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GRAVES, MARY ELIZABETH, educator; d. unmarried 16 July 1901 in Claremont, N.H.

Nothing is known of the early years of Mary Elizabeth Graves’s life. She was educated at the New London Literary and Scientific Institution in New London, N.H., graduating in July 1864, and then taught in Claremont, Chicago, and Boston. While at the institution she had apparently come to the attention of Principal Artemas Wyman Sawyer, who in 1869 became president of Acadia College in Wolfville, N.S. Ten years later she too would move there.

The destruction by fire in December 1877 of the main building of Acadia forced the board of governors to replan Baptist educational facilities in Wolfville. Although classes at the secondary level had been coeducational since 1873, after considerable controversy it was decided to create a separate female academy. A building was erected during 1878–79 by Rhodes, Curry and Company [see Nelson Admiral Rhodes], complete with indoor plumbing and hot running water, and Graves was appointed principal of the new female seminary on 22 Aug. 1879.

Graves came to Wolfville acclaimed as “a lady of executive ability and a teacher of high reputation,” and she lived up to the description. The presence of Greek, Latin, French, German, zoology, bookkeeping, and chemistry in the curriculum of the seminary makes clear that she intended the course to be a serious academic experience for the young women under her care. She was also responsible for later introducing Canadian history and physical education, while her interest in languages led her to establish a table in the dining-room where only French was spoken. In addition to serving as principal, Graves taught English rhetoric, literature, and art, instruction in the last subject being greatly enhanced as a result of studies she undertook while on leave in Europe.

Although the governors had intended to create a separate women’s institution, a “well organized Christian home” as the Acadia calendar described it, a certain ambivalence remained in their minds, in part because of financial constraints but also because of the trend toward coeducation in the United States, to which many Maritimers looked in educational matters. Some classes, for example French and German, were attended also by students of the male Horton Academy. In 1880, moreover, the first of the seminary graduates began studies at Acadia College itself. Four years later Clara Belle Marshall became the first woman to graduate from Acadia with a ba and the second in Canada to earn the degree. She was promptly hired to teach at the seminary. By 1894 the seminary’s program had been sufficiently revised to allow its graduates to enter the junior year at the college. Owing to Graves’s encouragement, four seminary students graduated from Acadia during her tenure, and a number of others attended classes there.

Under Graves’s capable leadership the seminary prospered. The original staff of five had expanded to twelve by 1894, and in 1891 the building had been nearly doubled in size through the addition of a gymnasium, laboratory, and additional space for dormitories for a student population which varied between 50 and 100. Graves was instrumental in establishing extracurricular organizations such as the Pierian Society, a literary and musical group, and she also formed the Acadia Seminary Alumnae Association.

Graves’s years at the seminary were, however, plagued by ill health. For this reason she attempted to resign on several occasions, but the board gave her leave instead. Her leaves were usually spent travelling and studying in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. She resigned in 1886 in order to revisit Europe, but resumed the principalship in 1889 at the request of the board of governors.

By the early 1890s, in spite of Graves’s popularity with the students and her apparent success in managing the seminary, there was growing dissatisfaction with her on the all-male board of governors. Clearly her independent manner and forceful personality had made some members nervous, and there may also have been a developing feeling that a woman ought not to be in charge of the seminary; moreover, she had clashed with the board over discipline on several occasions. Matters came to a head in 1894, when she refused to change her summer plans in order to accommodate a desire of the board that she visit Baptist families and churches in the Maritimes in order to promote the seminary, and after several stormy meetings she was asked to resign. Two of her teachers departed with her that December, giving as their reasons the board’s request for her resignation.

Graves’s impact on the seminary and on Acadia itself had been significant; much had been done to raise the standards of female education among Maritime Baptists and to broaden the horizons of her pupils. One of them, Irene Morton, wrote that “her outlook was broad, her aims high,” and praised her for the strong Christian education she provided. She was the seminary’s most important female principal, and it is fitting that her portrait hangs in the old seminary building, which is today a residence of Acadia University.

Barry M. Moody

Acadia Univ. Arch. (Wolfville, N.S.), Acadia Seminary Alumnae Assoc., secretary’s book, 1892–1927; Board of governors, minutes, 1 (1850–83); Irene Elder Morton, “History of Acadia Seminary” (1912); Pierian Soc., membership, constitution, and by-laws. Acadia Athenœum (Wolfville), November 1895: 4; December 1895: 4. Christian Messenger, March–April, June 1878. Messenger and Visitor (Saint John, N.B.), 31 July 1901. The Acadia record, 1838–1953, comp. Watson Kirkconnell (4th ed., Wolfville, 1953). Acadia Seminary, Calendar (Wolfville), 1879/80–1894/95. The Baptist year book of the Maritime provinces of Canada . . . (Saint John; Halifax), 1878–95. J. D. Davison, Alice of Grand Pre: Alice TShaw and her Grand Pre Seminary; female education in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Wolfville, 1981). R. S. Longley, Acadia University, 1838–1938 (Wolfville, 1939).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Barry M. Moody, “GRAVES, MARY ELIZABETH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/graves_mary_elizabeth_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/graves_mary_elizabeth_13E.html
Author of Article:   Barry M. Moody
Title of Article:   GRAVES, MARY ELIZABETH
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1994
Year of revision:   1994
Access Date:   September 30, 2023