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Family -
Rev. Calvin McQuesten
(Cal, Cally)

May 1, 1876 - Aug. 2, 1968

Calvin McQuesten [Note to readers: Throughout this website Rev. Calvin McQuesten will be referred to as exactly that Rev. Calvin McQuesten or Calvin McQuesten [Rev.] and is to be distinguished from his uncle Dr. Calvin Brooks McQuesten and grandfather Dr. Calvin McQuesten.]

Rev. Calvin McQuesten (Cal, Cally) (May 1, 1876-Aug. 2, 1968) was a Renaissance man: a cultured gentleman who led a many-faceted life. In spite of his congenital disabilities, he became a journalist, missionary preacher, homesteader, minister, photographer, chaplain, naturalist, writer, orator and public benefactor. He was educated at Toronto University and Knox College, became a Presbyterian minister, and had a strong personal and social conscience. However, Rev. Calvin never earned a comfortable income, in fact, for most of his life he subsisted on meagre stipends, and was dependent on his sister, mother, and later, his brother, to supplement his income.

Many of Calvin's writings are available on this site: As a journalist, between 1900 and 1903, Calvin wrote a series of "Tatler" articles, and edited a women's column under the pseudonym of "Nina Vivian." Both columns demonstrate a broad knowledge of history, politics, religion, art, literature, social issues, poetry, humour and women. His many letters, speeches, articles, sermons, diary writings and photographs are also searchable by any key word here, along with some of the writings of other family members. He also left two book manuscripts which were never published but are available in part on this site.

Calvin was born into an educated and prosperous upper-middle-class family in Hamilton, Ontario. His grandfather, Dr. Calvin McQuesten (1801-85), was a medical doctor and entrepreneur who established the first foundry in Hamilton, earned his fortune, and purchased Whitehern (then Willowbank) in 1853. Calvin's father, Isaac, was a lawyer, and his mother, Mary Baker McQuesten, was the daughter of a former Naval officer, who became a Congregational Church minister. She received a classical education (W4220), and insisted on the same for her children. The family lived at Whitehern, one of the finest homes in Hamilton at the time. They were members of the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church and of the social and political elite of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

Calvin was born with a slightly withered left hand and some disability on his left side. By his own description he was "crippled" and had "emotional problems." He suffered from the family's tendency toward mental instability, characterized by periods of excitement, optimism and great productivity, followed by periods of insomnia, lassitude and depression (W-MCP2-3b.035). The Victorian term for the condition was "nervous prostration." This condition might now commonly be known as manic-depression, or a bi-polar disorder. Calvin suffered periodic breakdowns usually in connection with the stress of examinations during school, or overwork during his ministry. Several other members of the family suffered in varying degrees from a similar mental disorder. Calvin's mother, Mary, had a milder form with periods of intense excitement and productivity, followed by a period of bed rest. Calvin's sister, Edna, had a more severe form which finally required hospitalization and she died in a mental institution. Calvin's father, Isaac, suffered from depression, insomnia, and alcoholism, and other addictions, requiring treatment and hospitalization. He died suddenly as the result of a combination of a sleeping draught and alcohol in 1888 (W2520). His death was accompanied by bankruptcy which led to rumours of suicide, and the family suffered some social stigma as a result.

At the time of Isaac's death, his wife, Mary, and her six children were suddenly plunged into bankruptcy and impoverishment. Calvin was the second eldest child; he was twelve years old, and there was no money for the children's education. The long hard struggle of the matriarch, Mary Baker McQuesten, to maintain the home, educate the children, and finally to re-establish the prestige of the family, is the story which unfolds in the Whitehern letters and papers.

Calvin's younger brother Thomas (1882-1948), was deemed the child most likely to succeed, and he received monetary assistance from his sister, Ruby, who became a teacher and sent her salary to him to put him through university to become a lawyer. However, Calvin, with his limitations, had to work his way through school. He took summer jobs as a missionary preacher in the West and North, and attended school in the fall and winter. Consequently he did not receive his B.A. until he wrote his final exam at the age of thirty-four, although he was ordained a year or so thirty-two.

