Women’s ministry celebrated

Published June 1, 2006

Women involved in the Sunday School by Post program also ran vacation Bible schools. The photo above was taken in 1950 during Margaret (nee Allman) Stackhouse’s (back row, right) tour with the program. It is part of a Wycliffe College exhibit celebrating women in ministry.

The historic contribution of women to the church, including the Anglican Church of Canada, is often forgotten and Wycliffe College in Toronto has addressed this oversight by launching an exhibit in May that celebrates “Women Pioneering in Ministry.”

The Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod in 1975 voted that women could be ordained as priests and that is often the reference point for many when they think of women as ministers. A forgotten fact highlighted by the exhibit is that decades before 1975, women already had a vibrant ministry within the Anglican church that at times, went largely unrecognized.

Wycliffe College’s Alumni Association founded the Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House in 1891, the same year that the Convocation of Canterbury declared that the Order of Deaconess be reinstituted. The House was meant to “train women for the purpose of working among and ministering to the poor as teachers, nurses and missionaries training them solely for philanthropic and benevolent work without the expectation of gain or financial benefit to the members of the corporation.”

The training house was renamed the Anglican Woman’s Training College (AWTC), and it later included classes that were taught at Wycliffe, where they were often not welcomed because of their gender.

“These women were trained and some were ‘set apart’ as deaconesses,” wrote Karen Heath, in a guide prepared for the exhibit, which looked at the history of the Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House and the AWTC. Others worked in the community, performing such tasks as leading Bible or Sunday school classes and forming women’s groups. “Some women became active fighters against poverty. Others helped recent immigrants adapt to their new homeland,” she wrote. Some became “bishop’s messengers” in small communities “where no man could be found to minister there” and each of them “could do all the things a priest could except administer the sacraments,” wrote Ms. Heath. Some became missionaries at home and overseas, including China and Japan.

Times have changed, according to Rev. George Sumner, Wycliffe College principal, in remarks delivered during the opening of the exhibit. “The face of the church has changed,” he said, noting that students in the college are now 50 per cent women.

The exhibit, which features historical photographs of these women pioneers, is one that is about “celebration and remembrance of who we are as a school,” he said, adding that it was also about the “heroic missionary exemplars who have been forgotten.”

As Mr. Sumner spoke, deaconesses who attended the exhibit – some of them in wheelchairs and walkers – beamed with pride.


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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