There have certainly been many notable women at St. John’s over its long history. Further to the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, I’d like to highlight two notable women who met in St. John’s Sunday School when they were young girls. As a clipping from the West Toronto Weekly in August 1937 noted, Miss Edna Elliott, Registered Nurse, “and a Sunday School friend, Miss Florence Giles, long ago planned their life work, which was to be one of service to mankind.”
This clipping, along with several others provided by the Diocese of Toronto Archives, tell the unique stories of Edna Amelia Elliott (1907-1992) and Florence Louise Giles (1905-1987), both graduate nurses, who realized their commitment of service through the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada, working in mission hospitals in the “far-off lands” of the Eastern Arctic, Japan, and in India, between 1936 and 1943.
Florence Giles was born in South Africa and came to Toronto in 1913 as a child, growing up at 37 Parkview Gardens. She graduated from St. Joseph’s Hospital nursing school in June 1936 and was soon on a Royal Mail steamer bound north for Pangnirtung on Baffin Island in what today is Nunavut. Florence’s first choice was to go to India because she liked a warm climate. However, she managed to adjust to life at St. Luke’s Hospital in Pangnirtung, helping meet the health needs of the local Inuit population, whether they converted to Christianity or not. Among the many health threats faced by the Inuit, tuberculosis was of most concern. After four years in the Arctic, Florence, despite prevailing prejudices, saw “no fundamental differences between Eskimos and Anglo Saxons.”
On January 11, 1941, Florence was married at St. John’s to Stephen J. Stewart, whom she met in Pangnirtung. Among Florence’s bridesmaids was Edna Elliott, who had just returned from three years of service at a mission hospital in Obuse, Japan, her work also focused on the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis. Edna Elliott grew up at 349 Quebec Ave, the daughter of Dr. G. Garnet Elliott, who served as a warden at St. John’s several times between 1920 and 1937. After teaching at Sunday School, Edna graduated from Women’s College Hospital’s nursing school, followed by further studies at the University of Toronto. Inspired by Florence’s missionary commitment, in late August 1937, Edna made the long trip to Japan to apply her nursing skills at the New Life Sanatorium, an Anglican mission hospital established in 1932.
It was a politically delicate time in Japan for Christian missionaries as the Japanese government had invaded China in 1931, occupying several regions in an undeclared war. It became much more complicated after December 7, 1941, when Japan launched an attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, prompting the U.S., Canada, and many other countries to declare war on Japan. In late December 1941, Edna found herself caught up in the worsening situation after the Japanese government ordered all missionaries to leave the country. At the time, Edna was on her way to India to serve at the Maple Leaf Hospital in Kangra, in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. Before she left, a special service was held at St. John’s during which Edna, along with another nurse, Mary Holtby of Burlington, were formally dedicated for their mission service in India. As was emphasized at the service, “missionary work must go on despite war.”
Soon after arriving at the Kangra mission, Edna met Reverend Edgar Hoyt Smith, who was from Ohio. They were married on October 7, 1943, although not at St. John’s in Toronto, but in the Church of St. John-in-the-Wilderness in Palampur, India. They would eventually live out their lives in Florida. Florence and Stephen Stewart would remain in Canada, living out their lives in Oakville.
Originally published in St. John's Newsletter on March 11th, 2023