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Gruchy Remembered

The 80th anniversary of the ordination of Lydia Gruchy, the first woman to be ordained by The United Church of Canada, was recognized on Nov. 3, 2016, with a presentation and panel discussion. The following is a excerpt of the presentation by Kathleen Cavan and Debbie Hall during a conversation held at the St. Andrew's chapel. The text was prepared by Lorraine Harkness and Pam Thomas, with thanks to Patricia Wotton’s biography — With Love, Lydia. The conversation include remembrances of Lydia Gruchy, music and a panel discussion on women in ministry with participants by Erin Shoemaker, HyeRan Kim-Cragg and Young Seo.

This year we are honouring the 80th anniversary of the ordination of Lydia Gruchy, the first woman ordained in the United Church. She was ordained at St. Andrew’s United Church in Moose Jaw, on Nov. 3, 1936, after years of work by Saskatchewan Conference toward this goal.

Lydia Gruchy was the first woman ordained in The United Church of Canada in 1936, but her story does not begin there. Born in France, she came to Saskatchewan as a child, and her family, parents and ten children, farmed at Strasbourg. Lydia came to Saskatoon as a young woman, attended normal school and taught for some years in rural communities. In 1920, while she continued teaching, she received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan.

Lydia’s brother, Arthur, was a member of the first class at St. Andrew’s College. When he was killed during World War One, Dr. Edmund Oliver, principal of St. Andrew’s, encouraged her to take up her brother’s studies and his desire for foreign mission work. Dr. Oliver offered her a two-year scholarship to St. Andrew’s college, with the hope that she would work in mission among new Canadians. She graduated in 1923, at the head of her class.

Women in Ministry Panel DiscussionWhile her male classmates were ordained and moved into ministry, ordination was not available to her or her classmate Jessie Elliott. The Basis of Union was specific. Instead, she moved to begin her ministry among the Doukhobor people near Verigin as a lay worker, doing all the tasks of ministry except the sacraments. Though she herself was not a Doukhobor, she knew what it was to be a stranger in a strange land. Through her ministry, Lydia embraced differences, and enlarged the church’s sense of mission. Later she worked in ministry in Wakaw and then in Kelvington, again performing all the tasks of ministry except the sacraments. Sundays were long: driving her Model A Ford, she would leave home early in the morning, and not arrive home again until evening.

The path toward ordination for women was not an easy one. Saskatchewan Conference led the way, and credit is due for their persistence in this cause. The minutes of the General Council Executive in December of 1928 make it clear that Saskatchewan Conference tried to make an end run play around the issue of ordination for Lydia Gruchy and were blocked.

Lydia was not alone in this struggle. Among the chief supporters of women’s ordination were Edmund Oliver and Nellie McClung.

Dr. Edmund Oliver worked tirelessly for the ordination of women, and of Lydia Gruchy in particular. As Moderator of the United Church, he was able to bring considerable influence to bear on this issue. His 11-point memorandum on the ordination of women was presented to the 1934 General Council. This is a part of what he wrote:

The contention is made that “there is no demand for it”. There is the demand that the church be wholly Christian and erect no bars of sex. There is the demand of simple justice, for women carry the burden of church work no less than men do. There is a teaching in Galatians that in Christ Jesus there is neither male or female. There is the practice of the early church that there actually was a ministry of women, but it disappeared after Constantine. There is the demand made by neglect of the great opportunity of service in unsupplied fields waiting cultivation at this moment in Saskatchewan.

Dr. Oliver died in 1935. He did not live to see the fruit of his work, but his memorandum had a great influence on the decisions to come.

After much controversy and debate, the 1934 General Council authorized a remit on the ordination of women. Seventy-nine presbyteries were in favour, 26 were opposed and nine abstained. The 1936 General Council affirmed the result of the remit and the path to the ordination for women was opened. Lydia was ordained on November 4, 1936. Of her own ordination, Lydia had this to say:

The United Church broke down the barrier which had kept women from taking part in the full ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Without delay, the Saskatchewan Conference made the final plans for my ordination. It was a sacred occasion to me, in its personal appeal of renewed dedication and solemn vows. Inevitably, there was also the conviction in the minds of all those taking part in the service that we were entering into a new era. Through the centuries women have been second to none in their appreciation of the inwardness and spirituality of our faith. What their entrance into the official ministry of our church will mean, no one can venture to say. To the few who will be called to the ministry, as it is now constituted, ordination will mean the freedom and authority necessary for their work. To the church at large, it may help to make more real the acceptance of the doctrine of equality. If it does this, it may help to break other barriers which separate mankind – barriers of wealth and prestige, of creed, of colour, of race.

Today in 2016, Lydia still invites us to ponder our encounters with difference.

Lydia served the rest of her life in a variety of ministries and for her extraordinary service to the church was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by St. Andrew’s College in 1953. This marked her third “first”: the first woman to graduate from St. Andrew’s College, the first woman to be ordained and the first woman to received an honorary degree from St. Andrew’s.

Since 1936, women have played a major role in the ministry of our church. Diaconal, ordained, designated lay ministers and laywomen have served in congregations, in chaplaincies, in outreach ministries and overseas. They have preached, taught, presided at the sacraments, worked for justice. We are reminded by their importance in our lives that we are never separated from our ancestors, as our next generations will not be separated from us.

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As an Affirming Ministry within the United Church of Canada, we are welcoming and inclusive of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

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