J.S. Woodsworth House stands as an historical site in the heart of Winnipeg.
Visitors to 60 Maryland Street will find that from the front, Woodsworth House looks very much as it did when it was first constructed in 1907, even though the original house was destroyed by fire in October, 1984. Indeed, it looks better than it did during its last sad decade of neglect when the house had become derelict. It was during the process of renovation that the original house was intentionally set ablaze by an act of arson.
The resemblance to the original house has been done by design. The outer front facade has been faithfully restored as has Woodsworth’s study, the living room and the dining room on the main floor (the rooms that now serve as the administrative offices of CCS). The intention of the Woodsworth House Historical Society in recreating these rooms was to establish a museum. Sadly, this vision never came to be.
To the rear of these rooms is a large room that was added to the original floor plan when the house was reconstructed in 1985-86. It harmonizes well with the original house and is fitted along one side with windows that look out upon an interior court-yard and garden. This is the room which has been dedicated as the Kay Pearson Room.
On the second floor and on the lower level are full floors of offices and meeting rooms. One of the offices on the second floor is leased to UNPAC – the United Nations Platform for Action Committee of Manitoba. The lower floor is home for CCS program staff and the library.
CCS purchased Woodsworth House from the Woodsworth Historical Society in 1998, with a commitment to keep the Woodsworth name and to continue to display photographs of Woodsworth and reminders of his commitment to the social gospel and social justice.
The house was the base of operations for James Shaver Woodsworth in his manifold social and political concerns. Woodsworth was a Methodist minister and an exponent of the social gospel and pacifism. He championed trade union rights and democratic socialism. As superintendent of the All People’s Mission in Winnipeg, he worked on behalf of the immigrant poor from 1907-1913. Later, as a Member of Parliament, he founded and led the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.
The spirit of J.S. Woodsworth lives on through the work of the students, staff and volunteers of CCS, which now makes its home at Woodsworth House.
Who was J.S. Woodsworth?
James Shaver Woodsworth was born in Ontario in 1874. His early life was strongly influenced by the activities of his father, a Methodist minister and Superintendent of Methodist Missions for all of Western Canada. It was not surprising, therefore, that he elected to follow the same course as his father and become a minister. During his theological training, Woodsworth did missionary work in the slums of Winnipeg and Toronto, an experience that heightened his awareness of the injustice and inequality in Canadian society.
Woodsworth never readily accepted the institutional church, disappointed in the church’s lack of commitment to social justice. As he developed a more radical theology of the Social Gospel he moved from pastoral charge ministry to front line social ministry with the poor as superintendent of the All Peoples Mission on Stella Avenue in Winnipeg’s North End.
At the Mission, Woodsworth was confronted by some of the worst injustices of Winnipeg’s emerging industrial society. He became aware of the desperate poverty faced by many working class immigrants, and he expressed this with passion in several books including Strangers Within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbour (1911). These works displayed a keen sense of the suffering created by the failure to provide workers with a living wage and the need to create a more compassionate and egalitarian society. Frustrated by what he perceived to be the inadequacy of the Methodist church’s position on social issues, he left it altogether in 1918.
“Religion is for me not so much a personal reflection between ‘me’ and ‘God’ as rather the identifying of myself with or perhaps the losing of myself in some larger whole. … The very heart of the teaching of Jesus was the setting up of the Kingdom of God on earth. The vision splendid has sent forth an increasing group to attempt the task of ‘Christianizing the Social Order’. Some of us whose study of history and economics and social conditions has driven us to the socialist position find it easy to associate the Ideal Kingdom of Jesus with the co-operative commonwealth of socialism.”
(From the Toronto Star, June 1926)
Woodsworth’s writings attracted the attention of social reformers across the country, and in 1913 he left Winnipeg to become Secretary of the Canadian Welfare League for all of the western provinces. This appointment came to an end in 1917, when the federal government abolished the League, largely to silence Woodsworth’s outspoken opposition to Canada’s involvement in the First World War, and in particular his opposition to the very sensitive issue of conscription.
After several years working in Vancouver as a longshoreman, Woodsworth changed careers again and began to tour as a speaker and advocate for working people. He was on one such lecture tour in the summer 1919 when, at the invitation of William Ivens, he became involved in the Winnipeg General Strike. When Ivens, editor of the Strike Bulletin of the Western Labour News, was arrested, Woodsworth stepped in as editor. Woodsworth too was arrested, but in the end, the charges were never prosecuted.
The events of 1919 firmly established Woodsworth as a powerful advocate for working people, and in the years that followed, he became increasingly committed to creating a fairer society, and became a confirmed socialist. In 1921, he was elected as a Labour Member of Parliament for Winnipeg North Centre, a seat which he held until his death in 1942. As a member of parliament, he was a tireless advocate for farmers, labourers and immigrants, pressing for a more co-operative and more humane society. In 1932, this commitment found expression in the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political party that was the precursor to the modern NDP.