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Religion and “Non-Aboriginal” Women in Saskatchewan

The story of women and religion in Saskatchewan is mainly that of women’s involvement in variants of the Christian faith. Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics predominate, but other sorts of Protestant women as well as Christian Orthodox women have also been present. Non-Christian women have also been woven into the provincial religious fabric. Whatever the faith, women have often found solace, meaning, and community in religious institutions. For increasing numbers, however, religion has lost its influence and may be seen as oppressive. As for depth of conviction, it can be difficult to gauge because affiliation, especially in the past, has been essential to respectable standing in the community. Among the earliest newcomer arrivals were missionaries, dedicated women working as teachers and nurses among Aboriginals or settlers. Roman Catholic women were mainly affiliated with orders, the Grey Nuns, for example, but occasional laywomen like Onésime Dorval also came. If Protestant, women might be wives of the missionary minister, the unpaid half of a team, or a single woman like Presbyterian Lucy Baker. Sometimes they engaged in challenging ventures, rare then for females but justified in terms of religious obligation. Ultimately, they, like other women, dwelled in a subordinate sphere.

During the early 20th century newcomer influx, Protestant women, usually affiliated with evangelical or partially evangelical denominations which included Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans and Baptists, increased in numbers and prominence. Mostly hidden are women’s efforts to establish churches, but well recorded is the fact that women were the backbone of local churches: they often constituted a majority of the church-goers. Their ladies’ aid and female missionary societies (domestic and foreign) greatly assisted church survival and expansion. Well established and nationally organized, they also provided a respectable women’s sphere within the essentially patriarchal structure of the institutional church. As well, women taught Sunday school and engaged in other pastoral, educational, and charitable undertakings (sometimes as deaconesses). They had little voice in governance, however, and ordination in major denominations was unthinkable until well into the 20th century. Evangelical Protestant activism went beyond church confines, propelling women into major interdenominational efforts to uplift community life, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Young Women’s Christian Association. Women’s concern about youth was expressed in their support for Canadian Girls in Training: founded during World War I, it became a popular organization for teenage girls in Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

Roman Catholic women also became more numerous, but were ethnically divided and often looked upon with disdain by the culturally dominant (and often evangelical Protestant) British Canadians. Emigrant Quebec women were in an especially difficult position, and the parish church in their settlements functioned as a bulwark of identity. Continental European women, too, found that involvement in their ethnic parishes served as a point of identity. Immigrant or not, few Roman Catholic women questioned their subordinate position within the Church, and some entered religious orders. Well into the century, these orders provided not only opportunities for women but also a cheap labour source for Roman Catholic health care institutions and educational facilities. For laywomen, bodies like altar guilds and the Catholic Women’s League came to provide opportunities for service in a place of their own. Others also increased their numbers, including German and Finnish Lutherans as well as Orthodox Christian women. Their churches, too, might function as a familiar landmark in a strange, sometimes hostile, society, although they often perpetuated patriarchal structures.

Non-Christian women were most likely to be Jewish. They first arrived late in the territorial era when several Jewish agricultural settlements were established in the southeast. Rural or urban, they often faced discrimination, but continued to perpetuate Jewish traditions within the home. They also began to engage in auxiliary assistance to community and synagogue, and formed their own organizations. By mid-century women’s long-familiar activities and interests were stagnating in many religious bodies. By the 1970s, resurgent feminism led to controversies about women’s place in religious institutions. Efforts to address feminist-oriented concerns were unsettling for many, while delivering too little for others. For many Protestants a touchstone was female ordination. Although the United Church had accepted it since 1936, few had followed the first to be ordained, Saskatchewan’s Lydia Gruchy. By the mid-1970s more women were doing so, and denominations like Anglicans and Presbyterians opened their doors. In 2002 the Saskatchewan Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada elected the first female Lutheran bishop in the country. In the meantime, Jewish women worked also to lessen barriers. Religion, however, had lost much of its appeal and meaning to diverse women; today, women remain the backbone of many religious bodies, but those who remain are often more conservative.

Of the many women who have dropped out, some seek new directions—more spiritual than religious. Feminism has often had an impact, but also important are such factors as secularization, openness, emphasis upon individuality, and the presence of “new religions.” For some, Buddhism in western dress—insight meditation, for example—is an answer. For others, New Age spiritualities offer female empowerment, affirm the individual, and answer the search for interconnectedness between humans and nature. Wicca (feminist witchcraft), Goddess worship (often linked to Wicca), and eco-feminism are among the possibilities. Celtic spirituality, with and without a Christian component, is also attractive. Also present is an upsurge of interest in Aboriginal spirituality on the part of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women. Especially difficult is the Aboriginal struggle to come to terms with the enforced imposition of Christianity: if some spurn it, others, Protestant and Catholic, often seek to blend the two traditions. And for others, a different answer such as the Baha’i faith has been found. The story of women and religion becomes more complex as today’s immigration brings into the province Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, in which women are likely to adhere to supportive roles within masculine-dominated systems.

Ann Leger-Anderson

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Further Reading

De Brou, D. and A. Moffatt. 1995. “Other Voices”: Historical Essays on Saskatchewan Women. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center.
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provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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