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John Gertridge

I was born in 1939 in the pleasant university town of Wolfville, Nova Scotia. My birth was a near thing. I was born with ichthyosis,  a genetic skin disease which, in its nastiest form, can be fatal to newborns. I also had an acute case of asthma, and a severe case of eczema -  eczema so severe that my mother tied my hands and feet to the bars of my crib with cotton strips to prevent me from scratching myself to death. Thankfully, both the eczema and asthma left me in my teens. (When I was in my thirties I took up jogging, plodding over 6000 miles, 3 miles at a time. I could gladly sing with the psalmist: “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

I was named after Rev. Dr. John Fraser, the minister who married my parents and baptized me. (For years JPC was Port Chaplain in Halifax and was first to greet newcomers to Canada at famous Pier 21.) I was also named after my remarkable great-grandfather, John Gertridge.  In 1898 he lost his leg in a farming accident.

Because I was born in 1939, I lost my father for the war years. Dad served in the army, a staff sergeant protecting the harbour of St. John’s, Newfoundland. My mother and I lived the war years with my grandmother in a house on the Acadia University campus. When my father returned, he moved us up and down the Annapolis Valley looking for steady work. We finally settled in Hantsport where Dad found the best job a boy could wish for – manager and projectionist of the town movie theatre. Every Friday I could give a classmate a free movie pass. (I only had friends on Fridays.)

My mother was a stay-at-home mom for my younger sister and me. Mum had a flair for amateur dramatics and could recite long monologues in hilarious Dutch or Yiddish accents. I suppose, like many post-war families, we were poor. Most boyhood meals seemed to consist of fish, homemade molasses baked beans, brown bread and apple pie. Many mothers collect Doulton figurines. My mother collected ministers. A local minister would often conveniently appear just before supper on a Thursday when we dieted on fried mackerel and potatoes. (We only bought mackerel from the fish man on Thursday. If we bought fish on Friday, neighbours would think we were Catholic.) Dad was a fanatic fisherman and hunter, and when we moved to Ontario he spent the year yearning for his beloved fishing lakes in Nova Scotia. We moved to Ontario in 1953 after Dad found work as maintenance


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foreman at Connecticut Chemicals, an aerosol plant. My first summer jobs were on the soul-killing aerosol assembly lines at Conn-Chem and at the adjoining Samson Dominion appliance factory.

Moving to Ontario was culture shock. I wandered the halls of Scarborough Collegiate in dismay. 1200 kids, more kids than the population of our town in Nova Scotia! After a year, I transferred to Winston Churchill, a newly built school. I was a so-so athlete, but tried my best at intramural sports. I joined the French Club, the Drama Club and the Year Book Staff, and for years I was school projectionist and lighting techie.  I was a good student but wasted too much time writing satirical verse and hoping to find romance. (One girl I admired smelled good. I discovered she used Tweed perfume. After a Tweed overrun at the factory I brought a half gallon jug of Tweed to her door. She didn’t even thank me.)

My true love was words. I could read when I was five, and in my teens discovered I was a natural speed-reader. I enjoy writing light verse, some for publication. My first  poem from Grade Three:

Honest Louie’s Life Insurance

Makes your life grow with endurance,

So if you break your neck or head

You’ll get your money before you’re dead.

(In Grade Four I won the provincial prize for an essay contest sponsored by the WCTU. My title: What if the President of  theUnited States Were a Drunkard. I won a silver dollar which my mother kept. To my shame, I have since betrayed the WCTU by making wine in our laundry room). I was terrible at math, so I streamed myself into languages: Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and English. After high school I attended University College in the University of Toronto where I obtained my BA in English, History, French, and Anthropology.

Summer jobs I had included loading boxcars at CNR express at Front Street, bellhopping at Bigwin Inn on Lake of Bays, manning the CNE display for the newly invented Metro Toronto and one life-changing job: working underground for a summer at Pickle Crow Gold Mines, drilling and blasting. (I watched the plight of the Chilean miners with true empathy, and admire anyone who can do that dangerous work for a lifetime.)

As far as church is concerned I cannot remember being a pious child. Like other children I twitched during long services and was jabbed by a mother’s elbow. My father never went church. I dutifully attended Sunday School. (When I was 4, my teacher gave us our memory work from the Bible: Be still and know that I am God. To my mother’s inquiry I recited, I’m God, so shut up! Later, when I learned Biblical Hebrew, I discovered that my precocious version was a perfect translation.

I had no early plans for ministry. I had idly considered teaching or journalism. I was encouraged by minister friends to try preaching a summer mission field, three little churches in Muskoka. I was intrigued enough to study theology for a year at Pine Hill, the United Church college in Halifax. I moved my studies to Emmanuel College in Toronto where I obtained my Master of Divinity degree. I 

was ordained by Toronto Conference in 1964 and was sent to minister 5 little churches along the
Noel Shore in Nova Scotia. I was perfectly lonely, and perfectly unhappy. I quit. I returned to Toronto and became a teacher. I taught English and History. I directed my drama group to the finals of the Simpson’s Drama Festival, and I was the first teacher in North York to integrate film into the English curriculum.

But I was
often bored, marking mountains of essays every weekend. I joined a tennis club and met Jeannie, a pretty Scottish lass, a legal secretary with a wicked backhand. Waiting for a match to begin, she told me she was going to Australia to marry a boyfriend.  I told her, “I can marry you.” “What?” she asked. “I can marry you; I’m a minister.” “I always wanted to marry a minister!” she said. She did. I returned to the pastorate. We married and moved to Lindsay, Pickering, Beamsville, Waterloo, Wallaceburg, and finally to Scarborough.  Along the way, we engendered three remarkable kids: Allison the actress and writer, Jennifer, the musician and music teacher, and Christopher, the jock and university teacher.  We excessively adore our 5 grandchildren.

During my 40 years of ministry I was a founding member of Celebration, the United Church’s Committee on contemporary worship, and served on the National Worship Committee, and the National Chaplaincy Committee. I was Chair of Communications in Bay of Quinte Conference and Chair of Worship in Hamilton Conference. For over 20 years I volunteered as On-call Hospital Chaplain in Waterloo and Toronto.  And for over 20 years, I was Chair of Education and Students, and Internship Committees interviewing candidates for ministry. I prepared the concluding worship for the final evening of the Anglican Synod and United Church General Council meeting. The churches were meeting to discuss possible Union. After my multi-media production, the talks broke off. Mea culpa.

Jeannie and I retired in Waterloo in 2004, the city we most enjoyed. We sing in a small church choir, play bridge, and delight in our summer cottage in Grand Pre Nova Scotia. (We invite you down for lobster, but you are paying.) We will continue to play tennis if our knees allow. I write, work out, enjoy cooking, and preach where invited. (I ran a cooking class for retired men – Probian Gord Chambers is a grad.)

I’m afraid I joined Probus under false pretences: Ministry is not a profession; neither is it a business. One of the ministers of my youth, under stress in his difficult congregation, told me, “John, don’t ever go into the ministry unless you have to.”  He was right. Ministry is only for amateurs, those who are called to the mad idea that anyone merely human can speak or act for God. Ministry can never be a chosen Profession. It will always remain a Calling for those who struggle to follow the lively Word of a mostly silent Teacher and Saviour. Long ago, philosopher of religion Rudolph Otto reminded us that the Holy is both fascinating and terrifying. I agree. I have experienced the terror of the Eternal under the infinite night sky and 2000 feet underground, but even more so in the fascinating birth, life, death, and resurrection of people like you. Ministry is a treasured privilege, and for these 40 years and more I am everlastingly grateful.

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