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A story about one of the first Deaconess of the United Church

“Family Connections” — Sharing Stories

On the Occasion of the 90th Anniversary of The United Church of Canada

Rev. Christine Dudley talks with Pauline Bethune about her mother, Florence Karpoff (née Capsey)

Christine: This morning we are celebrating the 90th Anniversary of the United Church of Canada. June 10, 1925 — The Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Methodist Church Canada, the Congregationalist Churches in Canada, and The Local Union Churches in Western Canada, formed an official union that was the birth of the United Church of Canada.

My mother was born, Isobel Galbraith, in November 1917. Her father came from a staunch Scottish Presbyterian family. Mom was born and raised in New Westminster and remembers as a young child that she was Presbyterian. Mom and her family attended church regularly and were very involved in their home congregation.

When Mom was seven, her family and most of the members of their congregation moved to a different church building. Mom remembers seeing a big sign on that church that said The United Church of Canada. No one thought to explain to the children what had happened and Mom just accepted this change without question. Now she was a United Church person.

Pauline, you’ve told me that your mother, Florence Capsey, was born in 1905 and grew up on a farm in Duhamel, Alberta. What was your mother’s family background and what was her church experience growing up on the prairies during that era? 

Pauline:Mom’s family, like your family, were always active in their local congregations. Only for mom this involved a number of different denominations. She wrote:

“My Grandparents would have been Anglican, my parents Methodist, I was Christened in the Congregational Church, joined the Presbyterian – always a change to whichever was the only functioning protestant church in a community.” 

So as mom approached the age of 20 she was for union – churches coming together made perfect sense to her. And in those small farming communities denominations were less important than the feeling that everyone, no matter what denomination they belonged to were very much a part of one community.

Christine: Did your mother stay in Duhamel when she finished High School?

Pauline:  Actually mom had to go to Camrose, the city 10 miles away, for high school as the Duhamel school did not have high school. But my grandparents valued education (even for girls – and this was a family of 7 girls and no boys) so they  bought a house in  Camrose. Mom was often in charge of the town house with several other girls, including sisters and neighbours, also living there.  My grandparents stayed on the farm so as you can imagine all the girls became very self-reliant. Mom graduated from High School in 1923 and went on to Normal school — after one year you got a certificate as a qualified teacher. At 19 years of age mom taught in a one room school in Alliance, Alberta. 

Christine:  I remember you telling me that Florence went to Toronto just before she turned 20. What prompted her to move across the country on her own at that tender age?

Pauline:   That year of teaching changed the course of mom’s life. Two missionaries came to Alliance to speak to the Mennonite families of that area. Their enthusiasm inspired mom so she decided she would like to be a missionary for the newly formed United Church.  And she wanted to be a missionary, and especially to go to India and serve in any capacity she could. She was told she’d need to go to Toronto and take a 2 year Deaconess training course before she could be a missionary.

Christine:  It must have been quite an experience for your mother to move away from her family and farming community to Toronto and live in residence. What did Florence tell you about that experience?

Pauline:  Mom began her Deaconess training in September 1925 – the year of the formation of the United Church of Canada. She was there right at the beginning – it was an exciting time. The students were invited to many inaugural events and heard world renowned speakers. But the move to Toronto also proved to be quite a cultural shock. Mom struggled with the formality of the city and Deaconess Training and later wrote:

“Was anyone less prepared for Toronto and a Missionary and Deaconess Training School than I? I was a Westerner, and younger by some years than the others. I could not see the need for hat and gloves to cross the street to the mailbox in front of our house. I simply didn’t know what High Tea on Sunday afternoon constituted nor understand the requirement to dress for dinner.”

Mom was fascinated with the multicultural nature of the “girls” in residence. She wrote, “Marg was born in China, Francis in Korea, Stella was from Trinidad, Kathleen was a doctor ready to go to India.” These were children of missionaries and Mom hoped to join Kathleen in India when they graduated. People impressed Mom more than subject matter. 

Along with theology and Latin, mom enrolled in the new, non-credit courses in Social Services. Her fieldwork took her to the downtown rooming areas of College Street where she saw real poverty for the first time in her life. Social justice and inclusiveness were important elements of the new church so mom was steeped in that from the beginning.

Of course there were also more academic courses like Latin and theology. When asked about taking theology mom told a granddaughter that the deaconess students took the  same courses as the men who would become ministers – but the women were seated at the back of the classroom!

A highlight of mom’s time at the school was the summer she was sent north to introduce the Church’s new program of “Vacation Bible School.”  She said, 

“Youth is brash and all the way from Timmons to North Bay to the Manitoulin Island, I breezed in and showed experienced Ministers and Sunday school workers how things should be done. I had such a good time.”

Christine:   When did Florence graduate and what was her first placement as a deaconess?

United Church Training School, Toronto — Class of 1926–27

Pauline:    Mom was in the very first class of women whose entire 2 year deaconess training was within the new United Church. She graduated in 1927 and looked forward to the expected appointment to India. This did not happen. The Alberta government had just ruled that all church residential schools required a teacher with a teaching certificate. Mom was the only student that qualified so she was sent to a one-room mission residential school in northern Alberta.


