A Portrait of Thomasina Connell

2017 marks the 125th anniversary of the Centre for Christian Studies.  Over the course of the year we hope to feature one hundred and twenty-five images and stories about CCS’s history and identity.  To start things off, Lori Stewart reflects on a portrait of Thomasina Connell.

Thomasina Connell, head deaconess and principal of The Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House

The first time I saw the impressive portrait of Thomasina Connell, it was stuffed in a storage room in the lower level of the Centre for Christian Studies building at 77 Charles St. in Toronto.  At the time, I wondered who this clear-eyed deaconess was, dressed in the black uniform of an earlier day with the stiff white collar and bonnet.  All I knew was her name, discretely spelled out on a plaque, and that she was looking steadily out of that frame.

In her book, Weaving a Changing Tapestry: The Story of the Centre for Christian Studies and its Predecessors, Gwyn Griffith reveals something of who Thomasina was as Head Deaconess and then Principal in the early days of The Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House, one of our founding schools.

Originally from Ireland, then trained as a deaconess at the Mildmay House in England, Thomasina came to Canada in 1907 to lead the school.  It was under her guidance that it grew from a residential training centre into an institution offering a community centre, a medical clinic, a four bed hospital, and a social service agency for the community, where deaconess students were engaged in practical fieldwork.

Students reported that “Miss Connell” guided them with a strong hand and well defined expectations for behavior, evangelical beliefs, and contributions to the life of the community.  However, this strength of character was tempered by her compassion and sense of humour.  “To her students she was a firm disciplinarian, but I think they loved her and had great respect for her…she led her students by the kinds of relationships she was able to form with people.”

When Thomasina saw a need she rose to the challenge.  For example, when someone wanted to start a mother’s group, the coach house was repurposed for a meeting space and dispensary.  When she found out domestic workers had no where to go on their Sundays off, young women were invited for tea and evening prayer.  A woman of great energy, Thomasina Connell was responsible for leading an academic institution, managing staff, supervising student learning, attending meetings, doing administration, fundraising, and hosting guests; however, no task was too menial for her.  “She still did much of the housecleaning, preserving fruit, snow shoveling, caring for sick students and staff, shopping, gardening, and going out on house calls at night”.

Thomasina Connell believed that in providing for the physical and social needs of her neighbours, she had an opportunity to build relationships and share the gospel.  She believed it was as important to care for people spiritually as it was to meet their other needs.

125 years after The Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House was founded and Thomasina Connell was engaged to provide practical, evangelical theological education to women, students are still studying to be deacons and diaconal ministers at the Centre for Christian Studies.  And Thomasina still has a presence, as her portrait hangs prominently in a hallway of our Woodsworth House location in Winnipeg.  From that vantage she can keep her eye on things.

Even though we do some things differently now, in the leadership of this woman of influence and conviction, her passion for the diaconate, and her compassion for people in her sphere, I can see the deep, strong roots that inform who we are today.

In this anniversary year, we’ll be looking at moments in the history of the Centre for Christian Studies as we learn how to live fully in the present and step courageously towards the future.  If there is a story you’d like to hear or to tell, send a note to info@ccsonline.ca