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COWANS, MARY (McDougall), philanthropist and administrator of charities; b. c. 1836 in Perth, Upper Canada, daughter of Thomas Cowans; m. c. 1864 John McDougall*, and they had three children; d. 17 Jan. 1901 in Montreal.

Around 1864 Mary Cowans married John McDougall, a wealthy Montreal iron manufacturer and financier. McDougall was a widower with two young daughters. Mary, about 28 years old, would give birth to two daughters and a son within the next five years. The family lived in an impressive house called Rose Hedge, next door to prosperous sugar manufacturer Peter Redpath, and they also had a country home on Île de Montréal. Mary ran the household with the help of several servants.

A practical and religious woman convinced of the contribution women could and should make to society, Mary McDougall soon became involved in philanthropy in Montreal and was active in a wide range of women’s societies. In 1867, although her duties as the mother of a growing family must have been demanding, she joined the management committees of two charities for children, the Home and School of Industry, which trained the children of poor widows, and the Montreal Ladies’ Benevolent Society. Three years later she helped form the Protestant Infants’ Home of Montreal to receive infants and children up to five years of age as well as their mothers, and she served as one of its administrators for several years.

In 1874 she funnelled her energy and considerable organizational abilities into a special project as the founding vice-president of the Montreal Young Women’s Christian Association, established “to advance the temporal, moral and spiritual welfare of young women.” As president during four of its first eight years of existence (1875–76, 1877–78, and 1880–82) and as vice-president for 17 years afterwards, she was largely instrumental in developing the Montreal association and was said to have led it with “firm and gentle discretion, smooth[ing the] path with counsel and encouragement.” Over the years she served on committees concerned with finance, religion, employment, association extension, mission work with the Montreal Sailors’ Institute, and the YWCA’s training-school and she helped to establish the YWCA’s Diet Dispensary, which provided food for needy invalids. She also initiated the association’s work in poor relief and visiting.

Mary had a particular interest in the training of young women and hoped to organize a school for nurses. It never materialized, but in 1876 she arranged for Montreal physicians to provide a series of medical lectures. Bible-women and the matrons of charities were admitted free of charge to gain practical knowledge for their work with the poor; the profits were donated to the Montreal General Hospital. Mary was also the organizing force behind the YWCA’s training-school, formed in 1881 to teach children household skills. Although she thought that this work should be undertaken by one of the city’s charities for children, her impatience with their lack of action led her to begin classes at the YWCA. The school was attached to the YWCA’s Helping Hand sewing classes and was a forerunner of the kitchen-garden classes and the domestic science programs promoted by such people as Adelaide Sophia Hoodless [Hunter]. Mary supported the work of the YWCA and its special projects with regular financial contributions and donated $2,500 to its building fund.

Mary McDougall represented the Montreal YWCA at numerous international conferences and was involved in the founding of the Canadian YWCA in 1893. She served as dominion president from 1896 to 1899. She was also the Canadian representative on the international board in New York and in this capacity represented Canada at the International Congress of Women held in London in 1899.

Another important part of her philanthropic activities was her involvement with the Industrial Rooms, which provided poor widows with paid sewing work. Mary joined its management committee around 1876. She was elected lady superintendent in charge of the business aspects of the sewing rooms and held the post from 1880 to 1890, when she became vice-president. From 1897 until her death in 1901 she was president. In all of these positions she was directly involved in the weekly preparation and distribution of the sewing work. She also regularly worked at the organization’s bazaars and made annual financial contributions. During her long years of service she saw the charity grow in stability; under her presidency it purchased its own building and became incorporated in 1900. Throughout her involvement she was noted for her generosity, zeal, and self-denial.

Her stepdaughter Linda Barbara McDougall and at least one of her daughters joined her on the committees of the YWCA and the Industrial Rooms and they also served as life patrons of these organizations. Such mother-daughter links were common on the management committees of charities. The work played an important role in the socializing of young upper-class women.

As a natural extension of her involvement, Mary joined Montreal’s Local Council of Women in 1893. Characteristically, she was an active and dedicated member of this branch of the National Council of Women of Canada, and she served as a vice-president and a life patron until her death. She worked in the philanthropic section of the council but her interest in nursing also led to her participation in the council’s nursing reform projects and in the local association of the Victorian Order of Nurses. Like many of the Montreal élite who worked for the advancement of women, Mary McDougall also joined the Montreal Ladies’ Educational Association [see Anne Molson*]. She was a member from 1874 to its dissolution in 1885 and enrolled in several of the classes sponsored by the group.

She and her family belonged to St Andrew’s Church (Presbyterian). Her church work extended to the Order of the King’s Daughters and Sons, an international organization which sought to initiate young people into work with the sick and the poor and to deepen their spiritual lives. She belonged to the order’s Montreal circle, formed in 1888.

Following a year of illness Mary McDougall died of heart failure at her home in Montreal. Her funeral was private, but the women with whom she had worked for years held a memorial service in her honour at the YWCA on 25 January. They paid tribute to her work and community service, her “strength and inspiration,” and “the helpful inspiring nature of her personality.” In its annual report of 1901 the Local Council of Women described her as “a faithful and zealous friend,” and the YWCA considered its loss an “irreparable one.”

Mary McDougall brought her leadership and organizational talents to many women’s organizations in the fields of charity, education, and religion. She came to the work with a conviction of the importance and value of women’s contributions. Her efforts and commitment in these undertakings helped to advance the cause of women in a society which underestimated their abilities and restricted their power.

Janice Harvey

AC, Montréal, État civil, Presbytériens, St Andrew’s Church (Montreal), 21 Jan. 1901. MUA, MG 1053, c.1. NA, MG 28, I 164, 4; I 171, 1, 6; I 198, 9, 46, 79; I 240, 38–42; RG 31, C1, 1871, Montreal. Star (Montreal), 19, 25 Jan. 1901. Atherton, Montreal. Diet Dispensary, Annual report (Montreal), 1883–1901. Directory, Montreal, 1870–1901. Industrial Rooms, Annual report (Montreal), 1883–99. International Conference of Women’s Christian Assoc., Proc. (Montreal), 1877. Local Council of Women [of Montreal], Annual report, 1897–1901. Montreal Ladies’ Educational Assoc., Report, 1872–85. Montreal Young Women’s Christian Assoc., Annual report, 1875–1900.

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Cite This Article

Janice Harvey, “COWANS, MARY,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowans_mary_13E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cowans_mary_13E.html
Author of Article:   Janice Harvey
Title of Article:   COWANS, MARY
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   February 24, 2024