STERLING, ALICE JANE (Johnson), social reformer; b. 13 Dec. 1839 in Newport, N.S., daughter of John Sterling; m. before 1862 Richard Johnson*, presumably in Nova Scotia, and they had two daughters and two sons; d. 2 Feb. 1921 in Charlottetown.
Little is known of Alice Jane Sterling’s life prior to her marriage. Her father, a native of England, had settled in the Windsor area of Nova Scotia, where he is purported to have been a man of some importance. No record remains of when or where Alice received her schooling, but, from an examination of her later involvement in various organizations, she seems to have been well educated. She likely met her future husband in 1860, when he became a Methodist minister in Windsor. Their first child was born in 1862. Richard Johnson had originally studied medicine at Harvard University; he returned to complete his degree in 1864 and graduated the following year. The family then relocated to Charlottetown, where Richard established a practice and a dispensary.
Like many women of her social class, Alice Johnson took an active interest in the welfare of her fellow citizens. She was a founder and first president of the Ladies’ Hospital Aid Society, established shortly after the incorporation of the Prince Edward Island Hospital in 1884. The society collected voluntary subscriptions, the sole support for the hospital during its early years, made weekly visits to patients, and arranged lectures, concerts, musical evenings, and skating parties to raise funds for equipment and supplies. By 1897–98 Alice no longer held the presidency.
Although her involvement reflects her support for her husband’s work – he was one of the hospital’s incorporators and physicians – she also assumed an independent role in other bodies, particularly the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The first Canadian WCTU had been established in Ontario in 1874 [see Letitia Creighton*] and unions had been formed in Saint John in 1877 and in Halifax about 1878. Prince Edward Island women, however, did not organize until 1890. At that time several locals formed and affiliated themselves with the Maritime WCTU. Alice was instrumental in the organization of locals in both Charlottetown and Summerside, but it was the Charlottetown union that occupied her attention. She was its founding president and continued in the position until at least 1895. Partly on account of her efforts and those of the WCTU, public opinion turned in favour of temperance. In 1900 the legislature passed the Prohibition Act and the Island thus became the first province to ban the sale of alcohol.
Alice’s involvement at the regional level had begun when the Island locals joined the Maritime WCTU. At its annual conference in 1890 in Halifax, where she was a delegate for Charlottetown, she was elected vice-president for Prince Edward Island, and was appointed to the committee on resolutions, along with three other women, and as the Island’s delegate to the dominion convention to be held in 1891 in Saint John. Re-elected vice-president that year at the Maritime convention in Summerside, she was made a delegate to attend the convention of the World’s WCTU in Boston later in 1891. Within three years, in addition to serving as vice-president, she had become superintendent of the Maritime WCTU’s department of purity in literature, art, and fashion and recording secretary of its literature committee. Her participation in the Maritime union came to an end in 1895 when a motion was passed at its annual convention to dissolve and allow the three provincial unions to function independently within the dominion union.
Sometime before 1889 Alice Johnson’s son William Arthur Sterling had entered his father’s drug business in the family home on Kent Street. He was joined in 1893 by his brother, Richard McKay, a graduate pharmacist. A year later Richard Johnson built a modern new house on Prince Street, and Alice lived there after his death in 1903. During the last two decades of her life, she evidently focused her energies on First Methodist Church, of which she was a member. She taught Sunday school from 1902 to 1920, was a vice-president of the Woman’s Missionary Society for much of the period from 1901 to 1911, and was president of the Dorcas Society from 1901 to 1917, with breaks in 1908–11 and 1915. When her health began to fail, she assumed a less demanding role; in 1918 she became honorary president of the Dorcas Society. After a two-year illness, she died in the Prince Edward Island Hospital in February 1921 at age 81. She was survived by her son Arthur, then living in Alabama.
Throughout her life, Alice Johnson had demonstrated a moral outlook and commitment to charitable works that were typical of upper-middle-class Protestant women of the era. Until the time of her death, the Charlottetown Guardian noted, she “retained the keen interest of charity and Christian effort to which she had devoted the years of her youth and strength,” and she was remembered as “an active worker for every cause that had for its aim the betterment of the community and of the world.”
AO, F 834, MU 7278. NSARM, MG 20, 357, item 1; 359, item 3; 360, item 22. Charlottetown Guardian, 3–4 Feb. 1921. Patriot (Charlottetown), 3 July 1895, 3 Feb. 1921. Pioneer (Summerside, P.E.I.), 21 Sept. 1891. First Methodist Church, Annual report (Charlottetown), 1897, 1901–21 (mfm. at PARO, Acc. 3295M-4). A history of the Prince Edward Island Hospital School of Nursing, 1891–1971, [ed. C. J. Callbeck] (Charlottetown, 1974). Wendy Mitchinson, “The WCTU: ‘For God, home and native land’; a study in nineteenth-century feminism,” in A not unreasonable claim: women and reform in Canada, 1880s–1920s, ed. Linda Kealey (Toronto, 1979), 151–67. Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ). Prince Edward Island Hospital, Annual report (Charlottetown), 1892–1910 (copies at PARO, Acc. 2594/A). I. L. Rogers, Charlottetown: the life in its buildings (Charlottetown, 1983). J. E. Veer, “Feminist forebears: the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in Canada’s Maritime provinces, 1875–1900” (phd thesis, Univ. of N.B., Fredericton, 1994.)