Over the past 50 years the United Church Women in Canada (UCW) have done much to serve their churches and communities.
From Sept. 28-30 over 300 women from across Newfoundland and Labrador joined in a celebration of sisterhood and faith. They assembled at Camp Emmanuel just outside Lewisporte for a weekend of fellowship, workshops and worship with the theme “Our Tapestry of Love — A Legacy and a Light” .
The 316 participants were representative of the 3,000 members from churches throughout the province. A national event to mark the anniversary was held in July in Ancaster, Ontario.
“Overall it is a celebration of our years together as UCW in faith and love and all the good work that we have done,” said event co-chair Judy Sparkes, who is also finishing up her term as West District president. “We are celebrating and giving thanks for that.”
The UCW was formed in 1962 by combining The Women’s Association (WA) with The Women’s Missionary Society (WMS).
“Even though we’ve been UCW for 50 years, we’ve been working as a group of women of the church for much longer than that,” said Ms. Sparkes.
Inez Penney is a member of the 50th anniversary planning committee and was the first and only national president of the UCW from this province from 2002-04. She is originally from Twillingate.
Ms. Penney said as a structured group of the church, they are involved in all aspects of United Church life, from raising money for church needs to looking after spiritual needs.
“We visit the sick and shut-ins, seniors homes and get involved in overseas missions,” she said. “We do Bible study and church services in the absence of our minister.
“We are also a sisterhood — we care for each other. The sisterhood is the big part of it. We are very proud of this organization – it has been a joy and a blessing over the years to be part of that and all of our women feel the same.”
According to a UCW website, a 50th Anniversary project the National United Church Women chose — through Extra Measures/Partners in Mission — was to support the Morogoro Women’s Training Centre in Tanzania, training women from rural areas to be birth attendants. Tanzania has one of the highest maternal infant mortality rates in the world. The goal of the training is to lower these rates by providing a healthier, safer environment for birthing women.
The goal of the UCW was to raise $50,000 for this purpose. At the national celebration a cheque for $158,072 was presented. Since then the funds raised have grown to total $161,722.
“Obviously we have gone well beyond our $50,000 ball park figure,” said Ms. Sparkes. “We are so happy we could do that because it is helping deliver these courses.”
The centre also delivers courses in tailoring, home economics and family care, secretarial and computer skills, leadership skills and project management. The hope is that courses in nutrition, emergency first aid and CPR will also be added.
“This will support six courses for sure for 25 women to take the course – then they go back to their homes and spread that knowledge with others,” said Ms. Penney, who was impressed with the support the UCW membership showed on this initiative. “We put the call out to United Church Women and they will respond – it’s just part of who we are.”
Ms. Penney also noted that in the 50 years that the UCW has been operating, they have contributed $125 million nationally to a mission and service fund.
“I think we do it because of our love for the UCW and the church and for our love of God,” said Ms. Sparkes. “And you are there because you want to be, you enjoy what you are doing, the work and the satisfaction you get from it.”
Ms. Cole added, “It shows our devotion to our church as well as to our Lord and our Master Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s all about.”
Isabelle Cole is another event co-chair who is also finishing up her term as East District president. She noted that when the UCW was formed 50 years ago there were over 300,000 women listed as members of the two birthing organizations (WA and WMS). WA did most of the fundraising and looked after the immediate needs of the congregation, while WMS function was more missionary-based.
Now membership nationally is between 50,000-60,000.
“There is a decline, but a lot of our members are older members,” said Ms. Sparkes. “We do have some younger members joining and we are so extremely happy to have them – we wish we had more.
“Even though we are an older population we are still strong and still ready and willing to serve in whatever capacity we can – we serve lunches at funerals, we give to the needy in our hometowns and abroad. We are there to lend a helping hand whenever it is needed.”
Ms. Cole added, “I think we are changing over the years. We are not only local; we are more of an outreach organization. We are trying to do both. At one time we were probably focused on the local more than anything. Now we are reaching out and our Morogoro project is an example of that.”
Ms. Sparkes said from from serving cups of tea at the local level, to being there to help families who grieve after funerals, and raising funds for courses in birthing techniques in Africa, “…we are there and we are at those extreme ends and everywhere in between.”
In the next 10, 20 or even 50 years of the UCW, the women agreed felt there is a strong future ahead for the organization, but one that will likely see changes.
“There will be changes no doubt, we’ve changed in the past 50 years,” said Ms. Sparkes, “but I can still see us being there well into the future in some form – we just don’t know what.”
Ms. Cole said they could only imagine what those changes will be.
“Our whole church is changing, so we will change along with our church, but we will still be there to serve,” she said.
The message Ms. Penney shared as she travelled across Canada during her term as national UCW president is for local organizations to not disband.
“Even if they only come together for a cup of tea and a prayer, at least they are still together.”