May Sleeth, (also known as Martha May) originally from Ottawa, Ontario was one of three girls, (Florence Sarah, who died October 23, 1975 and is buried at Bellevue Cemetery, Ottawa and Elsie) born to Matthew Sleeth and his wife (her name unknown).
In 1914, she entered the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home to begin the two year program leading to designation as a Deaconess. April 6, 1916, she graduated and was designated by the Presbytery of Toronto. That summer, in a country gripped by the tragedies of the First World War, May packed her bags and headed west, probably by train, to take up her position as Deaconess in the busy Knox Church in Regina. May arrived just as Deaconess Jean McClelland was vacating the position upon her marriage to congregational member Garnet Menzies.
The responsibilities of the Deaconess were varied, and included work with Sunday School for children and adults, as well as what would today be called an outreach ministry to newcomers to the city, called Strangers’ Work at the time. Knox had an active spirit of evangelism. Much of the social ministry conducted was with an aim to grow the church. But in the summer of 1914, with out break of war, a dramatic shift of focus for the congregation occurs, with church expansion set aside to support the war effort, despite the continuation of the economic depression across the prairies into the first years of the war.
This description of the work of a Deaconess comes from the Annual Report of the Committee on the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home[i] in 1915. While this was the year before Martha May arrived it gives a sense of what her work might have been:
Work is so varied, so rich in experience, it is difficult to talk about. The war has affected everything, and touched everyone in some way, or another, and so the church has had a very busy winter full of unusual experience. The heartiness with which people have responded to the unnumbered calls has been a marvel and a wonderful comfort to those to whom these calls have come. The weariness, heart-sickness, untold suffering and privation makes the heart go out in unceasing prayer for peace. … A ‘Friendly Bible Class’ for [newcomers to the city] has been organized whose aim is to be a friend to the friendless. The girls have become interested in work for others, and have contributed not only a goodly parcel to the Red Cross Society, but at Christmas supplied sox and wristlets to the churches’ representatives in [the World War 1 battle field] Salisbury Plain.
In her own words, May describes her first year at Knox:[ii]
Commencing in a new field of work, and in the absence of the pastor, one had to depend on the lists of the former worker [Jean McClelland Menzies]; teach her Bible class, and make the acquaintance of such young people as remained in the city during the hot season. A very real field of service was found in ministry to the old people and shut ins who were unable to attend church. To those the church papers; a resume of the sermon, and oft times Red Cross supplies were carried, and in the latter a number were delighted to knit and return the result through the deaconess.: In the other part of the charge, the community is largely from the Old Land — one found these receptive and appreciative, and it was easy to become acquainted.
Work in the Sabbath School, and later the organization of a Christian Endeavour Society, the arrangement of programmes for this and encouraging the less experienced to take part, filled the weeks. With the fall season, the opening of the Bible class, and one notes the keen desire amongst the young people to deepen the missionary interest. The class took the name of a missionary, and the girls are getting into communication with our work, and hoping to take some part in it. The class is studying young people’s problems, and a keen interest is shown; the members bring their own personal problems in business and school life for discussion in the class session. A Red Cross sewing meeting is held once a wcek, and their teacher can count on the members’ hearty co-operation in any of her plans for others.
The Protestant Home centre for immigrant domestics has afforded exceptional opportunity for getting in touch with girls in service, who are numerous and spiritually needy. A class connection with the church was organized in the early fall for overseas girls; involving half an hour after the other Bible class; and considering the limitations of time, the girls have responded in a way which encourages those interested to expect excellent results. Six have united with the Church already and are showing an increasing loyalty and sense of responsibility towards the class. It is pathetic to see how even the most intelligent class of girls from the best homes in the City appreciate a friendly visit from one who shows a real interest in them. In consultation with the pastor, one has planned and launched the Young People’s Forward Missionary Movement[iii] in the Young People’s Association. The idea has been well received, and with another year of education should mean much to the life not only of the Association but of the Church. We have a magnificent group of young people, quite open minded and it is a splendid opportunity for the deaconess who has been granted by all concerned ample encouragement and freedom in the work amongst them.
