SKIRVING, CATHERINE SEATON (Ewart), philanthropist; b. 10 March 1818 in Musselburgh, Scotland, fourth daughter of Margaret Wardlaw and John Skirving, farmer, engineer, and land valuator; m. 1 Sept. 1846 Thomas Ewart in Toronto; d. there 7 May 1897.
Within months of Catherine Seaton Skirving’s arrival in Upper Canada with her family in 1833, her father died following a brief illness. Left without means, his widow and her daughters moved several times and tried various expedients for earning a living before settling in Toronto in 1840 and opening a “young ladies’ school.” Six years later Catherine married Thomas Ewart, a rising Toronto barrister who would become a legal partner of Oliver Mowat*, the husband of his sister Jane and a future premier of Ontario. Three years after Ewart’s death from consumption in 1851, Catherine took her three children to Scotland, where she remained until 1859. Following her return to Toronto she began what would prove to be a lifelong involvement in volunteer and philanthropic work. Beginning in 1863 she served for many years as secretary of the Toronto Magdalen Asylum and Industrial House of Refuge (from 1884 the Toronto Industrial Refuge and Aged Woman’s Home) and from 1891 to 1895 she served as president. The organization to which she devoted her greatest energies, however, was the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (Western Division).
A founding member of the WFMS in March 1876, Catherine became its president in 1881 and served in that position until her death. Under her leadership it attained a membership of more than 16,000 women and a reputation within the church for conducting its affairs with “systematic orderliness.” Although it remained an auxiliary of the all-male Foreign Mission Committee, it became a powerful organization in its own right, providing much of the publicity and from one-third to one-half of the funds for the missionary work administered by the FMC. Besides supporting the missionary activities of single women in Central India and East Asia, the WFMS financed work by missionaries of both sexes among the Indians of British Columbia and the Canadian northwest (then classified as foreign fields).
In 1894, when Lady Aberdeen [Marjoribanks*], as president of the newly formed National Council of Women of Canada, appealed personally to Catherine to have the WFMS affiliate with the council, she declined, arguing that the society’s auxiliary status and the primacy of its overseas responsibilities made affiliation inappropriate. Similarly, under her leadership the WFMS eschewed sisterly links with other non-missionary organizations, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (though its members were often active, as individuals, in such organizations), and refused to become responsible for home missions work. During the 1890s Catherine took a leading role in the society’s efforts to establish a training institution for prospective female missionaries. In October 1897, some five months after her death, the Ewart Missionary Training Home was officially opened in Toronto in her former residence. Her estate provided $2,000 to assist needy students wishing to attend the home and to meet other special expenditures not covered in the regular budget.
Catherine’s only son, John Skirving Ewart*, a well-known lawyer and constitutional authority, rejected his mother’s staunch Presbyterianism and the imperialist outlook that typically accompanied Canadian Protestants’ enthusiasm for foreign missions. However, her two daughters, Louise E. and Jane Emily, shared her zeal for the Presbyterian Church and its foreign missionary endeavours. Both followed her into the executive of the WFMS, Emily becoming the society’s president in 1911.
UCC-C, Presbyterian Church in Canada (Western Division), Woman’s Foreign Missionary Soc., Board of Managers, minutes, 6 (1889–90), 1 Oct. 1889; 10 (1893–94), 20 Feb. 1894; 12 (1896–97), 3 Nov. 1896, 18 May 1897. “The late Mrs. Ewart,” Canada Presbyterian (Toronto), 26 May 1897: 336–37. Presbyterian Church in Canada (Western Division), Woman’s Foreign Missionary Soc., Annual report (Toronto), 1877–97/98, 1910–11, 1913–14. A. F. Robinson, A quarter of a century (1876–1901); sketch of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (W.D.) (Toronto, 1901). “The theological and missionary training of women,” Westminster (Toronto), [2nd] ser., 3 (July–December 1897): 295–96. D. L. Cole, “The better patriot: John S. Ewart and the Canadian nation” (phd thesis, Univ. of Wash., Seattle, 1968).