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BRADEN, MARY ELLEN (Macnab), teacher, social activist, and author; b. 14 Dec. 1854 in Middle Musquodoboit, N.S., daughter of Adams Archibald Braden and Eleanor Jane Gladwin; m. 25 June 1878 William Macnab in Musquodoboit, and they had a son and three daughters; d. 15 Dec. 1939 in Halifax.

Mary Braden was a farmer’s daughter who, in July 1870, acquired a first-class teaching licence. Her career in the classroom ended eight years later when she married William Macnab, a fast-rising job-printer of religious books and other works. A widower, he was 20 years her senior and already had a son and daughter. Their marriage brought her not only to Halifax but also to the Macnab family’s Presbyterian church, St Matthew’s, where the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society had been formed two years earlier. Mary Macnab would devote the rest of her life to this organization (renamed the Woman’s Missionary Society in 1915), which focused on mission work at home and abroad. In 1907 she became editor of the Message (Halifax), the official organ of the WFMS, Eastern Division (now the Atlantic Mission Society), and she would hold the post for 30 years.

In addition to her Presbyterian church work, Mary Macnab managed to find time for a range of other public activity. She was president of the local Young Women’s Christian Association for 17 years, secretary-treasurer of the Ladies Musical Club of Halifax, and a life member of the Frances Willard chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. A founder and pillar of the Halifax Local Council of Women, where her feminist interests dovetailed with those of Edith Jessie Archibald and others, she promoted the children’s playground concept advocated by Alexander McKay* and the appointment of women to the city’s police force [see Elizabeth Maud Bates].

During World War I, according to her obituary in the Halifax Herald, she was perhaps the first grande dame in Halifax to open her home to servicemen. Even in the midst of wartime preoccupation, her social activism remained undiminished. Under the leadership of Eliza Ritchie, she and other doyennes of the city’s feminist movement formed the Nova Scotia Equal Franchise League (also known as the Nova Scotia Equal Suffrage League) in 1917. At its first and only annual meeting, in Halifax in January 1918, Macnab was chosen as corresponding secretary. The suffrage bill passed later that year by the provincial government of George Henry Murray* met with her satisfaction.

In the early 1920s she became engaged in a dispute that bore heavily upon her church roots: the divisive debate over the interdenominational union of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. Pride in her Huguenot ancestors confirmed Macnab in her opposition to union, which she saw as an offence against religious liberty. Efforts to organize women opponents nationally had failed, but, fired by the responses of Mary Macnab and others, elements of strident resistance persisted in Atlantic Canada and Ontario. Though nearly 70, she became a founding member in 1924 of the Halifax chapter of the anti-union Presbyterian Church Association. She was among leading figures in the WMS who, at the Eastern Division’s annual meeting in New Glasgow in September of that year, induced the separation of continuing Presbyterians from unionists and opened the way for the establishment the following month of the provisional, non-uniting Synod of the Maritime Provinces.

Following the death of her husband in November 1924, Mary Macnab placed the services of his firm, William Macnab and Son, at the disposal of the continuing Presbyterian Church in Canada [see Clarence Dunlop Mackinnon; Ephraim Scott]. In 1925, the actual year of union, she became the inaugural president of the new WMS presbyterial and a charter member of the Presbyterian Church, Halifax (later called the Presbyterian Church of Saint David), the only Presbyterian congregation in the city after union. In June 1925, prior to the last General Assembly of the old Presbyterian Church in Canada, she attended the final congress of the Presbyterian Church Association. She also resumed her editorship of the Message (soon renamed the Presbyterian Message), from which she had been obliged to resign briefly in 1924.

Mary Macnab was well known in her time as a lyric poet, but her work, which was published in newspapers and magazines, has never been collected. A paragraph she wrote for the Presbyterian Message in 1930 shows an appreciation of seasons in the “northland.” At least one poem, “The call of the sea” (1938), reflects a Maritime sensibility. An admirer of the Irish poet and melodist Thomas Moore (1779–1852), of whom she wrote a now-lost critical study, she was a charter member in 1921 of the Nova Scotia branch of the Canadian Authors Association. In 1931 she gave a paper on pioneer settlers to the Nova Scotia Historical Society. Ill for the last three years of her life, she died at her Halifax home in 1939.

Macnab’s chief claim to remembrance is as a social progressive, and as one of a small band of women church workers who steadfastly resisted church union, thus helping to manage the reconstruction of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.


Barry Cahill

Only fragments of Mary Ellen Macnab’s papers survive, in NSA, MG 1, vol.572B and MG 100, vol.184, file 28. Her poetry, published in newspapers and magazines, has never been collected. Her poem “The call of the sea” appeared in the Dalhousie Rev., 18 (1938–39): 36. She also wrote The Presbyterian Congress/Toronto 1925: written for the Halifax Presbyterial, July 8 ([Halifax, 1925]), The sixtieth anniversary of the Woman’s Missionary Society, Eastern Division of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1876–1936 ([Halifax, 1936]), and, with Isabella McCulloch, Fifty years of woman’s missionary work (n.p., n.d.). Her entry in the Presbyterian Message (Halifax) of May 1930 appears on page 2. Her paper, “Pioneer settlers, their trials and successes,” was presented to the N.S. Hist. Soc. on 9 Jan. 1931.

Atlantic Mission Soc. Arch. (New Glasgow, N.S.), Woman’s Missionary Soc., Eastern Div. records. NSA, Churches, St Matthew’s Presbyterian (Halifax), RBMB, 25 June 1878 (mfm.). Halifax Herald, 16 Dec. 1939. Roberta Clare, “The role of women in the preservation of the Presbyterian Church in Canada: 1921–28,” in The burning bush and a few acres of snow: the Presbyterian contribution to Canadian life and culture, ed. William Klempa (Ottawa, 1994), 259–77. C. L. Cleverdon, The woman suffrage movement in Canada, intro. Ramsay Cook (2nd ed., Toronto, 1974). Presbyterian Message (Saint John), February 1940: 3. Jennie Reid, Musquodoboit pioneers: a record of seventy families, their homesteads, and genealogies, 1780–1980 (2v., [N.S.], 1980) (also available online at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~canns/musq1.html).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry Cahill, “BRADEN, MARY ELLEN (Macnab),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 25, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/braden_mary_ellen_16E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/braden_mary_ellen_16E.html
Author of Article: Barry Cahill
Title of Article: BRADEN, MARY ELLEN (Macnab)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 2014
Year of revision: 2014
Access Date: October 25, 2014