Graduation Pin: "UCTS" – United Church Training School

Graduation Pin: “UCTS” –
United Church Training School

The red seal identifies: The United Church of Canada Uniting The Congregational Churches of Canada, The Methodist Church of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada, The Local Union Churches in Western Canada

We hear a lot about residential schools right now but this was not a school for native children. Rather this was a community of new immigrants, mostly Ukrainian. At that time many women died in childbirth so there were motherless children who lived in residence while the father farmed. Many kids had not been able to attend school when they were young. Mom was to teach English and other subjects to students of all ages, some as old as 15 but still at a primary school level. She was also expected to do visiting around the district, helping the people where she could, teaching them Canadian customs, carrying out religious services and so on. 

Christine:   That must have been a challenging posting for twenty-two year old Florence. How long did Florence stay in that position?

Pauline:    Mom expected to remain at that school for another year but again things changed. She had just become engaged to my father who taught in the next small town. Dad was about to start university in Edmonton to become a United Church minister – it was a three year engagement before they were married. In the meantime the church decided that a residential mission school was not required in the area mom had been in so in the fall of 1928 she was assigned to Drumheller. Mom later wrote:

“I was appointed, the craziest appointment that showed that things happened in Toronto that you never know. I was appointed to the presbytery at large. The presbytery then covered several hundred miles in every direction. And when I got there the presbytery didn’t exactly know what to do with me.” 


Finally the Presbytery decided mom would work from the church in Drumheller but start CGIT groups or help with Sunday schools throughout the entire presbytery. No transportation and not very practical – symptoms of United Church growing pains. But CGIT and outreach of any kind became important in mom’s life.

Christine:   That sounds like an even more challenging assignment. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to respond to the special needs of an entire rural presbytery without adequate transportation. It was September 1928 when Florence arrived in Drumheller. What was it like there at that time?

Pauline:    Miners in Drumheller at this time had mainly come from England and Wales and their families came with them. They had brought their way of cooking and living with them and were not used to prairie life. During the two years that mom spent in Drumheller the miners went on strike. There was a union but little funds to support the miners so families were literally going hungry.  The provincial government did send in groceries, mostly in the form of dried goods, such as beans. But word came that people were still hungry and even starving. The government turned to the church and mom was sent to investigate. She recalled, 

“I remember so distinctly going in to a home. She was a Welsh girl. And she cried because she was so hungry, and the children were so hungry. 
“So I said, well now, I looked in her cupboard, which is a thing you don’t do really, and most of the beans were sitting there in the cupboard. And she said, ‘I cook them just as I did potatoes, and my husband couldn’t eat them.’ 
“She didn’t realize that dried beans and dried fruit have to be soaked. I knew that two houses down there was a Ukrainian girl. So I went down to Olga’s house and brought her back and started her in… The Ukrainian families knew exactly how to soak beans and how to use dried vegetable and so on.”

While Mom recounted these events matter-of-factly, the issues raised in the miners strike moved her profoundly and reinforced her commitment to social justice.

Christine:    How long did Florence stay in Drumheller?

Pauline:   At the end of her second year in Drumheller, mom received a letter from Toronto transferring her out. But she never received word of another assignment. It was 1930 —the depression era and Mom believed the church simply didn’t have money. So she found her own teaching position for a year and then Mom and Dad were married. Of course at that time married women could no longer work as a deaconess. You can imagine how pleased Mom was when the United Church started accepting women, even married women, as ministers and church workers.

Christine:   Even though Florence wasn’t recognized as a deaconesses after she married, she certainly continued to respond to her call to ministry.

Pauline:   Yes, I always thought that mom and dad sort of had a team ministry. And, I think most minister’s wives in small towns at that time had a definite role in the church and the community. Mom led CGIT, was active in women’s groups, and was the one who visited the sick and shut-ins and reached out to many who were marginalized in the small towns we lived in. She would lead worship or give a talk on church work when asked. She was active in the local church and in Presbytery. A highlight for her was to be sent as a lay delegate in 1962 to the United Church General Council in London, Ontario. Even late in her life she was part of group from North Lonsdale United in an outreach program to Matsqui prison. She visited at First United church as well as knitting afghan blankets for First United Church inner mission to hand out. She visited in care homes and did conversational English with new immigrants to Canada. So church work and the opportunity church provided for new experiences were very important in Mom’s life.

Christine:    Thank you for sharing your memories of your mother’s experiences as a pioneer serving in the United Church of Canada.  You have a poem that Florence wrote that reflects her values of the importance of service. Perhaps we could end this time of sharing stories with Florence’s own words.

Pauline:   All her life Mom wrote poetry – it was her way of expressing her thoughts and feelings. She wrote this poem while still a very young woman.

“A Successful Day”

I count a day has been in vain
If at the evening hour
I cannot kneel in solemn thought
And ponder o’er it’s hours
If in my heart I cannot say
I’ve made today some happy
I’ve helped a child, I’ve given cheer
And helped a load to lighten
I count a day has been in vain
Unless at evening hour
Someone in prayer is thanking God
Because I came that way
Unless some smile has caught from mine
Some laugh has joined gaily
Some tear was dried, some courage given
To someone in distress
All this for me does crown a day
In glories of the evening
A sense of service, love to all,
Not wealth or orders given,
But knowledge that my fellow men
Are gladder for my sake
This marks my day, and then I know
In all it was successful.
                             Written by Florence S. Capsey