Calvin was away from home a great deal between the ages of twenty and forty (1896 to 1916) but he never escaped his mother's watchful eye and guiding hand. Mary often wrote to him twice a week and her letters to him are the single largest proportion of the Whitehern family letters.

The letters reveal that Mary and Calvin's relationship was a loving and respectful one but somewhat ambivalent. Mary sometimes treated Calvin as the male family head, confided in him and sought his advice, and at other times she treated him as a child who required her constant guidance and counsel. She was occasionally disappointed in Calvin and openly expressed her frustration. There is a smothering aspect to her relationship with him and the letters act as a kind of umbilical cord between them. She was always fearful that he might overwork, over-study, or over-strain his "brain" and suffer a nervous collapse, which he did several times. She openly acknowledged and frankly reminded him that he had inherited the family nervous disease from his parents, so she was ever vigilant to detect the signs or to warn against them (W8734, W5665).

Calvin was a deeply religious person and at the age of twenty, in 1896, underwent a spiritual conversion at John Dowie's, "Zion" Divine Healing Mission" in Chicago, and hoped to make a career with Dowie. However, Dowie required money from his disciples, which the family did not have, and Mary soon ordered Calvin home (W-MCP1-3b.016).

Calvin then attended the University of Toronto, and was a good scholar, but became emotionally drained, failed his examinations, and did not graduate at that time. He decided on a career in journalism and, in 1899, at the age of twenty-three, he took a job with the Copp Clark Publishing Co. in Toronto and wrote for the Toronto News, where one of his assignments was a women's column, for which he chose the pseudonym, Nina Vivian. In 1902 and 1903 he was on the staff of The Montreal Herald where, among other assignments, he wrote a special column, "The Tatler," for the Saturday edition. It was based on the literary model initiated by Addison and Steele in The Spectator, England (1712-1715), a collection of which is in the Whitehern library. Calvin's articles are often mentioned in his mother's letters with great interest and pride, and the footnotes to the letters provide some commentary on the articles. Many of "The Tatler" and "Nina Vivian" articles are available on this site.

Initially, Mary encouraged Calvin in his choice of journalism, but she soon grew impatient with "this everlasting writing" which is "so hard on the brain" (W4863. Also, the payment for the writings was very meagre, he was gaining little recognition for his work, and the stress of meeting deadlines was difficult. During the strike of Street Railway workers in Montreal, Calvin's workload was very heavy; he suffered a breakdown and tendered his resignation in September 1903. It was accepted by Editor, Brierley, with regret and with the hope that he might return.

Calvin decided to try missionary work and homesteading, and gradually worked his way through to a B.A. and ordination as a minister by working as a missionary preacher during the summer and taking classes in the fall and winter. It was a long hard struggle, financially and emotionally, but he had his mother's approval for his religious calling, even though she frankly stated that she could not be of any financial help (W5271). In fact, over the years Calvin received very little monetary assistance. Occasionally his sister, Ruby, sent him a little money, but Mary had designated Ruby's teaching salary for the education of their younger brother, Thomas. The various addresses on the letters from Mary to Calvin demonstrate how frequently he moved as he made various career attempts between sessions at the University of Toronto or at Knox Presbyterian College. The letters are a fascinating chronicle of Calvin's struggle as a minister in Western Canada, and in Northern Ontario and Quebec in the early part of the twentieth century. He took many photographs of this period of his life which are available on this site. A brief outline of Calvin's frequent changes of location will be helpful to the reader's understanding of the letters:

