The story of Emily Spencer Kerby

Photo by Rafael Garcin

While the name Kerby in Calgary brings to mind the bespectacled, white-haired Reverend George Kerby, few remember the contributions of Emily Spencer Kerby, Reverend Kerby’s wife, support, and equal in faith, energy, and intelligence.

Emily Spencer was born in Toronto to James Spencer, M.A., a Methodist minister, and his wife. Emily was well educated, graduating from the Toronto Normal School and went on to be the principal of a public school. She met Reverend George William Kerby at a revival in Woodstock, ON where Kerby was one of the speakers. They married on Oct. 11, 1888, and Emily joined her new husband on his preaching tours.

In 1902, the Kerbys received an invitation from a Methodist church in the Northwest Territories, located in a relatively new settlement called Calgary. Emily is said to have strongly influenced her husband in taking up the call and, on January 2, 1903, the Calgary Herald reported that the Reverend Kerby would be bringing his ministry to the Calgary Central Methodist Church. The couple, with their son and daughter, arrived in July of 1903.

Kerby served as the pastor of the Calgary Central Methodist Church from 1903 to 1910, with Emily by his side. However, Methodist records indicate that Emily was not the typical pastor’s spouse. The observations were that “she was not active in offices as many women we could mention, but her name appears in the old minutes of the women’s organizations; she gave Scriptural readings with comments, lead in prayers, gave talks, offered many motions and ideas, and also, she sang in duets.”  While such activities were acceptable in eastern Canada, in western Canada, it was unusual for women to take leadership roles in mixed company. Emily was first appointed as a class leader in 1910 and, in 1912, she was teaching the esteemed young men’s Anti-Knockers Bible class.

Emily was a strong proponent of women’s rights, both within the Church and in the broader society. During the time her husband served as the pastor of the Calgary Central Methodist Church, when many were working towards a revival, it was not uncommon for men to list liquor, tobacco, and women as bad influences. Emily spoke against this characterisation, stating that women were as capable as men, but provided with fewer chances in life. She saw the goal of revival as bringing about freedom, self-respect, and education for women as well as men.

In 1910, Kerby left his position with the Calgary Central Methodist Church to become the first principal of Mount Royal College, again with Emily by his side. Emily served as a teacher, planned cultural and social events for the school, and organized a club designed to educate the female students about current events. Emily was not paid for her work, as it was seen as part of her duties as Reverend Kerby’s wife.

However, Emily had her own work and interests as well. She worked with Mrs. John McDougall, Mrs. G.S. Jamieson, and Mrs. Thomas Underwood to establish the Calgary Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in December 1910. Concerned about the resources available to young single ladies arriving in Calgary, the purpose of the YWCA was to provide a safe space for women without family or friends in the city. The organization would also go on to provide English language instruction to immigrants and aided in petitioning the provincial government to establish a minimum wage of $12/week for women in the workforce.

In addition, the YWCA offered physical education courses, summer camps, accommodation and employment services, and swimming and basketball tournaments for women. Emily was elected honorary president in 1907 and served as a president and a board member until 1920.

Emily’s interest in advancing women’s rights also lead to her involvement in the Local Council for Women (LCW), which served as a forum and lobby for the city’s women societies. Emily became the president from 1917 to 1918 and a board member for many years. She was involved in such issues as the temperance movement, the treatment of children, birth control, improving conditions for working women, and suffrage, as well as more minor issues of weed control, sewage disposal, and ending trade on Sundays. In 1914, Emily was part of the group that presented Premier Arthur Sifton with a petition of 44,000 names supporting women gaining the vote.

In addition, Emily was busy with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Red Cross, the Women’s Civic Organization, and the Women’s Research Club. She was a prolific writer and an engaging speaker.

Emily Spencer Kerby died on October 3, 1938, nine days before she and Reverend Kerby would have celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. She was 78 years old. Her funeral was well attended by leading churchmen, as well as ordinary citizens whose lives were made better by her endeavours. Reverend Kerby acknowledged that “No man could have had a better partner than my wife…In all my work, both church and college, Mrs. Kerby has been a great factor.”

Emily’s work ethic, compassion, strong commitment to equality, and unerring dedication to her causes helped shape the societal views and opinions in Calgary and Alberta in both Emily’s time and ongoing to today.  Hopefully when one hears the name Kerby, they will be reminded of this amazing couple who worked side by side to make our future a brighter one.


The City of Calgary runs volunteer cemetery tours from May to October every year.  To find out more about Calgary’s history, check out the tours by searching for Cemetery Tours on the City’s website.