FORREST, ISABELLA, Presbyterian church worker and philanthropist; b. 9 Oct. 1832 in New Glasgow, N.S., daughter of Alexander Forrest and Barbara Ross McKenzie; d. unmarried 14 Oct. 1905 in Halifax.
Isabella Forrest was the eldest daughter of a Scottish physician and his wife, who in 1832 had immigrated to New Glasgow, where he set up a practice. The family remained in New Glasgow until sometime in the 1850s, when they removed to Lunenburg for a few years and then to Halifax; there they settled permanently. After her father’s death in 1875, Isabella continued to reside with family members, and during the last decade of her life she lived with her widowed sister Helen Glendinning in a property they had mortgaged. It is not surprising therefore that Isabella bequeathed her entire estate to Helen.
Isabella Forrest came from a family who were heavily involved in the Presbyterian Church (her brother the Reverend John Forrest* became president of Dalhousie University), and her contribution to posterity was through her church and through charity work. For many 19th-century women like Isabella the church was the primary medium of social action. As a child, during the Disruption in 1845, she had probably followed her father into the Free Church in New Glasgow, where he became an elder and Sunday school teacher. In Halifax she was admitted to Park Street Presbyterian Church in 1885. Her family eventually moved to the Fort Massey church, which Isabella joined in 1899 and where she became a faithful attender of Sunday and mid-week services. She also took an interest in the ladies’ societies of the Presbyterian Church, particularly the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, which was formed by the General Assembly in 1876. Although the WFMS developed in response to the needs of overburdened male missionary organizations and was administratively dependent on the male Foreign Missions Committee, these Presbyterian women eventually gained more confidence and independence and took on an increasing number of organizational tasks. Isabella Forrest did not have the prominence or the missionary experience of co-workers like Charlotte Anne Harrington [Geddie], but she none the less made a substantial contribution for 20 years as the secretary of supplies, responsible for receiving and dispatching all parcels and packages to female mission workers in places such as Trinidad, British Guiana, St Lucia, the New Hebrides, and Korea.
Along with many other middle-class women, Forrest also turned to philanthropy for fulfilment. In 1878 she was unanimously elected secretary of the ladies’ committee of the Old Ladies’ Home, a post she held for about 25 years. She first appeared as a canvasser for the Protestant Orphans’ Home and a member of its ladies’ committee in 1880, and by 1893 was president of the board. Like other female philanthropists she also contributed to a number of private charities.
Isabella Forrest did not follow the usual demarcated stages of a middle-class woman’s life – those of wife, mother, matron, and widow – which gave many women their sense of identity and belonging. Her unmarried status, however, did not put a damper on her accomplishments. Rather, as contemporaries expressed it, single women like Forrest were able to give more of themselves to the needy, and were, in a sense, “married to every creature of the race.”
Halifax County Court of Probate (Halifax), Wills, 13 (mfm. at PANS). Halifax County Registry of Deeds (Halifax), Deeds, 303, 309, 324 (mfm. at PANS). NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1881, Halifax (mfm. at PANS). PANS, Churches, Fort Massey Presbyterian/United (Halifax), communion roll and reg., 1894–98, 1900–5 (mfm.); Park Street Presbyterian (Halifax), Poplar Grove Church records, reg. of communicants, 1869–91; reg. of deacons, n.d.; reg. of elders, 1870–91 (mfm.); MG 1, 315, no.1; MG 2, 1245: 149 (also in MG 9, 188: 33); MG 3, 267–68; MG 100, 188, no.15D. Acadian Recorder, 14 Oct. 1905. Halifax Herald, 16 Oct. 1905. J. M. Cameron, The churches of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia (n.p., ). Directory, Halifax, 1863, 1869–1906. 1838 Pictou County, N.S., census, comp. S. A. Bridges (n.p., n.d.). J. P. MacPhie, Pictonians at home and abroad: sketches of professional men and women of Pictou County . . . (Boston, 1914). Message (Halifax), November 1905. Wendy Mitchinson, “Canadian women and church missionary societies in the nineteenth century: a step towards independence,” Atlantis (Wolfville, N.S.), 2 (1977), no.2: 57–75. Pictou County census, 1851 ([Pictou, 1982]). Presbyterian Church in Canada (Eastern Division), Fifty years of woman’s missionary work (n.p., n.d.). Protestant Orphans’ Home, Annual report (Halifax), 1863–93. V. J. Strong-Boag, The parliament of women: the National Council of Women of Canada, 1893–1929 (Ottawa, 1976). The Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (Eastern Division), 1876–1926 (Truro, N.S., n.d.).