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  • Karl Thunemann


When I left the ministry in 1988 it was from Saskatoon. What I have said about them since might give people the idea that the reason for leaving was that specific congregation and indeed, there was a lot of neglect, scandal, denial, perversion, and even murder to have justified and blamed getting out — not just from Saskatoon but also from ministry. But the decision wasn’t due to the particular congregation.

I was leaping into the abyss: not enough money, no new job, giving up landed immigrant status, and other things. I left the congregation holding the bag and wondering what happened. I was also guilty because of all the help I’d had in the previous decade. But many people had tried to make me give up ministry, finding me too unconventional and inclined to challenge.

Looking back over the decades, there wasn’t one issue. Something much larger had come from these two years as well as the preceding times, not just in ministry. I was moving to a whole new understanding of “religion,” institutions, and human relationships. This might be described as “cognitive architecture” because it is as deep as my earliest years. Someone has remarked that the proper term for the discipline ought to be “cognitive organics” since architecture implies something created deliberate with the help of math but the aim of use and beauty, but it doesn’t capture how things come out of what just came earlier, evolving according to mutations that might have been unintentional and uncontrollable. In other words, Saskatoon was helping me on my way. So am I a pawn of my history or am I a pilgrim on a trail with many alternatives? At least I can trace what happened in the past. And it’s not all grim.

But from the other side, there was a prof from a distinguished family who had opposed my calling as minister from the first interviews. He felt no woman was qualified—me in particular

One sexist and politically ambitious man attended the UU General Assembly. I didn’t approve of him or share his values, but he was determined to convert me to his own intentions. We flew home on the same airplane, but I made sure we sat far apart. Now here he came down the aisle to work on me some more.

I protested rather loudly: “I’m a person with my own values and you treat me like a piece of meat to be cut up for your own purposes!” I hadn’t known fortifications were in place. In the seats ahead of me and beside me were the members of a female Russian bowling team who had been at a competition. Hefty, short-haired, wearing their team uniforms, they would tolerate no patronizing from men. Their scowling over the backs of seats drove the pest away.

But from the other side, there was a prof from a distinguished family who had opposed my calling as minister from the first interviews. He felt no woman was qualified—me in particular. I insisted that we talk it over. I got more and more insistent until finally he said we could talk in his car while he watched what was forecast to be impressive northern lights. Saskatoon is far enough north to often get astonishing displays. Which is how we sat together on a hill watching the most intense, wild, and mind-blowing impacts of sun plasma hitting the earth’s atmosphere. I made my best pitch and he ignored me.

I searched for an image of women ministers, but came up with this image of churcch women, as if women in the clergy didn’t deserve their own special notice. –Karl

A man who was more successful was a young self-described Stalinist who took me to see “bare-assed beach” where the nudists and other free-spirits went. I was impressed though there were no people. Saskatoon is at the bottom of an imaginary ancient sea and thus has beaches and reaches of sand where the long-legged cranes leap and bugle in their courting dances. Later a woman told me about taking her child to that beach. The child went too far out into what seemed shallow water and was in trouble. The woman was a non-swimmer and desperate but before she could act a nude woman came streaking past her, plunged into the water, and towed out the child. Then the woman ran off without praise or thanks or towel.

I made a raven puppet with an operating beak and wings so I could tell the NW indigenous story of how the Raven stole the sun and brought it to people. The chair of the congregation remarked, “Mary is always doing impossible things,” meaning that puppet and I was offended. I can’t think why. It was surely meant as a compliment.

On another occasion I told the story of the twelve wild and enchanted geese who were really princes. They were saved by their sister who wove twelve shirts out of stinging nettles she gathered from the churchyard at night. There was a time limit, and she didn’t quite get to finish the last shirt, so when the enchanted geese were illuminated by the first light of dawn (maybe it was Easter), the brothers stayed permanently human, but one prince always had a wing for an arm


We aren’t told what happened to any of these people. They were in a fairy tale. That time the congregation’s other “wise man,” an aged psychiatrist, came to rebuke me for being so gloomy. Did I have issues? I was scaring the children. I knew secrets about him, so I needed to be controlled.

I went down to the “Friendship Centre” that helped “Indians,” so they put me on the board but the congregation at that time was as wary of indigenous people as they were of HC Anderson, and I had no influence or money to bring. So I would come early to meals and peel potatoes in the kitchen so I could listen to hear what was real. They were almost offended by this and found it intrusive. Things have changed since then.

Saskatoon became notorious when it was discovered that the police were dealing with drunk and drugged indigenous people by taking them miles out of town and leaving them in the subzero cold with no jackets or shoes. Parallel IMHO was the service station that was offering a premium for a gas tank fill up: a slender screwdriver long enough to drive into someone’s heart. The police told me that a new drug had arrived for parties that left everyone too deranged to testify or even dead. It was meth.

I had to leave to think all this over. Why was my denomination and congregation not active in opposing these things? Why were they so enamored of European notions about brilliance and degrees? Why were they afraid of being overwhelmed? Where was all the sexism and sexual obsession coming from? Why was this little Brit enclave so resistant even to the Ukrainian demographic?

We had a small breakfast club of female Protestant ministers and had to meet in a different café every time because we were so full of emotion we made too much noise, laughing and crying. One woman was heartbroken because no one asked her to dinner, and she had believed that she was part of a family. I was upset because too many people asked me to dinner, and I needed to read and think alone.

But I did appreciate that in my last week I was invited to dinner every night and in each home the meal included sarvisberries (Saskatoon berries) as pie, pancakes, pan dowdy, muffins, and so on. All delicious. This is theology by embodiment, eating the world. Saskatoon helped me learn that.


Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister in Valier, Montana


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