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New biography celebrates first female ordained minister

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A dozen years as the minister of three churches in Manitoba's Interlake region has prepared Melanie Kauppila for just about anything.

"I have dug graves, I've driven hearses, I've been to an autopsy at a funeral home. I've presided at the funeral service and I've gone to the kitchen later and cut the squares" for the funeral lunch, says the Alberta-born Kauppila, who presides over United churches in Eriksdale, Ashern and Clarkleigh as a licensed minister.

Kauppila, 44, will be ordained by the United Church of Canada on Sunday, June 3, becoming one of about 1,300 ordained women in the country's largest Protestant denomination. About one-third of all ministers in the United Church are women.

Her long path to ordination was helped along by another Prairie woman serving small rural churches.

In 1936, after 13 years in ministry, 42-year-old Lydia Gruchy was the first woman to be ordained in the United Church.

"She wanted to be the pastor, and to be the pastor and do the work, she had to be ordained," explains Rev. Patricia Wotton, who recently completed a biography of Gruchy (

Before her ordination in Moose Jaw, Sask., the seminary-trained Gruchy had to find a male minister to preside over communion services, baptisms, weddings and funerals in her churches while she filled the pulpit in his.

Wotton's self-published book, With Love, Lydia: The Story of Canada's First Woman Ordained Minister will be launched in Winnipeg on Tuesday, May 22, 7 p.m., at McNally Robinson Booksellers, 1124 Grant Ave.

Intrigued by the life of a woman who first learned to ride a horse and then drive a car so she could travel the back roads to visit people in her far-flung congregations, Wotton slowly gathered bits and pieces of Gruchy's life by digging through archives and talking to former parishioners, and eventually retiring early from her own career to write the 291-page book.

"She was a character and people really did love her," Wotton says, recalling stories of Gruchy's notoriously bad driving, including a time when she missed the ferry ramp and drove into the river.

To get a sense of Gruchy's 39 years of ministry, mostly in small-town Saskatchewan, Wotton left Winnipeg after two decades in ministry to serve two small churches in the southwestern part of that province.

"Something in me really wanted to minister in Saskatchewan," says Wotton, 63, now back in Winnipeg as a part-time minister at Augustine United.

"It was like you can't write the book until you go to Saskatchewan."

After her retirement, Wotton and a ministerial colleague undertook a 10-day pilgrimage throughout the province, visiting every community Gruchy worked in.

"People were delighted to talk about Lydia, and they were delighted to have not one, but two ministers come and talk to them," says Wotton, who didn't meet Gruchy before she died in 1992 at the age of 97.

Researched and written over a 13-year period, the same amount of time Gruchy spent waiting for ordination after her seminary graduation, Wotton became mesmerized by the pioneering spirit of the French-born minister, who emigrated to Canada with her father and nine siblings after their mother died.

"I think she opened the door, because she won the right for us to follow through in the structures of the church," says Wotton, who left her first career as a nurse for seminary studies.

"She set the bar really high for women to follow. She made it look easy, but it wasn't easy for her and ministry is never easy."

Ordained half a century after Gruchy, Wotton still encountered some resistance to the idea of women in the pulpit within some churches in the denomination.

"It was still a struggle and it was still different," recalls Wotton, who spent four years commuting between her family life in Winnipeg and her seminary studies in Saskatoon.

Wotton's book about a woman who followed her calling and smoothed the way for others is valuable for people within the United Church and beyond, says Rev. Nancy Wilson.

"I think there's a real opportunity now that the book is written for it to be part of the curriculum of our seminaries to delve into," says Wilson, minister for the Winnipeg Presbytery of the United Church.

Gruchy's story also shows the path to ministry isn't always straightforward or easy, says Kauppila, who came to the United Church as an adult.

Her ordination takes place after five years of commuting to Montreal and Halifax for summer courses, while leaving her two children and husband at home in Eriksdale.

"I celebrate the grace that allows this to happen in odd and unusual ways without denying the spirit's call," says Kauppila, who will move her family this summer to take on a new ministry at Altona United Church.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 19, 2012 J13

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