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Rev. Mary Elliott's spirit lives on at Three Willows United Church

'I’ve worked with many pastors over the years, but Mary, she was unique. She was one-of-a-kind'

“A church is bigger than a building, a church is the people.”

With open doors and an open heart for others, this is what Three Willows United Church in Guelph was for Reverend Mary Elliott.

On Dec. 6, in her 69th year, Elliott passed away after a nine-year battle with cancer. 

But Elliott’s enthusiasm, commitment, compassion and spirit endures at Three Willows.

“Mary has left our church community with so much,” says Ingrid Ohls.

Elliott was passionate about building community at Three Willows and created many opportunities to help people grow in their faith.

“Her work at the church meant so much to her and she always gave it her all. This was her heart. She treasured it and did her best to do anything for anyone,” says Elliott’s sister, Ruth Russell.

“For her family, it was amazing to watch Mary do this work. We are so proud of her.”

Elliott’s calling to the ministry came later in life.

“She was very dedicated. She didn’t think she could do it, but she just went for it,” says her husband of more than 50 years, George Elliott.

“If someone put a roadblock in front of her, she would find a way around it.”

Graduating from John F. Ross CVI in the early 70’s, Mary Elliott began her travels with George. The couple moved to Sarnia, Winnipeg and Vancouver before returning to Guelph in 1988.

With a passion for working in the health industry and in education, Elliott believed in lifelong learning and continued to take courses and attend seminars. She also worked as a graduate secretary in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph.

Elliott’s interest in the United Church began in 2000. She attended courses at the Atlantic School of Theology. Her interest grew even more so she attended a program at the Centre for Christian Studies in Winnipeg and continued to pursue a Diploma in Diaconal Ministries.

Among her field placements were the Drop In Centre, Global Exposure Experience in Costa Rico & Panama, and she was also a team member at Five Oaks Education and Retreat Centre.

Mary received her diploma in 2011 and was commissioned to ministry in 2014.

And her calling at Three Willows United Church began.

“Mary was a generous, humble soul, she made it look so easy. She was small in stature but she had such a huge impact on the church community,” says Rhonda Lymburner.

“She was always reaching out to others with her pastoral care. She exemplified hospitality, welcoming people, caring for them and loving them.”

Elliott continued to take courses and attend retreats and workshops during her ministry.

“She was always looking to bring more to the church community,” says Sue Walker.

Along with developing a lay ministry team, Elliott encouraged study groups including self-care groups, youth groups and a prayer shawl group where knitted shawls are gifted to bereaved widows.

“I’ve worked with many pastors over the years, but Mary, she was unique. She was one-of-a-kind,” says John Walker.

Elliott held various church events including retreats for women which continue to hold special memories for those who attended.

“We went on spiritual retreats, and of course, Mary planned everything. There was music, art projects, and walks, these retreats were wonderful,” says Eleanor Findlay, from Three Willows.

Part of the fun for Elliott, was the planning involved with each church activity.

“One thing that stood out about Mary is that she was organized, a great planner and she always encouraged everyone. She made you feel needed and appreciated and we really appreciated her too,” said Jack Findlay from Three Willows.

Elliott related to people of all ages.

“Mary was open to new ideas. She was always learning and wanting to share her enthusiasm with others,” Lymburner says.

Mary’s enthusiasm was infectious.

“I enjoyed teasing her. I would think of something outrageous to do, and surprisingly she would take it, and make it happen,” Walker said.

A main objective for Elliott was to encourage church members to use their gifts and to minister in the greater community, outside the church.

“Mary seemed to know what you were capable of even if you didn’t,” says Jane Felker-Ohls.

“If you couldn’t see it, she did. She was an exceptional woman and a great friend.”

Ingrid Ohls remembers Elliott as someone always eager to help.

“I remember going through a really rough time in my life and she gave me my confidence. I am so grateful to her,” Ohls says.

For Elliott, the church was about building community.

From cooking breakfasts and suppers and hosting food truck nights in the neighbourhood, Elliott was always looking for ways to include the surrounding community.

“Her focus was on community, to break down the walls of the church so everyone can meet together,” Lymburner said.

Along with her ministry, Mary was devoted to her family.

“Mary’s husband George was so supportive. They were a team,” Walker said.

Elliott’s sister Ruth Russell says the two were rarely seen apart.

“They were truly a team since they started dating in high school. They knew each other well before that too. My mom has often said that not everyone can say that they have known their son-in-law since before they were even born. George’s mom and our mom were long time members at Paisley United Church in Guelph,” Russell said.

“To this day, I have yet to ever meet a couple so compatible and close as they were. Wherever Mary was, you could guarantee George would be there too,” Russell said.

Elliott was a dedicated mother to her son David. She was the beloved daughter of Doreen Metcalf and her father, Albert Metcalf who passed away in 2007. Mary holds a special place in the hearts of her grandchildren, Matthew and Kate and her niece Kyleigh.

Elliott grew up with three sisters, Cathy, Karen and Ruth and her brother, David.

“My brother and I were the youngest. When Mary married George, they moved to Sarnia and then to Vancouver. I visited for whole summers and they took me along on their trips. These are some of my most treasured memories,” said Mary’s sister Ruth Russell.

“When our mother turned 90, we took her to Ireland because our grandmother was from there. We met relatives and we also visited Scotland and England. It was so beautiful.”

But the trip wasn’t over.

“I really wanted to go to Paris. Mom didn’t really want to go but Mary said, I’ll go! Well, mom ended up coming too and she just loved it. I’ve seen a lot of the world because of my sister,” Russell said.

Before Elliott passed away, she and Russell were planning to visit Prince Edward Island.

“Mary loved Anne of Green Gables. She had been to Prince Edward Island before but I wanted to go with her. It was truly significant for me to visit with her. It was her favorite book,” Russell said.

Throughout her own illness, Elliott remained positive.

“She just carried on,” George said. “She thought she could either sit at home and do nothing or she could do something about it.”

Elliott continued to give sermons from home during the pandemic.

“She was so strong. She was such a fighter,” Russell said.

A trip to Prince Edward Island is still in the works for Russell in memory of her sister’s favorite book.

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think,” says Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables.

And Mary Elliott was one such kindred spirit.

“I feel blessed for every day,” Russell said.

“That was Mary, being together and making memories. And that’s what we all hold on to.”