Ruth Lucille Sandilands was born in Glen Morris, Ontario, a small town in southwestern Ontario, in 1921. Her parents Mary (McCrea) and John had their hands full with their daughter. Ruth’s own daughter, Wendy, said of her mother, “She was kind, energetic, a character, the energizer bunny and a little bit crazy …she reveled in being a rabble rouser.” There is family lore, kept alive by Ruth’s spirited telling, of her childhood adventures of unsupervised rafting on the flood swollen Grand River, pushing over outhouses, and, causing the teachers to cry in despair over unruly behaviour. Indeed, Ruth described herself with the same notable phrase, “rebel rouser”. She also acknowledged, even if often with her self-effacing humour, that she was a good educator, an effective care giver and a leader who model a diaconal ministry that enabled others.
Ruth might not have been conventional, but her upbringing was in keeping with the times. In a 2005 article she wrote, “The church of my childhood and youth was the centre of our small farming community where the majority of young people never even went to high school. Luckily for me, my father felt his children should go for at least a couple of years and learn that Glen Morris was not the centre of the world. It was costly, as transportation to school was $10 a month, but boys and girls were of equal value in my family, although girls were protected a little more. However, my father died when I was 15, so at that point my formal education ended.”
Ruth took a job in the silk mill in Hespeler, where she worked for five years. Encouraged by a neighbor, Ruth went to Ryerson Beach Camp, and had an experience of the church beyond her community. Soon she was holding leadership positions in the Young People’s Union; on the executive of both Presbytery and Conference YPU.” A call to church work, first aroused in her as a child when she met a missionary from India, took central place for Ruth. She explained, “To get out of the 55 hour a week job in a factory and to start working on my dream of becoming a church worker, I took a year in commercial training and worked in an office. I worked there for about five years and saved hard, but after being the Hamilton Conference delegate to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Norway in 1947, and spending the next year speaking to YPU groups about my experience, I felt the time had come to get serious about going back to school, a goal for which I had carefully saved. [In 1948] I took the preliminary year at McMaster and then attended the United Church Training School [in Toronto from 1949 to 1951].
Ruth loved the study of theology especially the Synoptic Gospels with Mrs. Hutchinson. Jean adeptly applied Henry Burton Sharman’s (Records of the Life of Jesus) Socratic method of question and discussion, using the insights of depth psychology, especially of Carl Jung. Jessie Oliver, a classmate of Ruth’s remembered: “I recall [Jean] sitting quietly with a smile on her face while we argued about some of the things said by one another.” Joyce (McMaster) Scott, also a classmate, and a long time good friend of Ruth’s, shared in the conviction that Mrs. Hutch’s course was the most significant experience at the School.
Joyce said, “She worked us awfully hard! … she made us do the thinking. One day we were debating something and …there was quite a difference of opinion on how it should be interpreted, and finally one of the girls said to her “but what do YOU believe about it?” and she said, “don’t you know what I believe about it?” and the girl said “no” and she said “good”. She was not going to let us fall back on letting somebody else make our decisions for us.
Ruth was so fascinated by this approach it became central to her Christian Education methodology throughout her career. Ruth remembered that the students at the more neo-orthodox Emmanuel College were envious of UCTS and the quality of education they were getting.
The students at the Training School faced several options for a career after graduation: officially there was the Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS), the largest employer of women in the United Church; another was the Order of United Church Deaconesses. Unofficially, there was the option of minister’s wife. It ranked a very close third. Ruth chose to become a Deaconess, but within a few years, she was “disjoined” from the Order when she joined the Minister’s Wife Club.
As early as her first year at UCTS, Ruth felt the disjoining rule was unfair. When asked by Jean Hutchinson if she was prepared to forego marriage for service she instantly said, “Yes”. But after a week of reflection she sought out her teacher to declare that she was not going to be put in the position of deciding. “I told her I would fight it.” As Ruth remembered the conversation, Jean neither encouraged nor discouraged her thinking. Of course, that was Jean’s style, letting the women think for themselves, but this time Ruth did know what Jean thought. “[The staff] were conflicted, we knew that they didn’t like the rule, but they upheld the Church and its authority, things were different then for women. I guess I was a rabble rouser, and Mrs. Hutch knew it!”
After graduation (see photo on the left) Ruth was designated as a Deaconess by Toronto Conference. The Church was anxious to receive the women graduating from the Training School, as the baby boom Sunday schools needed organizing and support, yet the Church often minimized the women and their work. The disjoining contributed to that view; the work was seen as temporary, and the vocation was not life-long. It was made explicit: it was not ministry. The action of being set apart did happen alongside of that of ordination, but as the minutes from the Annual Meeting of Toronto Conference reveal, it took a secondary spot. Nowhere in the minutes are the names of the 3 women being designated June 5, 1952 mentioned. “Each candidate, [for ordination, names listed above] together with the three young ladies to be designated Deaconesses address the conference briefly.” It is a victory, of some measure, that the nameless made an address to the court, but unless you were there, you can’t know who they were. The Order of Service distributed that day at St. Andrew’s United Church in Toronto, which Ruth had among her papers, names the three: Ruth Hicks, Margaret Smith and Ruth Sandilands.
Ruth accepted a position as a Christian Education Director at Grace United Church, in the busy suburban community of Brampton, north of Mississauga. Her ministry was dynamic and she had a lasting impact on many of the young people she worked with. Dorothy Naylor, a teenaged member of St. Paul’s, which shared the YPU program with Grace United, credits Ruth as the inspiration for her own journey to the diaconate. So too does Marion Pope, who was working with the Victorian Order of Nurses in Brampton in 1952. Marion writes, “[Ruth] was a model for me and it was largely because of her that I too became a Diaconal Minister and began a career of working with the United Church as a Public Health nurse and nursing educator in Korea from 1955 to 1994.”
