“I Was Union”

To celebration the 90th anniversary of United Church Union, here is some of the Church School experience of Florence Capsey Karpoff who attended the Presbyterian Deaconess Training School and graduated in 1927.  These writings are part of an oral history collected by Florence’s granddaughter Kimiko Karpoff, who graduated from CCS in 2011.  Because they are “oral” history, some of the language reflects Florence’s vernacular.


Florence Sophronia Capsey Karpoff
Florence Sophronia Capsey Karpoff

Again I had grades 1 to 9 [to teach], but all English. Most came from the Mennonite families and were enthusiastic about being Saved, about Sin, and about the two Lady Missionaries that had come from down in the States to lead them. I attended every Sunday, as services were in the school, and with me there no one bothered my desk. Me absent and so were many things. [ie. If I wasn’t there, things would go missing.] I walked a bit over 2 miles to school daily, took lunch, did the janitor work and did some planning.

If one could be a Missionary and have such prestige, why not? At Easter time that year, I decided that I would like to come to the church work.  India, Timbuktu or Japan!

Now the Spring of ’25 was when the Methodist, Presbyterian Church and Congregational Churches, came together to be the United Church of Canada. And so it was a very interesting time to be coming in to the church work. Perhaps this sense of the churches coming together had particularly interested me.  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 [non-Catholic] church in a community. I was Union.  I did some careful exploration of facts and as the ’25 vote for church union came about I was ready.

So I wrote to the Minister that I had known when I was in high school, and he wrote back to tell me that you had to go to Toronto for a training course before you could work for the church, and how to go about it. .

And I wrote to Toronto to the school, and was accepted. Because they hadn’t had anyone from Alberta.  I applied with somewhat the understanding, yes I had the understanding that I would probably go to India because you planned on your questionnaire where you wanted to go and what kind you wanted to do.

My mother, an ardent WMS woman, was delighted. My Father said he’d help when I needed it. The neighbours were horrified that I wanted church work and that I’d go all alone to the evil place, a City. The idea of Toronto the Golden can be interpreted in many ways. No one, but no one in our farm area ever went there, so it must be questionable.

Being sure myself, I resigned from my school and left the super Eaton’s Special and went back to the farm for the summer.

 

Was anyone less prepared for Toronto and a Presbyterian 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. Poor Miss MacDonald our principal. She was nearing retirement, her school was due to close, we were the last class but she did her best. I was put on the top floor in the old billiard room – of course with 3 others old enough and staid enough to have influence.

The house itself was amazing to me. It had been a private home complete with a dining room that could seat 3 dozen, a living room, a ball room then used as class room, a conservatory, an office, and a full set of kitchens, pantries, cooks room and secretaries sitting room. Second floor – bedrooms and sitting rooms. Third – our old billiard room and at least four bedrooms. We were just off Queens Park, so near the University.

Miss MacDonald decided I should take Latin, which I memorized easily and understood not at all. That the new courses of Social Services, a non-degree subject, would be suitable. And that of course I’d take theology and church history at Knox. Field work was connected with College Street United and really was an eye opener to a western country girl, for College Street was down town rooming area.

I was fascinated with the girls in residence. Marg was born in China, Francis in Korea, Stella was from Trinidad, Kathleen was a doctor ready to go to India. People impressed me more than subject matter but I ended up the year with a scholarship in cash. I was never sure why – was it scholastic ability or was my board bill the highest outstanding one?

 

In the course of taking this winter’s course, who should I meet one day, but one of the people who had been the teacher when I was taking my Normal School. I’d never liked her there, but she was awfully kind to me in Toronto. Through her I found a job to do as university finished in the Spring.

May and June, I, as one of few, stayed at the school and worked at the food demonstration store down on the corner of Bloor and Yong Street. It was a bus stop corner and a good spot.  This former teacher was a director of that, so got me in on it.

It was the beginning of food demonstration; it had never been done in the shops before.  There were tables, kind of like little café tables and we were demonstrating butter, Benson’s Corn Syrup and Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour. One of my duties was to make pancakes in the window. They had a big grill and I very soon found that I could make a pancake up and make it go up in the air and turn around and come down the right side up, which was very good demonstration.

Anybody who came in, you served a little pancake and little cup of coffee. Now I don’t mean a cup, they were just little-y, like doll dishes, of coffee and little teeny pats of Bowes butter. They cut the butter and kept it on ice so you just put on that little crisp piece of butter. But all the time you talked to advertise.  I can still say the rigmarole of Bowes Butter, Bensons corn Syrup, and Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour.

