The road to full clergy rights for women in the Methodist Church was a long and arduous one. In 1872, “Petitions to the…MEC General Conference sought ‘enlargement of [women’s] Christian and benevolent activity’…[while] other resolutions advocated licensing and ordaining women as preachers.” Not until 1956 would women receive full clergy rights in the Methodist Church. With partial clergy rights, women could obtain degrees and be ordained, but bishops were not required to appoint them. If these women were appointed to a church, they did not receive the same compensation as their male counterparts, did not receive pensions or benefits, and were lay members, rather than clergy members, of the Annual Conference.
One route women took on the road to becoming clergy was that of deaconess. An early proposal advocating the office of deaconess came in 1872, and by 1888, several deaconess schools were training women for the office. Deaconesses were single women who received a monthly allowance rather than a salary, were provided board, and lived communally. Deaconesses wore a uniform consisting of a long black dress and bonnet with white ties at the neck, which made them instantly recognizable in the poor and sometimes dangerous areas in which they worked. The deaconess movement prospered, and by 1910, more than 1,000 deaconesses had been consecrated for service by ninety institutions.
One such institution was opened in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1900 by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Known as the Fisk Deaconess and Bible Training School, it provided the Bishop’s Course of Study for Deaconesses, as required by the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1904, the name was changed to the Kansas City National Training School for Deaconesses and Missionaries (KCNTS) and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Several women who became clergy in Missouri began as deaconesses trained at the KCNTS. Three of these women served at Oronogo Methodist Church in Jasper County, Missouri which was supported by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church — the same organization that founded the KCNTS. One of these women was Gertrude Maye Parker.
Gertrude was born to James and Ina Parker on December 21, 1901, in Kinmundy, Illinois. From about ten years of age, she was primarily raised by her grandparents, Reverend and Mrs. Milton Cox. Strongly influenced by her grandfather, a Methodist minister, she became active in the church and soon made the decision to devote her life to the Lord as a deaconess. Her father “sent her when she was in her teens to work with church officials in East St. Louis Settlement House so she could get over wanting to be a deaconess.” His tactics did not deter Gertrude from her decision. She graduated from the KCNTS in 1924 and was immediately appointed to Oronogo Methodist Church.
Gertrude often reported on her work at Oronogo to the KCNTS.
I am the Carthage District deaconess and Woman’s Home Missionary Society deaconess for the Joplin Mineral Mission. My parish is four deserted mining camps. It is frontier work. They are Eastern people who, coming west, have left their religion and God back home. We have three generations that have not gone to church. They do not understand when I talk to them about spiritual things…But I have organized a Junior League and have a group of 14 boys and girls who will pray! The moral standards are low…and the ideals are low…Home conditions are very bad; the girls do not know what a pure home life is. Salvation is nothing to me unless I can save my girls!
I have had the best time working with about any girl who ever went out from the Training School. My field is in the deserted mining belt of Southwest Missouri, where the church has never been popular nor wanted. I still have the experience of having doors closed in my face. But I have the privilege of being a pastor, and my people grip my heart until I cannot sleep at night; I love them so much. It is a great privilege to serve the Lord in a hard field.
The great opportunity is with the children through the Week Day Church School work; they are taking the teachings into their homes.
It is not easy to preach the gospel to a group to whom you have been giving government food, telling them that is all they can have for a week, in the face of ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ and the recurrent ‘Why?’ But I am glad for a job that takes all that I have. Home is where your heart is, and my heart is in Oronogo. The saddest thing is that the people are not hungry for God; they are still asleep, they want to sleep.
About Gertrude, The Kansas City Deaconess wrote:
Gertrude Parker of Oronogo, Missouri, a mining town, is the pastor of the church and, in her work, has gained the respect of the community for the church and now has 157 in prayer meetings.
While serving at Oronogo, Gertrude continued her education, becoming an ordained deacon in 1930 and an ordained elder in 1932. She went on to receive a Bachelor of Religious Education degree in 1937 and a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1942. After serving at Oronogo Methodist Church until 1936, Gertrude served in Kansas as the Director of the Wesley Foundation at the Teacher’s College in Pittsburgh; at First Methodist in Tulsa, Oklahoma as a deaconess and associate pastor; and in Arizona and California as pastor of several churches. Gertrude died in California on January 29, 1972. As deaconess, deacon, and elder, Gertrude made history in the Methodist Church in Missouri.