The war doesn’t play a big role in May’s reflection, perhaps because she was able to team with Jean, who continues as an active leader in the congregation and takes a leadership role in the congregation’s war effort. In 1917, Knox creates the Knox Church Women’s Association with objectives to support Regina’s men overseas and their families. “Mrs. G. N. Menzies” is the Vice President. Objectives of the organization strongly mimic the goals of the diaconal ministry that she and May carried out. It isn’t hard to imagine their influence in its construction. One objective was, “To welcome strangers and new families, to foster the spirit of sociability and to render other forms of Christian Service as may be deemed advisable in the interests of the congregation.” This complimented the desire to provide tangible support for the families of Knox men who were at the Front.[iv]
Sometime between 1919 and 1924 May leaves Regina for work at another Knox Presbyterian Church, this one in Calgary. (Unfortunately, there are no Deaconess Appointment Lists available for 1920 to 1923.) The Knox congregation votes by a slim majority to join the United Church and it is possible that the Deaconess position had to be forgone in the light of the economic stress that would have resulted when one congregation suddenly became two. For whatever reason, May’s position ends and she moves to become the Deaconess at Zion, one of the new United Churches in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. May joins the new United Church Order of Deaconesses. Both Knox and Zion had a focus on mission with Chinese immigrants, so perhaps that was a focus for her work. Digging into the history of those two congregations could shed more light on her and her work.
As May’s career continues, it is obvious that she is called to social ministry. Perhaps this is what she discussed with Winnifred Thomas, the Secretary of the New United Church Order. When she arrived in Moose Jaw on December 2, 1927 during her western trip to visit Deaconesses and Women Workers. Winnifred had dinner with “Miss Sleeth and Miss [Joyce] James”. Joyce was appointed to St. Andrew’s, the other large United Church in the city, in the summer of that year. Winnifred spent the next morning with May, judging by the kind of reports she wrote out of the trip, becoming familiar with her working conditions, and taking a deep and genuine interest in what was happening in May’s ministry and what could be possible with increased support for Deaconesses.
From that trip Winnifred wrote:
Many questions arose regarding the personal life of the workers. So many are doing far more than their strength allows. Cannot some guidance be given as regards hours, free time, etc? Many are cut off from social life, and not only those in isolated places; through lack of ordinary human thoughtfulness others in large centres are quite as lonely. Some are “square pegs in round holes”. While much thought is given to this matter, even greater care must be taken to study the special gifts and preferences of each so that so far as possible each is placed where she can give her largest service.
When May leaves Moose Jaw in 1929 she relocates to Kitchener, Ontario to a position with the Board of Home Mission as the Community Missionary. This is followed by a move in 1932 to The New Canadian Institute in the Ontario community of Port Arthur, now known as Thunder Bay
The New Canadian Institute, was established to help Finnish and Scandinavian immigrants. An extension to the Institute, located on the corner of Bay Street and Winnipeg Avenue, was dedicated November 13, 1927 and it was around this time that regular services for the immigrants began. Rev. A.B. Simpson, Superintendent of New Canadian Work, brought forward a motion at Presbytery to build a chapel at the New Canadian Institute “solely for the purpose of worship.” The Institute officially changed its name to the Church of All Nations in 1929, however, the appointment records identify May’s work is at the Institute. The focus of her work there is what we might today identify as social work. In 1927 Winnifred Thomas describes the work with new Canadians she observed at places such as the Institute:
This work is, of course, most varied including Kindergarten, Sunday schools, clubs for children, educational classes, social service, visiting, recreational activities, secretarial work. [In smaller institutions] it is extremely difficult for [the worker] must be prepared to do so many different things and to be equally capable of leading little children and young people and helping mother in the home.
She is there until 1935, and it is likely her departure was a result of the ministry faltering with the departure of Rev. Simpson and the severe economic times of the mid 1930s.
May moved to All People’s Mission in Ottawa for one year and that was followed by a two year leave of absence and then what is reported in the Deaconess Appointment list as her retirement. She is noted as retired until her disappearance from the records in 1976. She died in either 1975 or 76.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas in November 2012.
[i] The Report of the Committee on the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home, 1914-1915, p 205, The Acts and Proceedings of the 41st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Kingston, Ontario, June 2-10, 1915. It is only attributed to a “deaconess from the west”.
[ii] The Report of the Committee on the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home, 1914-1915, p 180, The Acts and Proceedings of the 43rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Montreal, Quebec, June 6-14, 1917. It is only attributed to a “deaconess from the west” but the context of her appointment makes the attribution to her possible.
[iii] More could be searched on this movement, for example, Forward Missionary Movement: For the Boys and Girls, and the Young People of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Presbyterian Church in Canada Board of Sabbath Schools, 191?, 15 page leaflet
[iv] Let The Bells Ring, Knox-Metropolitan United Church, Regina 1882-1982, An Illustrated History by Dorothy Hayden, pg 61. Other details about Regina in this period are from this book.