June 7, 1986
by Ida E. Sanderson for the Brandon Sun
Dreams do come true. For Rev. Peggy Sheffield of Swan Lake, Manitoba, ordination on June 16th 1985 as a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada fulfilled, in an unexpected way, her almost forgotten teenage dream of being a missionary.That the dream took most of five decades to materialize adds to the mystery and miracle of her story.
Growing up in Bromley, Kent, England, Peggy Sayer was entranced by stories of missionaries. The more she read of their work, their struggles and their triumphs the more she became convinced that one day, she too would dedicate her life to the service of God.
There was one insurmountable problem - money. Peggy's "humble working-class parents" simply could not afford the education that would one day make it possible for their only daughter to become a missionary.
Her Sunday school teacher - a former missionary - and the missionaries about whom she read, were the product of "a different world - a world of big homes with beautiful gardens, a cultured way of speaking, and often servants, too." Moreover, for them money for university created no financial burden. Aware of this, and accepting it as a fact of life, Peggy resolved to keep to herself her secret amtition, contenting herself with teaching Sunday school and involvement in church-related youth groups.
On September 3rd 1939 she remembers well the broadcast that was to change the course of her destiny. On that unforgettable date, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. Although, while holidaying a week before she had watched as guns were being positioned on the southeast coast of England, she could scarcely fathom that her homeland was actually resorting to violence. She was eighteen.
Peggy joined the Women's Land Army. With most of England's men of working age involved with the war effort the women rallied to carry on the farm chores. Good health and a strong back were decided assets.
It was 1942 before Peggy was 'called up'. In the meantime she was never idle. Her stenographic skills, learned in the English school system, led to employment with an insurance company. After hours she continued her association with church groups and Girl Guides.
The thirty-two acre 'small holding' to which she was assigned raised mainly turkeys and chickens. Typical of most farms of that era there were also a few cattle and some pigs.
One weekend a 'forty-second cousin' of the brother and sister for whom she worked arrived on a weekend leave. This young Canadian soldier from Pembina (a district between Swan Lake and Pilot Mound, Manitoba), and Peggy of Bromley, the English girl in the Women's Land Army, fell in love.
A dispatch rider attached to the Royal Army Service Corps, John Sheffield eventually left for war duty on the continent of Europe. Time together was almost non-existent, but letters kept the romance blossoming.
When the war ended in 1945 John was posted back to England to await repatriation to Canada in time for Christmas. On November 5th 1945, before leaving England, John Sheffield married Peggy Sayer. Three weeks later he was en route to Canada.
Peggy followed in 1946. As she left Southampton she wrote to her parents, "I shall never forget this voyage as long as I live - it has to be lived to be really understood. In all our hearts is a terrible ache for all the loved ones left behind, but all our hopes are on the future."
The Queen Mary had a passenger list of 2,440, 1,000 of whom were children. (They're pushing chairs around, screaming ..... and generally kicking up a shindy!") The rest were war brides, returning service personnel and first-class civilian passengers. "I was going to describe the boat to you, but really, I don't know where to start. It's all so vast ...!"
When the Queen Mary docked at Halifax July 4th 1946 Peggy wrote, "I have never seen water such a wonderful bright blue...like a picture postcard come to life. A military band struck up 'O Canada' and 'Here Comes the Bride.' It was a very moving moment.
As the special CPR train pulled into Winnipeg, after a three day trip, "I spotted John directly but he couldn't see me. Straight figure and sun-burned face, he was wearing a grey tweed sports jacket and carried a long box of flowers. I was the only bride so honoured."
And so Peggy Sheffield joined her civilian husband in what her English friends dubbed the 'Wild West.' "This country welcomed me very warmly, and I'll never forget that." At a shower held for her in Pembina, "an all-women affair, almost all of my gifts were tied with blue ribbon so they'll all have to be boys, won't they???" (Actually her words were only somewhat prophetic. She and John eventually became the parents of three sons and two daughters.)
In her first letter written to her parents following her arrival she describes, amongst other things, a barn dance. (Would any sedate Englishman dance with his shirt-tail out?) The painted frame houses were a novelty (she was accustomed to stone and brick). Colourful shirts worn by Canadian men intrigued her (too bright for conservative England)!
The weekly bath in front of the kitchen stove at the home of her in-laws she found somewhat disconcerting (she was accustomed to a bathroom with indoor plumbing). Visitors arrived unannounced (in England one would telephone ahead or send a postcard). Crossing a street was hazardous; traffic was travelling the wrong way! As she became accustomed to Canada and its people the culture shock slowly vanished. Now, although she loves to return to England for a visit, Manitoba is home.
For the first few months following his discharge, John worked on farms in the Swan Lake area, then in April 1947 he was offered a book-keeping and parts manager position in the Swan Lake Garage. A born mathematician and mechanic he enjoyed his work and eventually, in 1958, purchased the business.
