The living history of Union United
An English Lit graduate and fiction writer, Maranda Moses admits history is not her main subject.
Yet a chance meeting in 2005 with then-Union United Church minister Rev. Darryl Gray led to Moses completing Proud Past, Bright Future. The book tells the story of Union United Church, which is, for many, the physical and emotional centre of Montreal’s black community.
“They wanted a book that would chronicle the church over 100 years,” Moses said. “There was a small book written in the 1970s and Union is cited in different publications, but there was never anything in book-length format.”
Union United celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007 and commissioned the book as part of a series of events marking that centenary.
Gathering, assembling and editing material spanning so many years was a daunting task. But Moses recognized that this commission was a pivotal event for her. “I was shocked and elated and thankful to have been considered for the project.”
For two years, while working at another job full time, Moses did research and interviewed more than 40 people.
“There was a lot of work involved in looking up archival information. I had to pretty much start from scratch. I didn’t want to rely on what was already written, that was just scratching the surface.”
Moses began by speaking with the oldest members of the clergy and congregation, the keepers of the most memories.
“They turned out to be my favourite interviews, they had so much to talk about,” she said. One lady in particular, the late Mrs. Maisie Dash, left a strong impression on 33-year-old Moses. “She was amazing. Her recollections of Rev. Este were really magnificent – she captured the joyful essence of Rev. Este that other people talked about. There were conflicts, but generally people just had a genuine love for this man, a special attachment to him.”
It’s not possible to talk about the history of Union United Church without mentioning Rev. Charles Este. Coming to Montreal in 1913 looking for work as a porter, which didn’t come through, Este found work only as a shoeshine boy at La Corona hotel.
“He wasn’t allowed to use the front entrance, he had to enter by the back,” Moses said. “But he was so charismatic, people told him to go back to school and make something of himself.”
Este’s clients brought him books, and one man arranged an interview with McGill that opened the doors to this institution, though Este only had an elementary school education.
Este served his congregation for 40 years as an ordained minister. A lover of the arts and literature, Este continued learning all his life and received a doctorate in literature at the age of 63.
Known as “Rev,” Este tirelessly advocated on behalf of the members of the community.
“He used to go door to door visiting the sick, championing on behalf of black nurses who wanted to work in Montreal hospitals, fighting for black men to join the military, for everybody, even those outside the church. He had strong friendships with people in the Jewish community, the Catholic community. Este could be at a meeting with Hydro-Québec, and Bell, and they would listen to him. So that definitely broke down barriers for them and brought awareness to the plight of the black community.”
The systematic racism and exclusion faced by the black community in the early 1900s and described in Moses’s book are painful but should be mandatory reading, since many say forms of it still persist. Black people wanting to go to white churches were not welcomed and on occasion charged “pew fees.” Menial jobs were the only ones available and black workers were “last hired, first fired.” If you were hired, usually it was out of sight of clients. Finding housing was difficult.
It’s important to understand the climate of those times if one is to understand the significance of Union United, an institution that gave rise to such people as musicians Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, the first black Quebec judge, Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, and bestselling author Mairuth Sarsfield, who wrote the foreword to Moses’s book.
Working on this project has given Moses focus and strength. She plans to provide further exposure to the book by having excerpts published on Union United’s website and making the book available on Amazon.
“It was a life-changing experience. I walked away with a feeling of pride and also knowing it’s your duty to excel if you have a passion or a dream. People have overcome so much, there is no excuse for failure.”
Proud Past, Bright Future is available at Paragraphe bookstore, 2220 McGill College.