of one of the electricians, a medical doctor, both couples from Norway, there was little for the women to do other than home-making and entertaining. It was often stressful, as the hot and monsoon seasons required looking for other living arrangements – there was little opportunity to grow in one’s faith and by the end of our term, I felt spiritually and culturally starved. One doesn’t get the opportunity to choose one’s neighbors on a mission compound and being from so many mission boards and theological persuasions, as well as cultures, it was difficult not to have special friends with whom one had more in common than others.
We left Nepal in a VW camper in May of 1972, traveling the Asian Highway with a four year old and a 1 year old for two months to Germany. (Was this faith or foolishness?) Suffice it to say that we faced many challenges, the first of which was just having enough clean water to drink. (We had hoped to leave in February but the two suspension bridges, which Ernst had designed for the hills, were not finished being manufactured.) Eventually, after going through seven countries, camping most of the way, we arrived in Germany, where we stayed at “Oma’s” for a month before flying to Toronto, shipping the VW and a crate of things ahead.
We were in Toronto until we learned that Ernst had been accepted for the MBA course at Western, moving to London. Stephen was born in his second year. Ernst’s study became the nursery. His first job was in Tillsonburg and we bought our first home in a small village called Springford. From there we moved back to London and then to Windsor, Simcoe, Tillsonburg (where we stayed ten years!) and then north, to Port McNichol, when Ernst worked in Penatanguishene. The only trouble was that after commuting for months, every weekend, we moved and he and three other middle management people were laid off. So, it was back to southwestern Ontario, to Kitchener, an industrial area, so that if a job failed to work out, there wouldn’t be the necessity of a move. We were members of Parkminster United during this time and I became “clerk”, under the unified board system, participating in leadership of worship and many meetings. I had some heart problems in 1998 and had to relinquish my duties. Because of our many moves (because I married a “gypsy” who either got fired because of his outspokenness or left a job that wasn’t challenging), it was not possible for me to work in the church while the children were small. When I could have perhaps sought paid employment, there didn’t seem to be the opportunity. Not everyone knew my background and I had always been an active volunteer, so why would a church board suggest that I get paid? It was half my fault, perhaps; I wasn’t very assertive and Ernst and I had long ago decided that I should not work outside the home when raising a family. However, the money that came from teaching ESL for five years was of significant help. Looking back over those many years of volunteering in the church I realize now that I was probably not feeling very fulfilled or true to my diaconal commitment.
Ernst had both practical and theoretical training in engineering and one time he “kept us in hamburger” by taking on a job as a boring-mill operator just to allow us to still go to Germany for a holiday. He worked until he was 70, his last job being in Guelph. He had developed a unique design of picnic table, making them in our garage for ten years before retirement. We found a wonderful workshop and house in Grand Bend area, so that was our home from 2000 until he died of “an aorta dissection” in 2003. I stayed on for a year before returning to Kitchener, where son, Steve, and his wife, Tammy, and their three children live in Waterloo. Peter and Joanne are in Mississauga and Joy is in Nanaimo, BC.
I have become involved in visiting people who are unable to get to church. At Trinity United, we had an “appreciative inquiry process” and wanted to hear from everyone as to what they thought our church’s strengths were, based on a book by Diana Butler-Bass. This is where I discovered that I loved visiting, one on one. One of our ministers, Rev. Desmond Jagger-Parsons, suggested that I seek reinstatement, which I did, and in 2009 I also became a VAM (Voluntary Associate Minister) so that I might be able to share communion on some visits, but also making my visits more “official”. I have to thank Desmond and all who helped this to happen. I never thought it would make a difference but it has. It’s nice to be recognized. In what I see as a “senior visiting seniors” ministry, there is giving and receiving. What stories these dear people have to tell! As was the premise in the course, “Telling My Story, Sharing a Faith” used in the church years ago, everyone has a story and by sharing what you have experienced of God with even one other person, you are spreading the message of God’s love for everyone, strengthening the church at the same time.
God’s name be praised!
Joan (Vale) Gugeler, January 2012