The Rev. Dr. Gene Sease, a former Pittsburgh District Superintendent and retired President of Indianapolis University, is one of two holders of the Thoburn Cane, presented to the oldest clergy member of the Western PA Conference with the most years of service.
In 2021, two symbolic canes were awarded, one to Dr. Sease, who comes out of the Evangelical United Brethren tradition, and one to Rev. Reed Hurst, who was first licensed to preach in the Methodist Episcopal Erie Conference.
Dr. Sease acknowledged the honor on a video shown during the installation of the current Pittsburgh District Superintendent, Rev. Deborah Ackley-Killian, at Mt. Lebanon UMC on Oct. 24. He said the cane will be on display in the Pittsburgh District office.
Rev. Hurst received a cane from Erie-Meadville District Superintendent Dennis Swineford in a gathering at the United Methodist Center in Cranberry Twp. on July 12, 2021. Read about it here.
Dr. Sease began his ministry on the five-point Glasgow charge while attending school in 1949. He then served at Grace Church in Wilkinsburg from 1952 until 1963, when, in the E.U.B. tradition, he became a Conference Director. He was elected a Conference Superintendent in 1966.
In 1968, he was named assistant to the president of EUB-related Indiana Central College and became its president two years later. The school expanded under his leadership and changed its name to the University of Indianapolis. He retired in 1989. The administrative wing of the school's Krannert Memorial Library was renamed the Sease Wing in honor of Dr. Gene Sease in 2001.
The tradition of ceremonially gifting a cane to the oldest member of a community is not unique to Western Pennsylvania United Methodists, according to a history compiled by the Rev. Dr. Susan Moudry. Several other Annual Conferences maintain a similar practice, including East Ohio, Indiana, Detroit, and New England. The idea likely did not even originate within the church, but rather is a practice found in other communities. For example, the Boston Post Cane, which is given to the oldest resident of a host of New England towns, dates to 1909 and continues to the present day.
Still, the WPAUMC tradition of giving a Conference Cane is unique in some ways. The cane used in the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist tradition is attributed to Bishop James M. Thoburn. Thoburn was a 1857 graduate of Allegheny College and, upon graduation, joined the Ohio Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1859, Thoburn traveled to become a missionary to India, south Asia and the Philippines. He is best remembered for his service there. In 1888, he was elected a missionary Bishop for India and Malaysia. When he retired in 1908, he returned to Meadville. Thoburn died there in 1922 and was buried in Greendale Cemetery, following a funeral in old Stone Church.
The WPAUMC Conference Cane has long been called the Thoburn Cane because it is believed to have been carried by Bishop Thoburn. Tradition says that when he died it was given to the Erie Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Erie Conference then began the tradition of giving a symbolic cane, representative of the original, to the senior member of the conference. This tradition has continued through the mergers of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, so that a representative cane is now presented to the oldest member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference of The UMC. This is the elder member with the most years of service.
In 2021, two symbolic canes were presented.
There is no permanent record of all the clergy who have held the cane, although the tradition has remained for about 100 years. Two recent recipients warrant specific mention. In 2001, Mary Ellen Hair Reisinger received the cane shortly following her 100th birthday. Ordained in 1933 in the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, she is the only woman to have held the cane in Western Pennsylvania. This is because in 1946 when the United Brethren merged with the Evangelical Church they no longer ordained women. In fact, for a time, Reisinger was the oldest living clergywoman in all of The United Methodist Church.
Everett Leroy Woodcock held the cane until his death in September, 2017. Woodcock’s life parallels Bishop Thoburn’s in some noticeable ways. Woodcock was born near Meadville. In 1944, he was ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. Woodcock lived out his call through missionary service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1945-1987, when he retired. Conference Secretary John Wilson reports that Woodcock was thrilled to be honored with the Conference Cane.
What is said to be the original Thoburn Cane is on display at Stone Church, in Meadville. This claim may simply be part of the inherited tradition. In 1954, the Erie Conference Journal reports that the cane had almost been lost. To prevent this from happening again, the cane was given a silver band carrying an inscription. However, the cane on display in Stone Church carries no such visible band. This may help to corroborate a story told by Rev. Jack Piper that the original cane was stolen from Stone Church (presumably sometime after the mid-1950s). In any case, it seems likely that the cane on display is most likely a replica.
No matter the authenticity of the historical artifact itself, the Conference Cane remains a significant piece of Western Pennsylvania United Methodist history because of the memories of the people and faithfulness it bears witness to in its passing. Someone once said of Bishop Thoburn, “There has never been a [person] like unto him in the Methodist Episcopal Church for the purpose to which he devoted his life. Such a sentiment is also true for the clergy who have held the Conference Cane given in his memory over the past century. The purpose, devotion and life-long commitment they have given to their God and their Church is something to be remembered and celebrated. May the memories always bear witness, leading us on to deeper devotion and purpose.