Canadian Deaconesses and Missionary Education for Women

The Centre for Christian Studies began as three institutions formed on the rise of the first wave of feminism in the late 1800’s as places for women to obtain theological education and preparation for ministries of service in Canada and throughout the world. The Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training Home began in 1892, The Methodist Deaconess Home and Training School was opened in 1894 and The Ewart Missionary Training Home was founded by the Presbyterian Church in 1897.

The Church of England students and staff, circa 1918.
The Church of England students and staff, circa 1918.
The Methodist Class of 1904.
The Methodist Class of 1904.
The Presbyterian Class of 1912.
The Presbyterian Class of 1912.

Training to Live the Social Gospel: The Methodist National Training School and the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary Training Home, 1893-1926

© 2003, Sherri McConnell

The Methodist National Training School and the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary Training Home were established to provide educational and vocational communities for women preparing for Christian service in their respective denominations. Established specifically for women, the training schools engaged female students in theological education and vocational development through a unique program design that combined academic study, practical training and vocational formation through community living. Whether a woman was training for overseas mission work, home mission work, or wishing to become a deaconess she would have attended her denomination’s training school (and usually would have resided there).

The Methodist National Training School, originally Toronto Deaconess Home and Training School, was initially established to provide deaconess training in 1894; the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home (originally the Ewart Training Home) was initially established to provide training for women seeking to become foreign missionaries in 1897. However, both institutions, from their earliest days were open to women seeking training for either deaconess or missionary work, or to enhance their skills as lay leaders. Both training schools integrated the two vocational streams of ministry for women into one educational community with a variety of program options.

The schools had to be highly resourceful in program development – this was due in part to the varied needs of their students and, more significantly to limited staff and financial resources. The academic component of the training programs were developed through cooperative relationships with other educational institutions (such as the School of Music, Victoria and Knox theological colleges, the University of Toronto department of Medicine, and – once established in 1914- the U of T department of Social Service). The practical component for the programs included city mission work, industrial schools and early Sunday School work, as well as rounds with mission nurses and time at the free medical dispensaries. In the early years of the schools, students of the Methodist National Training School chose between two courses of study – training to become a nurse, or not. For those not training to become a nurse, their program included the systematic study of the Bible, the discipline and theology of the Methodist church, history of the Bible, church history and a short course in physiology and geography. These were all taught by professors from Victoria College and the superintendent. For those preparing to become nurses, their course also included theoretical instruction from any training school for nurses and practical work in a hospital ward under the direction of a head nurse. There was also a recommended reading list for those who were deaconess candidates which emphasized basic Methodist and evangelical theology, social reform and women’s leadership and provided an overview of deaconess culture and history.

While the Methodist program began as a one year course for those wanting to become deaconesses, the Presbyterian program began as a six month preparatory program for women seeking a foreign missionary appointment specifically or training for other Christian service. It was soon expanded to a ten month course, and by 1907 expanded again to a one year program modeled on the Methodist program. Courses in Old and New Testament, theological doctrine church history, missions and Sunday School work. Practical work was also a part of the program. Other course work included elocution and voice training (from the Toronto Conservatory of Music) and medical lectures by staff from Toronto Nursing-at-Home Mission. By 1906 training home students joined the male students at Knox College for classes in systematic theology and church history. Both programs were revised regularly based on feedback received from graduates “in the field”.

Training school literature for both institutions tended to minimize the academic portion of the program, and emphasize the practical nature of the training as a way of preparing women for Christian service. While this in some ways did accurately reflect both training schools integrated approach to theological education (combining academic studies, practical training and vocational and spiritual formation), the de-emphasis of the academic portion of the curriculums is more likely an example of supporters of the schools using maternal feminist rhetoric to reassure their churches that women were not receiving a full theological education. They were simply training for “consecrated service.” In fact, however, from the outset of each school, the curriculum integrated academic work, practical work, and residential living in a supportive community of faith.

There were some differences in the two schools in terms of curriculum and educational approach. The Methodist church itself embraced the city mission movement more enthusiastically than the Presbyterian church, and therefore opened more city missions, which in turn provided more practical training opportunities for students. It was the Methodist training school curriculum also which embraced the social gospel earlier than the Presbyterian School. Early reading lists for the Methodist program included texts on applied Christianity and social gospel theology as well as social reform and women’s leadership. As early as 1897-98, their practical training focused primarily on what came to be concrete symbols of the social gospel movement – city mission work, social and settlement work, and religious education in industrial and mission schools, and courses were developed which emphasized working respectfully with immigrants. Eventually a partnership with the University of Toronto Department of Social Services in 1914 allowed students to take early courses in social service work.

The Presbyterian training school did include a lecture series on social service work, but at a much later date. A 1918 curriculum review indicated that the Presbyterian training home’s intention was to continue to provide a program that would “know the problems of to-day’s need and help solve them by today’s best methods,” and a partnership (similar to the Methodist Training School’s) was established with the U of T Department of Social Services. Practical field sites included settlement houses, women’s and juvenile courts, children’s aid, nursing at home missions and hospitals. Once the social gospel became part of its curriculum, however, there was little difference in how each school integrated its values within their educational programs. New studies in missiology (available through a cooperative relationship with the Canadian School of Missions), theology, religious education, child development, and social work theory along with traditional theological courses as well as the practical training ensured that training home students had access to the most up to date educational opportunities, well grounded in social gospel values .
Both institutions were originally residences where supervised communal living provided vocational formation, and the formal class work of each program took place off site. The residential component of the program was considered essential. In 1912, the Methodist National Training School built a new school in which most of the training classes took place (with the exception of those offered through the department of Social Service, Victoria College or the Co-operative School of Missions). A residence (known as the Deaconess Home) was lodged within the new school building. The Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home, on the other hand, remained a community residence throughout its history, and class work, with the exception of daily bible study, took place off site. Living in community was considered so essential to deaconess and missionary education that both institutions maintained residential living as a program requirement until the creation of the United Church Training School in 1926 – where residential living continued to be a program requirement. The “school” or academic aspect of each program and the “home” or residential aspect of each program were of equal importance to both programs.

The educational legacies of the Methodist National Training School and the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary Training Home did not disappear with church union in 1925. It continued on in a newly created institution, the United Church Training School (UCTS). The training schools shared educational ethos, based on preparing women for Christian service through an integrated program of theological studies, scientific research in education, social work and missiology, practical training and vocational formation through communal living, continued as part of the new institution. The social gospel movement provided a theological foundation for the unique educational approach of the schools that continued on in the curriculum of the new school. The social gospel imperative – to establish the kingdom of God in society – called upon the churches to prepare Christian workers who could address the challenges of Canadian society in practical, responsive ways. Both training schools provided an educational program which prepared women theologically and practically for Christian service; and easily integrated the new theological perspective into its curriculum. For a time, both schools bridged the worlds of their denominations, the social gospel and the emerging secular movements of social work through their courses, partnerships and field sites. Their unique and separate legacies became a shared legacy in 1926; a legacy committed to providing practical theological education for women working for social transformation and the betterment of their world.


Sherri McConnell is a diaconal minister (CCS91) and former CCS Program Staff.
This is exerpted from Sherri’s MA thesis entitled “Canadian Deaconess and Missionary Education for Women – Training To Live The Social Gospel: The Methodist National Training School and the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary Training Home, 1893-1926.”  It is available at the CCS library if anyone wants to read the whole thing.

Thanks to the Centre for Christian Studies for bursary funding which made researching this thesis possible.