In the late fall of 1903 Calvin went to Macleod and Standoff, Alberta to become a missionary preacher. He then decided on the ministry and in the fall of 1904 entered Knox Presbyterian College at the University of Toronto. In the summer of 1905 he took charge of the Presbyterian ministry at Staney Brae, Muskoka and returned to Knox in October, 1905. In May 1906 he left for Macleod and Standoff, Alberta and returned to Knox in January 1907. In May of 1907 he returned to Glenhurst, Saskatchewan, and filed on a Homestead. He returned to Knox in October 1907, and in June 1908, he returned to Glenhurst, Saskatchewan, where he received news of his Bachelor of Arts degree; however, this was not entirely correct as he had at least one more subject to write. In September 1908, he returned to Knox, and in May 1909 was ordained at Glenhurst as a minister of the Presbyterian Church. During the summer of 1909 he also worked on his homestead at Glenhurst, Saskatchewan to support himself. In October 1909, Rev. Calvin returned to Knox, and in April 1910 he finally wrote his last exam and graduated with a B.A. degree at convocation on April 7, 1910. As his mother stated "it is a most wonderful achievement to have finally passed all your examinations, and be finally launched" (W9033, April 26, 1910). Consequently, Calvin was thirty-four when he received his in 1910 although he was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1909.

At the age of thirty-four, Calvin was not yet self-sufficient and certainly could not provide any financial assistance to his family, which he deeply regretted. He was very poor, the missionary work paid very little, and he could barely save for tuition. In April 1910, he returned to his homestead and by May he had fourteen acres in crop and one hundred and thirty-six acres broken. He was very optimistic about the crop and the price of the land; unfortunately, his crop was hailed out in July. His western Canadian homesteading experience and that of his neighbours is recorded in the letters.

In November 1910 Calvin left the homestead and took a temporary position as a minister's assistant in Edmonton. In February 1911, Calvin left Edmonton for Hamilton and spent some time with his beloved sister, Ruby, who was ill and died of tuberculosis in April 1911. The archive contains some rich correspondence between Calvin and Ruby. They were kindred spirits, had a deep affection for one another, confided in one another, and shared a scholarly interest in literature, art, culture, religion and nature.

In June 1911 Calvin accepted a call to Staney Brae, Muskoka and was there until January 1912. In January and February 1912, Rev. Calvin was engaged in the Foreign Mission Office in Toronto waiting for a call, and in March 1912, he accepted a call to Bracebridge, Ontario, where he was inducted on April 2, 1912. He was thirty-six years of age and was finally to receive a steady stipend. Mary was extremely excited about this posting. It was closer to home and in the Muskoka district, which the family enjoyed when they could afford vacations, and the climate was healthy. Through the medium of her letters Mary proceeded to furnish and to decorate Calvin's manse for him, even to the point of giving instructions for his housekeeper on the type of cloths and brush to be used to wash the floors (W8812, W8817, W8848). She also sent Hilda to Bracebridge with some furniture and assigned her to help him set up housekeeping.

Unfortunately, Rev. Calvin's charge at Bracebridge included two congregations some miles apart and he was required to preach two sermons on Sunday. The travel on horseback, and the extra visiting required, was exhausting for him, and he became ill in September 1912. While Mary was visiting him there, she felt compelled to write to a Mr. Naismith, without Calvin's knowledge, and gave her frank assessment of the problems, and recommended an amalgamation of the congregations (W8792). However, the position continued to be too stressful for Calvin, and he resigned in April 1914.

In December 1914 Rev. Calvin took a position as a "Co-Presbyter" in Buckingham, Quebec at a guaranteed stipend of $1200 per year; he had the use of the manse and two weeks holiday per year. In May 1915, his sister Hilda again came to the manse to help him set up there (W8792, W6849). Calvin enjoyed the French-Canadian people and delivered many readings of Dr. Drummond's "Habitant" dialect poems throughout his life. He was also an avid naturalist and bird lover, and enjoyed the travel through the Gaspe and New England on horseback or by canoe. His canoeing and snow shoeing experiences are recorded here. He loved the wilderness and made friends with the natives and took many photographs of the area, which are available in the archive. Unfortunately, he returned home exhausted and discouraged in August, 1916.

