by Petra Wall
Reverend Jean Brown always anticipated she would become a strong vector between her earthly flock and God in heaven. “Since I was a young girl, I have always wanted to help people through joys and sorrows. More recently, it seems that spirituality has grown to be more popular than religion itself, but for many others, believing in God will always be a powerful force.” Despite being retired now, Jean is still very active in the United Church of Canada. The strong connections with family, extended family and work family helped her realize how important a feeling of belonging was to the wellbeing of any individual. A new self-awareness acquired later, during a religious training session, further clarified Jean’s destined role in the ministry.
One is immediately drawn to this friendly, knowledgeable lady, a proud Haweater, who focusses on the future and is adept at thinking on her feet, a rare intuitive skill that not all of us command. A gentle demeanour, along with kindness, coupled with an instinct “just to listen,” further defines this charming lady of the church.
“COVID and the closing of many churches have helped refocus the church’s course. We do not need as many places to worship because the horse and buggy have been replaced by cars that can travel longer distances. That has helped bring us together but COVID’s impact has separated us.” Jean now encourages people to pull together to achieve a more harmonious interaction. “It is a sacred experience and privilege to enter the path of someone’s life. It is also a big responsibility that can be extremely rewarding.”
Jean comes from a family that has served their community for many years. “My grandparents, A.J. and Effie (Herron) Wagg started Wagg’s Limited, including the central store, post office, two farms and a creamery in Mindemoya. The Mindemoya sites quickly became focal points for gatherings. A.J. had learned the art of butter and cheese making at the University of Guelph. He would issue cream cheques to each farmer and then sell butter, milk, eggs, and turkeys in the Mindemoya store. He founded a herd of pure-bred Ayrshire cattle. A.J. had counted on his son Doug to run the businesses when his son returned from the Second World War, but Doug died in Holland, at the end of World War II. Grandfather A.J. then asked his two sons-in-law, Duff Brown, my dad, and Uncle Doug Becks, to take over the Wagg businesses.”
Jean was the third child born to Duff and Marion (Wagg) Brown at the old Mindemoya Hospital on December 9, 1950. “My mother was walking the halls in the old hospital to speed up my birth until Dr. Jack McQuay asked her to get on the operating table, so ‘her baby would not be born in the hall’.” I was named Elizabeth Jean, after the Queen of England.”
Marion Wagg had her three children in five years. “It was wonderful that Ruth and I were only 15 months apart. We became very close, spending much time together. It was before the advent of television, so we used our imagination, stimulated by music, books, church and drama. We liked to play in the basement, with our toys. Ruth has a scientific mind like our brother Frank. Nevertheless, we got along very well, despite my being a right-brain thinker. When Ruth was older, she played piano and sang. We both taught Sunday School and joined church groups and choirs growing up.
“Our first home was above the store in Mindemoya. In the 1950s, we moved to Wagg’s Lane off Lake Mindemoya. It was wonderful to be so close to all our relatives. Our favourite aunt, Gladys ‘Pippy,’ was often available when our parents were working at the store. She spent a lot of time with us. At night we had our parents, other aunts and grandparents. There were four other family groups that we were part of: our own, the extended family, the Wagg employees and the church family. It was a wonderful way to grow up.”
“My earliest memory at five was that move to Wagg’s Lane. We carried all our stuff from the top of the store down the stairs and loaded it onto trucks. I remember sitting on a chair in the back of the truck while we drove to our new home. Another recollection, in Sunday School, was the white gate that we went through when we graduated from a class. Sunday School was fun, with plenty of singing and storytelling. Later, around the campfire, we could act out the scriptures.”
“Dad was always happy and fun to be with. He laughed and joked often and was full of energy. He made a great skating rink on the ice in front of our home. He was the superintendent of our Mindemoya (now Trinity) United Church for over 30 years. I was fortunate to be able to go to Florida and Mexico with both of my parents. We all had responsibilities growing up, working in the store, the post office and the creamery.”
“All three of us went to the same school and I think we had a superior education on the Island. The curriculum at our Mindemoya Continuation School, the building now being considered for demolition, included life skills like balancing a chequebook, knitting, writing, reading and skating. Mrs. Morrow showed us how to knit, fill out a deposit slip and understand a bank statement. These were all practical skills. There was no gym, so the boys played scrub baseball or touch football. Red team members identified themselves by placing a red sock in their back pocket.”
At high school, where the public school is now, Jean’s class learned to curl at the nearby curling rink. “We also made up our own version of the play ‘Oklahoma’ and the whole school participated. We got all the original scripts and musical score from a New York company. Ruth played the piano. Frank took a leading role and Marion Seabrook oversaw the project. I learned so much from the production of that play and subsequent plays. Working on the yearbook with Len Harfield was fun too. Our favourite Aunt Gladys taught math at the high school. She was a good teacher. Departmental exams at the end of Grade 13 had been mandatory before I was in high school, and I heard that all her students had completed these exams with high marks.”