And I learned that fidelity within a marriage was not an assured thing as I watched the dietitian and the manager maneuver. They eloped the week after I left.

 

I had also applied through the church and been told that I might have work during  the summer holidays. July I went North to introduce the Church’s new program  of Vacation Bible School. Same idea as camps, but doing it at the church so that they weren’t away. I was sent clear up to the north of Ontario, into the gold mine area. The housing was very crowded and the families were very big. The men of the district earned big money for that time. It would be a pittance now. Alcohol was a very common problem in these groups. I ran summer school for ten days there. I had a chance to go and visit the gold mine, my first time down a mine.

My next assignment was up on the Manitoulin Islands. Now I don’t know if you know anything about them, there’s an island out in the lake, I guess the Lake Huron, that had been originally a very strong Native Indian district. But the churches had come in and unfortunately the churches of that time felt that the Native Indian philosophy of life was all wrong. And you were supposed to break them from that and turn them into orthodox Christians, which wasn’t always very successful.

I worked there that summer. I went up to French River and did a school there. So that I worked the whole two months of the summer holidays, up to Northern Ontario, which I found extremely interesting. 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. The kids did too, and success followed.  And because the social life in the little towns wasn’t that much different than what I’d know in Western Canada, I was perfectly at ease and happy. One of the other girls, who had always lived in Toronto, was sent out on the parallel [ie. into the same context as Florence] and she just found that she couldn’t manage it. She wasn’t accustomed to that grouping of people.

Those two months up north were amazing, but September came and I returned to Toronto and a new house for this year we were to live at the Methodist Training Centre up on Bloor Street.

By the time I got back, the United Church was really in progress. It was decided from the headquarters that instead of using the old Presbyterian Church residence, we would all be housed up in the Methodist residence and that the United Church, the old Presbyterian school down by the park, its use would be reconsidered. So we were moved up to the Methodist school.

Just what that house had been intended for I’m not sure, but the 25 or 30 of us rattled around in a partially opened building. Etta and I had a bedroom on the second floor – the real students were put on the third. The main floor contained offices, dining room, kitchens, chapel, and staff rooms. As in the Grosvenor Street school you signed in and out as you left the building and returned. You “dressed” for dinner. I had a white jersey suit, which 50 years later one of the class remembered. So did I.

Our lectures were now at Victoria College, the Methodist section. I suppose it must have been a mile or so from the university. But we went ahead and got our courses going.

My field work was again down in the centre of the city – mainly visiting of isolated seniors in one room places. Yes I saw the down and outs for those days had no government pensions.  I still pursued both the religious courses and the social work. Social work interested me immensely, BUT, it was not a graduate course and that was that.

 

I became very interested in getting to know the city a bit. I was very fortunate in having a friend, Eileen, who had lived all her life in the city. She was taking a one-year-course with the church work because she’d had some university before that, which I hadn’t had. She had come from a very wealthy family. She enjoyed going to concerts and she liked somebody to go with her.  I went with her to the Sunday afternoon symphonies and several real plays. So I saw my first opera in Toronto and we did ever so many things together.  None of the rest did but I did so enjoy seeing more than one side of Toronto. Eileen later became a dietitian in an African government hospital.

Our position of Deaconess in Training gave us entrance to many church functions. We marched in for the official Church union program in ’25. We had reserved seats and heard many world known speakers. We were entertained at WMS conferences. Yet I was left alone in residence both Christmases. I remember on 24 of December standing for an hour on the stairs in Eaton’s downtown store just to watch Christmas prepared people. You can be very lonely in a city.

Once I suddenly looked up the name Capsey in the telephone book. There was a Thomas Capsey sure enough. I phoned. Which Mr. Capsey did I want? Thinking rapidly I said senior. The gentleman came on and was as surprised as I to speak to a Capsey. He invited me to call, so one of the girls and I did. An elegant house – he a manager of a British car firm. Quite evidently the family backgrounds a few generations before were the same, the Essex area common, the family names common, but there the relationship stopped. Thank goodness Miss MacDonald never learned of that call.

Spring and university closing came. The ones of us finishing our 2 years were commissioned. Graduation exercises took place and before leaving Toronto I was assigned. No not to India or Japan, but to Alberta to the Wahstao Residential School to teach because I and I alone had an Alberta teacher’s certificate, which had suddenly became a government regulation. I would be within a 60 mile drive of where I started out teaching.

Home to Duhamel for May and June to again be part of the family. Ernestine was teaching math. Lillian nursing. Each one had grown over 2 years. Grandma Gage was now bed ridden. But Alberta looked lovely as the sun shone and the sunsets glowed!