The Doc Project

Finding freedom: ​3 Alberta women on leaving the Mormon church

Emily, Michelle and Jane have all left the Mormon church after decades of being devoted and faithful members in southern Alberta. They share their soul-searching, lonely experiences that changed their lives and altered how they view their communities.
Emily Rennie plays with her son, Nash, while visiting her mother in Raymond, Alta. Her decision to keep Nash after becoming pregnant out of wedlock ultimately led to her rift with the LDS church. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

By Sarah Lawrynuik

Standing in the lingerie department, staring at the array of colours and patterns, the guilt set in for Emily Rennie as she picked out her own underwear for the first time. 

"It is really nice to just start feeling comfortable and attractive in what I chose to wear not what I was told to wear or not what I was told was modest," Rennie said.

Venturing outside the prescribed conservative Mormon undergarments was just one step in a decade-long journey for Rennie, 28, who chose to leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Emily and her boyfriend, Kelly, have a tea party with her kids while they visit her mom's house in Raymond, Alta. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"I didn't question it back then. But being eight years old you're not really able to question it when you're being raised in that — I consider it a cult looking back," she added. 

Three women, three very different stories

Rennie was raised in the Mormon Church and grew up in a rural southern Alberta town of less than 1,000 people. It her town, it would be easier to count how many people weren't Mormon, versus who was. Her journey involved conflict with the church's strict rules, and ultimately a breaking point moment from which she couldn't return. 

Jane and Michelle – their pseudonyms, as they are remaining anonymous for this story – are both in their 40s, they're friends and they met in the Mormon Church. Their issues with the church run deeper with some of the religion's doctrinal tenants. 

The latter two women are both from Lethbridge, Alta. which has been called the "Mormon Mecca" of Canada on the Latter-day Saints website.

Jane and Michelle, who spoke to the CBC on condition that they not be identified, meet for coffee. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

All three women have different stories to tell about journeys that ended them at the same place. They talk about the inevitable fallout in their communities as well as what their family life and relationships look like after making the life-altering decision to leave. 

"There are people there questioning. These people risk losing their friends and their family and all of the connections that they have in the community, by stepping away from the church. I mean that's a huge price to pay, a huge price to pay," Jane said. 

The view from inside

Sherry Smith is the president of the East Lethbridge women's group for the church, the Relief Society. 

She described life as a woman in the church as busy but was happy to be busy for the faith to which she's fully committed. 

"I do not feel like we're treated as second class citizens or lesser than the men," she said. 

Sherry Smith, left, stands with other members of the East Lethbridge LDS women's group the Relief Society. 'I do not feel like we're treated as second-class citizens or lesser than the men,' says Smith, who's president of the group. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

In speaking with Smith, as well as a member of the church's executive — it's clear that the church is unapologetic and unwavering in many of their beliefs, for example, their stance that same-sex relationships are sinful and unaccepted in the church. However, they also both focused on the teachings that encourage love and acceptance of one another. 

Late to the party

The woman we're calling Michelle joined the church later in life, when she was 19. While she says she doesn't regret the two decades she spent in the church, she is also confident it's no longer the right place for her. 

So why join in the first place?

"The first thing that struck me when I started attending church was the sense of community. It really is an instant community, instant friendships, everything is so friendly and there's constant activity and there's constant opportunities to be involved in different things and serve," Michelle said.

"But I think you know at the at the time I joined I had just moved to Lethbridge and I was on my own and pretty lonely. And so that sense of community was tremendously appealing to me and felt good."

But little by little in recent years, Michelle stopped feeling good about being there. 

"So you know Sunday morning would come and I would just think I can't face it today, you know? And so I would have a headache and not go and then I would have a really beautiful day and it became easier and easier to do that.

"I was able to recognize the difference when I wasn't going that I didn't have to come home from that and feel judged and feel lacking or just feel a bit empty even."

About the producer

Sarah Lawrynuik
Sarah Lawrynuik is CBC's one-woman bureau in Lethbridge working to report on stories across southern Alberta. She's also worked as a producer on radio morning shows in Calgary and Banff. Last winter Sarah produced a documentary for The Current about people fleeing from and fighting against ISIS in northern Iraq. Sarah's also spent time working in Winnipeg and Halifax.