1951 was also the year that Ruth became engaged to marry Wib Lang, then at Emmanuel College in preparation to become an ordained minister. Ruth recalled sharing news of her engagement with the UCTS Principal, Harriet Christie, at an alumni gathering in 1952. Harriet told Ruth that there were possible changes coming to the disjoining rule, but only in a quiet, private conversation. It wasn’t being publically discussed.
Earlier the next year Ruth asked the Deaconess Committee for an exemption to the rule. She planned to be married in the spring of 1953 and Grace United, at her request, had agreed to keep her employed for two years beyond her marriage. The Committee granted the two year exemption for “as long as she continues to perform duties of a deaconess.” However, Ruth and Wib didn’t get married in 1953, but waited until 1955, when her employment with Grace ended and she was disjoined. Ruth explained: I don’t know why I gave up my idea [of an exemption], Wib was ordained, we moved, we were going to have a family, it was the 1950s, it was so different … Still it seemed unfair, we were just dumped, I had more experience than Wib. Oh well, [I] just went on doing the work.” (See Ruth wearing her pin.)
At the time of her retirement Ruth wrote in her biography for the Church Archives: 1955 – “married and de-commissioned as a result.” Ruth had a tremendous wit, and a wonderful sense of humour, great accompaniments to her strong and determined will. When Ruth was asked for her pin back at the meeting of the Deaconess Association in 1955, by Mrs. Tena Campion, the Head of the Deaconess Order, she said with great passion, “You can’t have mine!” At the 2006 Apology to Disjoined Deaconesses ceremony, during which the United Church acknowledged the inherent injustice in the disjoining rule, Ruth proudly wore her pin.
Marriage to Wib, June 11, 1955, was followed shortly by a move to his settlement charge in Saskatchewan. The arrival of 3 children, Quintin (1956), Sandra (1957) and Wendy (1959) kept Ruth busy. She was as engaged in the pastoral charges; Markdale, Hamilton and Toronto after Saskatchewan, as time allowed, bringing notably her passion for work with young people.
In the 1968s, with her children growing up, and a much different climate for women working in ministry, Ruth accepted a part time position as a chaplain at Scarborough Centenary and General Hospitals. She began to consider being reinstated as a Deaconess, an action that was now possible. Ruth remembered Jessie MacLeod, a classmate and Deaconess, who was then the Deputy Secretary of the Division of Mission in Canada, encouraging her to pursue it. She was reinstated to the United Church diaconal order in 1976, although there is no mention of it in the minutes of Toronto Conference. A year later her name just appears in the yearbook, ironically as an ordained minister. That is corrected the following year. It probably made Ruth laugh.
Quinton, her son, reflected that, “Mom was perhaps at her best as a hospital chaplain. We three kids used to tell her that it was her ideal job, because the people she was talking to couldn’t get away. But … when patients were distressed, [she] could [sincerely] let them know she cared …a very present help in trouble.”
In 1986 Ruth retired. She and Wib lived in Oakville, church and family were her key interests. Her energy abounded. Well past 85 she was visiting with her grandchildren when she grabbed a rope swing hanging from a big tree. Not as strong as she thought she was, she fell to the ground, shaken a bit but fortunately not hurt. Scrambling back on her feet she turned to the children and said, “Don’t tell your mothers!” (Ruth in 2006)
When a petition to the General Council in 2003 requested an apology to the women removed from ministry when they married, Ruth was supportive of the idea. In an interview for the United Church Observer she explained her feelings, which included ambivalence: “[Ruth] Lang says that while at one point she did “feel like fighting,” now “I think a lot of us are laughing at this apology. It’s a good idea, but it’s kind of too late.” Ruth did, however, attend the service conducted by the General Council Executive, and participated in a video project documenting the apology. She is featured in the video “Holy Matrimony, Unholy Disjoining” which is available on the website, UCCDeaconessHistory.ca. She was already beginning to show signs of memory loss, but she clearly recalled the story of being asked to return her pin, and tells it with great gusto!
Wib died in 2007, after 52 years of married life together. A stroke and vision problems curtailed her activities, then dementia stole away her joy and exuberance, her eloquence with a word or an argument. The last years were hard and Wendy reflected, “Mom would have hated such an end, unable to walk, unable to remember the people that she loved.” Life coming full circle, Ruth’s memorial service was held in the church in which she had her formation, and she is buried at Glen Morris.
The tributes offered at the time of her death are consistent. James Gill, minister at Walton United Church where Ruth and Wib were members wrote, “She brought …abundant passion about her faith and how to live it out in a practical way, a generous and caring heart for those in need … an engaged mind and a youthful energy for everything she undertook.” Her funeral concluded with this statement: Say not in grief, she is no more, but live in thankfulness that she was.
This biography was written by Caryn Douglas in 2015 drawing on these sources: a series of interviews with Ruth between 2000 and 2006; material from the Apology to Disjoined Women Project, United Church of Canada Archives files, a biography written by JungHee Park when a student at the Centre for Christian Studies, notes from Gwyn Griffith, author of the Story of the Centre for Christian Studies, eulogies written by Quinton Lang, Wendy Dalby, Catherine Ambrose, Marion Logan, and tributes from James Gill and Marion Pope, Observer article by Donna Sinclair, “Set Apart and then Set Aside”, February 2006.