June (Woodworth) Newsham
- 1946 - Born
- 1970 - Disjoined, not working for church
- 1968: Summer Field, Riverhurst, SK
- 1969: Deaconess in team ministry, Third Avenue United Church (North Battleford), North Battleford, SK
A Maritime girl, June Elizabeth Woodworth Newsham was born in 1946 in Kentville, Nova Scotia and grew up in nearby Port Williams. Her parents, John and Rita (nee Hill) raised their family in the United Church. June was inspired to dream about being a United Church overseas missionary through her relationship with Hilda Johnson, a family friend, who served with the United Church in India for her whole career.
After high school June attended Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and while Canada celebrated its centennial, June celebrated her graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in 1967. That fall she went to Covenant College, entering the joint program with Emmanuel College, and in 1969 was awarded both a Diploma from Covenant and Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel. In May, at the annual meeting of Maritime Conference in Sackville, New Brunswick, she was designated as a Deaconess.
As graduation neared, June approached The United Church Division of World Outreach about working overseas. They encouraged her but advised that she obtain some work experience in Canada and come back to them in a few years. By the late 1960s, the church was very committed to only sending missionaries when the missionary had a skill set or experience that couldn’t be found locally.
June applied to a vacancy in Saskatchewan to work in a team ministry at Third Avenue United Church in North Battleford. She was excited by the prospect of returning to Saskatchewan where she had her four month summer mission field in 1968. She was the student/assistant minister on a four point charge at Riverhurst, SK. But when she arrived she got a better picture of the situation. Her ordained colleague was not interested in being part of a team and made that explicitly clear to her. In addition the congregation had not prepared well for having a Deaconess. They had copied the job description from another Saskatchewan United Church but had not considered if it was really what they wanted, or needed, from a Deaconess. As a result there was some confusion about her role and task. June describes her time there as “up and down”.
But going to North Battleford wasn’t all bad news for June. She was appreciative of the support she got from Betty Marlin, another Deaconess who was working in Battleford Presbytery at the time, and they developed a friendship. Another source of support came from a congregational member, Ivor Newsham, who proposed marriage to her in February, 1940. They set a date for a summer wedding.
Then at the June Board meeting it was explained to June that the congregation did not have adequate budget to support a deaconess. In hiring her they had gone on faith that the extra ministry presence would result in more members and more contributions. Of course, even if this hope were ever to be realized, it wasn’t going to happen in 10 months! So without any forewarning, June’s position was terminated, effective August 1, the day after her wedding, because the congregation could not afford to pay her after that.
From a 21st century vantage point the connection between June’s dismissal and her marriage may not be as apparent as in 1970. Attitudes towards “working women” were changing as the women’s movement was growing, and more women were working after marriage, and even with young children. Yet persisting was an understanding that once she married, a woman would be taken care of by her husband. She was not only not in need of the income, but not deserving of the job. Certainly, this idea was still prevalent in relationships between employing units of the United Church and its Deaconesses throughout the 1960s. Joan (Davies) Sandy was terminated effectively immediately from her position and had her Deaconess status revoked in 1968 when the Board of Home Missions became aware that she was engaged to be married.
From its inception in 1926, the Deaconess Order was for single women only. Women who married were “disjoined” from the Order and lost their status. The marriage rule was officially changed by the General Council in 1960, but word of that seemed to be slow in spreading and some women continued to be disjoined, although others, Rosalene (Bostwick) Sallmen for example, were not. In 1964, Deaconesses became members of Presbytery and their accountability shifted from a centralized National Committee to individual presbyteries. In a period of confusion, the rules were interpreted differently in each presbytery. Wilma (Unwin) Cade, for example, was disjoined in 1964 because of her marriage. 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.
Officially, however, June was not disjoined for marriage, but disjoined because she was not working in the church, the other branch of the disjoining rule. June had been informed about the “not working” rule when she was a student at Covenant College. The rules of the Order made explicit the expectations:
Should a deaconess be without appointment because of illness or home duties; or through engaging, by permission of the Board in some work other than under the United Church for a period of two years, it will be the duty of the Committee responsible for the supervision of the Deaconess Order to inquire into the case, and, should they deem it wise, to request that the deaconess withdraw from the Order …
In 1960, this rule was not formally revoked. While the marriage bar reflected beliefs about women and their agency, the employment rule reflected deeply held theological beliefs about the inseparability of ministry from ordination. Movement on addressing sexism was easier to achieve than making headway on clericalism.