In 1969, Jean attended the University of Western Ontario and started a general BA. “I was homesick, sad and quietly crying when I first left the Island. I did not know anybody at the university. I felt lost. I remembered dad’s words, ‘go to the bright lights.’ He wanted me to experience life off the Island. That was all well and good, but at that time I lacked the objectivity to appreciate that. My parents had brought me to London, and I had no idea how to get back home, so I stayed and got an education.” Well into her BA, Jean started her certificate in early childhood education at Fanshawe College and finished her BA in night school. When she had her certificate, Jean began to work in day-care centers and nursery schools.
“Then came that horrific accident, in 1979, when my parents’ plane crashed and both died. After the shock dimmed a bit, I became more reflective about the meaning of life, mentored by my family and some female ministers who helped me through that sad period. Spending time with those female ministers was very inspirational. I was 29, a late bloomer, but I could see my future taking shape. When I proudly announced my intention of becoming a minister, I was told by acquaintances that I could become a minister’s wife, but not a minister. That was both a disappointment and a challenge for me.”
In 1981, Jean got work with OHIP for the Ministry of Health in Kingston where her sister Ruth lived. “I was still looking for a path forward in those early years. I knew I wanted a more spiritual path, one that would take me back to my original roots, with God representing a stronger part of my life. I could see myself as a minister.” Jean joined a bible study group in Kingston, led by Reverend Bessie Lane whose church she had attended in Sudbury.
“Reverend Lane was originally from Manitoulin, and she and the other members knew my family and the minister in the Mindemoya United Church, Rev. Mary Joe Ekert-Tracy. I began to feel at home and took comfort in her words whenever I felt sad. The group was studying an ‘Experiment in Practical Christianity.’ It was a way of trying your faith out in practical locations, such as a nursing home. This minister gave me a sense of being part of the bible. The words were coming off the page and into my heart. I began to realize What and Who was really important in life.”
In 1987, Jean started her Master’s of Divinity at Queen’s Theological College in Kingston. She was ordained as a minister in 1990. “After being ordained, we were requested to settle and work in a place out of our comfort zone, where the need for our services might be greater. I went to Loring, near North Bay. I remember having to photocopy my church bulletins in the local Legion, a practical location indeed and ministry at its finest.”
“In 1990, I moved to the Arden Pastoral Charge, a group of three churches in Arden, Henderson and Mountain Grove. “Each Sunday, I gave the same sermon at all three churches. The people were very friendly and kind to me. I met Allan Gurnsey who lived on his family farm in Henderson, but worked for DuPont Canada, in Kingston. Allan was a member of the Henderson United Church, and it was a challenge to date a member of the congregation. We soon realized we had to share our secret. After seven years of dating, we decided to marry.”
“When we eloped, on December 21, 1999, Allan was 54 and I was 49. If we had celebrated with a traditional wedding, we would have had to invite at least 200 guests each, so eloping seemed the best option.” Jean had performed at least 100 weddings by then and eloping presented a new format to the celebration of wedding vows. Neither of us had been married before and we had no children. For our honeymoon, we both wanted to visit Moose Factory and Moosonee. We had a wonderful time and even got to ride the Polar Bear Express.”
“I soon realized I liked being married. Allan and I formed a strong home base. We lived and worked together. He has been, and continues to be, my rock. Allan comes to all my sermons, weddings, funerals and midnight calls when despair could drive parishioners to extreme measures. I recall the suicide of one young boy and talking to his brother afterwards. I did not always know what the right words were. I would put myself in their shoes and find that the words would slowly emerge to create a small bond. I remember starting with ‘It’s hard for you to imagine that your brother was so incredibly sad.’ I understood because I have felt the same way lots of times. This experience is new for me too. I do not have all the answers, but God does.”
Jean recalls one difficult funeral, further up north, when her faith was put to the test. “It was a last-minute call from the funeral home, fulfilling a request in the will of the deceased. A local minister was to be asked to perform the service. There was no time to chat with the family and find out a bit about the man in the coffin. Part-way through the multi-denominational service, one person asked loudly, “When are we going to read the will?” This was difficult for Jean, but she managed to finish her service. “They might have needed a lawyer more than a minister. It was a day that tested my faith, but I feel it was handled well, considering the circumstances.”
