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It was a story that had never been told. That’s why Rev. Patricia Wotton knew she had to share the life of Lydia Gruchy.
The story of the ordination of the United Church of Canada’s first female minister was already 50 years old when Wotton first heard it in 1986 and it took her more than two decades before she was finally able to tell it in full in With Love, Lydia: The Story of Canada’s First Woman Ordained Minister.
“When I graduated from St. Andrew’s College and was ordained in 1986 the church was celebrating the 50th anniversary of her ordination as the first woman— that was the first I had ever heard of her,” Wotton said. "St. Andrew’s College was celebrating her because she was a graduate of St. Andrew’s and St. Andrew’s College was a major thread that runs all the way through her life and ministry.”
But it wasn’t until several years later that Wotton really became intrigued with Gruchy’s life and work. She was a member of the St. Andrew’s board during the late 1990s when the college was establishing a teaching chair in honour of Gruchy and Wotton decided needed to know more about Gruchy’s life.
“I was listening to all of this on the board and I asked someone here at the college how I could get my hands on a book, because I thought somebody must have written a book,” Wotton explained.
“She said nobody had but there was a file in the library so why didn’t I take a look at it and I could write the book. We both just laughed and I had no intention, but I did go and check that file and found it really interesting.”
So interesting that Wotton continued to gather information about Gruchy’s life and career whenever it came her way. Finally, after more than a decade of waiting for someone else to tell the story, she could wait no longer.
“I waited, but I collected stuff through many years, through 13 years as it came to me, waiting for somebody else to write the book and nobody did. And, finally, I retired early because I thought ‘I have collected all of this stuff and now I have to put it in a book form.’ ”
Gruchy graduated from Presbyterian College in Saskatoon (later St. Andrew’s) in 1923 but was denied ordination by the church. She first served as a lay missionary in the Kamsack area and later, after the creation of The United Church of Canada in 1925, at Wakaw and Kelvington.
“Her focus was on the work,” Wotton said. “Nowadays, I think, we too often get caught up in the kinds of ministries but she didn’t look at any of that. She didn’t look at if she was ordained or not; there was work of the ministry to be done and she was just going to go ahead and do it. It didn’t matter what they called her she was just going to do the work.”
It was her colleagues in the Kamsack presbytery who first supported Gruchy’s ordination in 1926 by petitioning the leadership of the newly formed United Church in the first step of what turned out to be a decade-long process.
“It was the men who also supported her and a lot of those men began right here at St. Andrew’s College, her fellow classmates,” Wotton said.
“Once she got out there they were the ones she had to call on in neighbouring charges to ‘come and do a baptism for me, can you come and do this?’ And they got tired of travelling long distances and they started to say 'Why can’t Lydia do it?’ It was her former classmates who first put the motion to presbytery and then to conference. They asked (St. Andrew’s) principal Edmund Oliver to be their spokesperson at conference and he took on the role and was one of the main champions of the cause. He encouraged Lydia not to give up and did much of the groundwork in the courts of the church.
“That is why it is so much a college story because it was her classmates, the men, who did it and it was principal Oliver.”
The initial request was referred for study by church leadership and a subsequent debate on the issue in 1928 saw no action taken. It wasn’t until a second debate in 1934 and an affirmative vote by presbyteries that ordination of women became a possibility.
Wotton notes there was little movement toward ordination of women until Edmund Oliver became moderator of the church in 1934. He made sure it was on the agenda and gave Gruchy a chance to speak to the male-dominated church leadership.
“She didn’t talk about her ordination, she talked about the Depression years and how hard life was on the Prairies and what the church should be doing here,” Wotton said. “She used the opportunity to further ministry, period, in the west, not just to talk about herself. It was the next general council that approved ordination for women.”
Ordination of women was approved in 1936 and Gruchy, who was now working at St. Andrew’s United Church in Moose Jaw, became Canada’s first ordained woman minister in Nov. 4, 1936.
Wotton sees the story of Lydia Gruchy as more than just the story of one woman’s ordination. It is a reflection of a time of important shifts in Canadian culture and the role of women in church and wider society.
“It’s a story of Canadian culture too because she came when Canada was young. (At the time of) the social gospel and building the kingdom of God,” Wotton said.
“She opened the door, and for her it wasn’t a political battle, she did it by doing the work. She earned the right to be ordained because she was already doing the work and doing it so well that nobody could question that. She was ordained in Moose Jaw and stayed there a couple of years, but she went off to Toronto through the war years recruiting women who were badly need for the church because so many male ministers were going away. The church really needed women for all kinds of work in the church.
“She did not stick to ordained (ministry) … she was the champion of women, period, and the place and role of all kinds of women within the church.”
With Love, Lydia: The Story of Canada’s First Woman Ordained Minister, is available for purchase through Wotton’s website.