Deaconesses were lay women, they were never considered to be in ministry. In fact, the responsibilities of the Order would frequently be defined as, “all aspects of church work except for ministry.” The diaconate was temporary; ordination was permanent. Ministry, therefore, was essentially the work of men, even after the United Church began to ordain single women in 1936 because they were in such small numbers. To have allowed Deaconesses to retain their status when not working, would have given their vocation a permanence that would have challenged the exclusive claim on ordination as the only way means to the rights and privileges of ministry. It would have resulted in the diaconate being ministry and then, not just a handful of women being in ministry, but hundreds! The patriarchal system of clericalism in which sacrament is the most powerful expression of Christianity, yoked with the restriction that only men can provide sacramental leadership, ensures men’s power. The United Church Deaconess Order was structured to support this system. Everyone just understood that June, with the double distinction of being married, and not likely to practice her diaconal ministry because of geography, would no longer be a Deaconess.
However, cracks in the inevitability of this scenario are appearing by the late 1960s. Carol Stevenson Seller was designated a deaconess in 1965 and began her ministry in a larger parish in Saskatchewan. In 1968 she married Frederick Seller, an ordained United Church minister. Carol, unlike her Saskatchewan colleague, Joan Sandy, was not disjoined for marrying that year. When Frederick was settled in rural Saskatchewan with no Deaconess jobs nearby for Carol, and she was left without an appointment, she was allowed to retain her diaconal status.
June and Ivor’s first child arrived a year after their wedding. With three others joining the family in the next 7 years, June’s attentions were focused on the home-front. Working outside the home wasn’t in June’s mind for several years.
But, when June’s family got older, and she wanted to return to work, she did not consider ministry. For one thing, Ivor had a secure career as a teacher and the family was rooted in North Battleford and there were no diaconal ministry positions close by. June was also leery about working in a team ministry. Her own experience had been so negative, and she knew of other similar stories. Instead, she began work on a social work degree, taking courses whenever they were offered close enough to North Battleford. In 1985 she completed the degree. However, there were not any social work jobs at the time in her community so she began a long career of working with mentally challenged people. She retired in 2011 from Battlefords Residential Services after 25 years managing group homes.
After leaving her deaconess position, June remained an active member of the Third Avenue congregation. She acknowledged it became a lot easier when her ministry colleague left the congregation. Over the years June has occasionally led in worship, started and helped to lead a number of youth programs, been on the board for several terms, taught Sunday school, and chaired the Pastoral Relations Team. She is a palliative Care volunteer at the local hospital and has been active in the North Battleford Housing Authority Board.
Tragically, one of June’s daughters was killed, along with her husband, in car accident in 2002. June’s husband, Ivor, died in 2007.
It was only very recently that June received any payment for her church work. The congregation has decided that when a lay person, even from the congregation, does a Sunday of “pulpit supply” it should be paid. June reflects, “I am still doing ministry – but all unpaid by the church – work with mentally challenged adults was a real ministry. I educated the community. When I first would go out with the residents, people would cross the street, get up and move to a different table in the coffee shop. I just kept on doing it, and talking, talking with people. Now things are totally different. … My ministry was to the challenged adults, but there is a lasting ministry I had for all of North Battleford. I’m okay with that.”
Written by Caryn Douglas, July 2012, based on correspondence and telephone conversations with June.
 See Caryn Douglas, A Story of Lost Opportunity: The Apology to Deaconesses Disjoined by The United Church of Canada. DMin Thesis, St. Stephen’s College, Edmonton, 2009.
 The church only ordained single women until 1957 and there were less than 30 women ordained before 1960.
 More than 600 women were designated as Deaconesses prior to 1970 when June was dismissed.
 For the United Church communion and baptism are sacraments.