In the meantime housing (or rather the lack of it) was a problem. Two nights after moving into a two-room suite in a hatchery in April 1947, their first real home, the building burned to the ground leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a console battery radio and an old hand-cranked sewing machine.
After staying with friends for two weeks following the fire they rented a large room in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Swan Lake, where they lived until the following December when they rented the little one-bedroom house which had formerly housed the manager of the hatchery.
They lived there for three years, by which time they had their first two children, and finally in 1950 purchased a lot on First Street in Swan Lake, moved in a little house from the country, added two rooms and finally had a place to call their very own. Peggy continues to reside at this location.
With encouragement from his wife, John Sheffield in 1952 became a layreader for the Anglican Church. Peggy wonders whether part of her enthusiasm stemmed from her "missionary zeal which had lain dormant, awaiting new opportunities in a new land."
Twenty-nine years after stepping on to Canadian soil, "life as I had known and loved it" came to an abrupt end. After a short illness John, at the age of fifty-five, died of cancer. It was 1974.
One Sunday Peggy was a parishioner in the pew. The next (or so it seemed) she was in the pulpit. The St. Barnabas congregation wanted her to follow in the footsteps of John, who for twenty-two years had faithfully served the Somerset parish. (The parish originally included Norquay, Pembina and Swan Lake.) When All Saints Church in Swan Lake closed in 1959, the Sheffield family attended services in Somerset.
For Peggy, "out of the ashes of the old life rose a new." The missionary call was ringing loud and clear. Yes, she'd become a layreader.
"And so after some forty years I was able to answer the call in a way in which I could never have dreamed about as I sat in that long-ago Bible class in England. One does not have to go to a far country to answer the call of God. One's mission field is all around one. God does not let go easily. He keeps knocking at one's heart."
During the next eight or nine years while Peggy was in charge of St. Barnabas, Somerset, she was approached by lay friends, clergy and the bishop concerning ordination. It was 1983 before she gave it any serious consideration. Valuing highly her lay status, she had absolutely no desire to give it up.
By this time she was so thoroughly entrenched in parish and diocesan work that she began to realize she was masquerading under the title of layreader. "Honesty demanded that I nail my colours to the mast, and having as it were fought a losing battle with God I finally gave in to His insistent urging.
In late summer of 1983 Peggy told the bishop of her decision to seek ordination. "For most of us the call comes quietly - almost imperceptively - the call to reveal one's faith and one's complete trust ..."
With the blessing of her family she, on July 10th 1984, in St. Matthew's Cathedral, Brandon, Manitoba, was ordained a deacon of the Anglican Church of Canada. This was followed by ordination to the priesthood by Rt. Rev. John F.S. Conlin in Emmanuel Church, Holland, Manitoba on June 16th 1985.
What's next for Rev. Peggy Sheffield, the first war bride in Manitoba to become a member of the Anglican clergy, and one of only two known war brides to have been ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada?
"For the past eighteen months since I was ordained a deacon I have made many new friends in the churches to which I have been assigned. I have met some beautiful people who have already become very dear to me, and this has very much enriched my life and work."
At a time in life when most people are considering retirement she and the Rev. Warren Marsh share pastoral duties in seven Anglican churches bordering highways 2 and 23 - Rathwell, Treherne, Holland, Glenboro, Somerset, Baldur and Belmont. As well, her theological studies continue.
Forty years ago, June 28th 1946, Peggy Sheffield sailed from Southampton on the Queen Mary for a country she couldn't visualize. ("I just couldn't visualize what lay beyond the shores of England.") But there was. In that land, she, her husband and family slowly but surely put down roots contributing "to the mosaic of Canadian life as it is today."
Following John's death those roots were disturbed, but as grief diminished and family responsibilities changed, the early missionary zeal came to the fore.
"The danger is one might not recognize the call ... one might look upon the little responsibilities of witness presented to one as being of no significance ... but if one accepts the challenges as they come, even though they bear little, if any resemblance to what one first visualized as God's will, one may come to see in the fulness of time, as I have, just what one once thought impossible has been fulfilled in God's own good time."
"As the Father sent me, even so I send you." (John 20:21). With this text Peggy identifies.
"God has chosen you and me for the express purpose of revealing Himself to others by the way we live, the way we do our work, our standards of honesty and morality, our readiness to help even at the cost of great personal inconvenience. Every one of us receives a call. Every one of us is a missionary."
"Here am I. Send me," was the prophet Isaiah's immediate answer to the Lord's call. For Peggy, acceptance came far more slowly, but as circumstances allowed it did come - and now, in His service, she marvels at the devious routes by which God guided to fruition her girlhood dream of being a missionary.