Calvin spent the rest of his life at Whitehern except for summer trips, usually to his beloved Northern Ontario and Quebec, and a European tour in 1931. Consequently there are fewer letters from Mary to Calvin between 1916 and her death in 1934, except when Calvin was away on vacation. For a brief time in the fall of 1920, Calvin returned to Knox College as a post-graduate to use the library to finish writing his book, The King of Fighting Men, which was inspired by the war and his religious studies, but it was never published. He also wrote another named, The Healing Ministry of Jesus in His Own Day and Ours. Selections from both manuscripts are available on this site.

Between 1920 and 1950 Rev. Calvin took a semi-volunteer position as the chaplain of the Hamilton Mountain Sanatorium, a position that he enjoyed, and for which he was much loved by patients and staff. He attempted to run for alderman in 1946 but was not successful. He also helped his brother, Thomas, with his political campaigns, and supported him in his "city beautiful" efforts; he also tended the garden, and spent Saturdays at the Thistle Club with his brother, where they enjoyed the company of other men and could smoke at leisure, which was not permitted at home (W6678).

Rev. Calvin was forty-four when he took the position with the "San" and he did not receive a large salary, but the work was very gratifying. He wrote and delivered many broadcasts and sermons on the "San" radio. Calvin opposed his family in favouring Church Union in the debates preceding the actual union in 1925, and there were heated public debates between him and other family members on the issue. However, when union took place he became the official representative of the United Church of Canada at the "San." He had a particular empathy for the tuberculosis patients since his beloved sister, Ruby, had died of the disease in 1911.

Rev. Calvin applied to enlist as a Chaplain during WWI but was not selected. He kept a diary sporadically for the years 1916 to 1920 and again in 1930, which provides insights into some of the darker periods in his life, and reflects his deep social conscience and sense of duty and sin. Portions of the diary are in essay form and the tone is confessional. Calvin's missionary zeal was fired by his mother but he did not have the physical or mental energy to fulfill it as she did, and consequently, he expressed a great sense of failure. This is unfortunate since he is the most literary and scholarly of the McQuesten children.

None of the six McQuesten children ever married. Three children became engaged (Hilda, Ruby, and Thomas), but the engagements were broken off, which is a fascinating story in itself, bearing on the family's poverty, the stigma, and the power of the mother-matriarch. Calvin did express an interest in marriage, and his mother occasionally expressed the hope that he might give up the "bachelor's life" and have a "comfortable home" of his own (W5665). There is some evidence (yet unsubstantiated) that he proposed to a lumber baron's daughter and was ordered out of town by her father. However, Calvin's financial prospects were never good enough to support a wife and family. Calvin remained devoted to his family, and his fondness for his mother is evident in his letter home while he was on vacation, a few months before she died: "Will be glad to see you again, dear little thing" (W7154).

Calvin and his two sisters, Mary and Hilda, lived into their nineties and he persuaded them by manipulation to bequeath their home Whitehern to the City of Hamilton. Calvin was the last surviving member of the McQuesten family, he died in 1968 at the age of 92, and is buried in the family plot in the Hamilton Cemetery. At his death, Whitehern reverted to the City of Hamilton to become: "The Whitehern Historic House and Garden," which opened as a museum in 1971.

Calvin had a strong sense of history and a vision for posterity. It was Calvin who finally preserved and sorted many of the family papers and writings and distributed them between Whitehern, the Presbyterian Archives, and the Ontario Archives. He also left a letter stating how the house and contents were to be arranged for public showing. We owe it to him that Whitehern, and its complete contents, including the written archives, were carefully preserved for all to enjoy as a "period piece." In his stirring speech to the Parks Board in 1959, he reflected the influence of his mother's strong missionary spirit and "Social Gospel" conscience. Calvin concluded his address: "And I hope that many of the people who in earlier years knew the bitterness of the squalor of such slums [near Whitehern] and the children who where born in them, may enjoy, whenever they please, the beautiful rooms of Whitehern and eat their lunches in its pleasant garden."

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
Please direct questions and comments to Mary Anderson, Ph.D.

Hamilton Public Library This site was created in partnership with and is hosted by the Hamilton Public Library. Canada's Digital Collections This digital collection was produced with financial assistance from Canada's Digital Collections initiative, Industry Canada.