In 1992, Jean and Allan, finding a commuting marriage to be difficult, returned to Henderson to live together at Allan’s farm, 60 miles north of Kingston. Jean took short term locums for supply ministry starting in July of 2002 to November 15, 2020. One was a six-week parental leave for a minister and the other three were about five years each. Allan had retired from DuPont in 2003 and he accompanied his wife to all her placements, places like Tweed, Madoc, Shelby, Sharbot Lake and Napanee, all within driving range of Henderson.
“One of the churches I currently attend as a voluntary associate minister is the Selby United Church. Reverend Mike Putnam puts his services on social media and this has been quite successful. He showed me how this is done. My brother-in-law, Dr. Craig Pettis, has also helped to livestream my retirement and special services during COVID. I write in spiritual newsletters and lead a monthly nursing home service for Selby United. These are more examples of experimental and practical Christianity, this time applied to COVID restrictions. These are other ways the church is reaching out to the congregation and the wider world.”
“Most major events in my life? Becoming ordained as a United Church minister in 1990, beginning that important sector of my life and marrying Allan. Meaningful adult life seemed to flow from both those events.”
“First impression after meeting Allan? Someone I would like to get to know better. We hit it off right from the beginning and he asked me out. We both like country life, boats and campfires. He is the ‘Wind beneath my Wings,’ my companion, friend and muse. I wish we had met in our 20s and married then.”
“Travels to share? Some family members and I went to Holland in May 2015 to see Uncle Doug Wagg’s grave, at the Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery. He died at 35, in July of 1945, dismantling landmines. We also participated in the 70th anniversary commemoration of Canada’s role in securing victory over Germany’s occupation army and the liberation of the people of the Netherlands. In 2017, we visited Vimy Ridge, at the time of the 100th anniversary of the battle. Ted Barris, an historical journalist, and his wife guided us. Lastly, there was a mission trip to San Salvador with members of the Wagg family. I was 70 and the youngest of us was 16. The legacy of the church inspired the young to help where they could, learn about the schools from a different culture and come to appreciate what we have on Manitoulin.”
“Special pets? After graduating, I got my own first dog, ‘Christy Brown,’ a Schnauzer. I loved her and had her for 12 years. The term ‘focus’ took on a new meaning when I addressed her daily needs.”
“Favourite season? Spring, after a long winter when the earth renews itself. Favourite book? My favourite is ‘Experiment in Practical Christianity’ by Adrienne and John Carr, and books about Ethel Mulvany from Mindemoya. She was a prisoner of war in Shanghai. I loved Marion Seabrook’s books, ‘Touched by an Island’ and ‘Once Upon and Island’ and finally I enjoyed Peter Mansbridge’s recent book, ‘Off the Record.’ Another writer is Suzanne Evans who wrote ‘Taste of Longings’.”
“Favourite television show? ‘The Agenda’ by Steve Paikin, ‘North of 60’ and Norman Lear shows, like ‘Archie Bunker’ or ‘Maude’.”
“First hourly wage? Fifty cents an hour, babysitting. Awards? Getting high marks working in the ministry.” ‘Strengths? Organizational and negotiation skills and collaborating with people in groups. We share experiences and laugh together. Anything that could be improved? My colour coordination, Jean adds, smiling. “Pink was my favourite colour growing up, but pink clothing was hard to find. Now I only wear pink. A fashionista is one who is very well dressed, and I would like to learn more about that. I frequent thrift stores for high quality stuff. While there, I also buy mitts and socks for the homeless and wool for a friend in the nursing home who kindly knits for people in need. On the Island I shop for clothes at My Ol’Blues and love it.”
“What am I most afraid of? Losing our democracy, a situation allegedly precipitated by Donald Trump in the USA. We need to influence the next generation with confirmation classes, share our faith and not our fears. Looking back is there something I would have done differently? Go to school closer to Manitoulin, to have kept my home base, my roots.”
“People who inspired me? My teachers, Marion Seabrook, Joanne Smith, Kay Morrow, Gladys Wagg and Mrs. Cadotte. Recipe for happiness? It is our decision to be happy and sometimes that involves difficult choices. Favourite prayer? The Serenity Prayer.”
“Manitoulin is everything. It was my start in life, my family life and the cherished friendships. It is still a tradition for us to spend one summer month a year on Manitoulin. This always includes the Lions’ Homecoming Weekend, visiting friends and family and attending other summer events like last year’s Old School Reunion at my old public school. The awakening of creativity, imagination, writing and other skills happened here. Manitoulin is in my heart. I truly cherish Manitoulin and all I learned here. I continue to experiment and be inspired by practical Christianity which is and will always be my life and true calling. Although I will never move back, I read The Manitoulin Expositor weekly and I am always sad, leaving, because I must leave the Island and that keen sense of belonging.”