Mary Keogh Christopher
Life and Work
While many of the names of inductees in the Women of Aspenland exhibit are instantly recognizable to residents of the County of Wetaskiwin, Mary Keogh Christopher may not be as widely known. In large part, this is likely because she passed away in 1925—nearly eighty-three years prior to being honoured by the Wetaskiwin and District Heritage Museum. Despite the passage of time, her contributions to Wetaskiwin must not be forgotten. As a volunteer nurse during an influenza epidemic, Mary Keogh Christopher ultimately succumbed to the ravages of the disease from which she rescued so many of her fellow citizens. This is her story.
Mary Josephine Keogh was born in May of 1891 in the rural Mt. Carmel district near Lucan, Ontario. She was the daughter of Thomas Keogh and Catherine O’Neil—both of whom were children of Irish parents. Mary had four siblings—John Michael (1891), Thomas (1894), Suzanne (Susie) (1896), and Andrew (1899). While few details are known about Mary’s early life, the Keogh family was proud of their Irish heritage and devoted to the Roman Catholic Church.
As is evidenced in photographs, Mary had a very tall stature. It is also likely that Mary suffered from health problems during her childhood and teenage years. While her specific condition is unknown, her doctor recommended that she move west. Lung conditions, such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis, were not easily cured by doctors in the early 20th century, largely due to the limited medical knowledge available at the time. Thus, many medical professionals simply advised their patients to relocate to a dryer climate.
In 1909, at the age of eighteen, an unaccompanied Mary Keogh complied with doctor’s orders and boarded a train to the new province of Alberta, leaving her family and community behind in an effort to improve her health. One can only imagine the days of anxiety that Mary must have experienced as the train slowly moved westward across the Canadian prairie.
Upon arriving in Camrose, Mary boarded with the Duggan family. It is uncertain how long she stayed in Camrose, but before long she moved to Edmonton to study nursing at the General Hospital. Her son, T. “Ed” Christopher, suspects that Mary’s own health problems compelled her to enter a profession where she could learn about medicine and aid suffering people.
Over the course of the next four years, Mary studied and practiced at the General Hospital. In 1913, she graduated as one of six new nurses, and the only graduate from outside Alberta. She immediately set to work as the Head Night Nurse at Edmonton’s Strathcona Hospital. In 1914, she moved to Wetaskiwin to assume the position of Matron at the Wetaskiwin General Hospital.
Meanwhile, John J. Christopher was a prominent grocery merchant in Wetaskiwin. He had come to Alberta from Prince Edward Island in 1905, and owned “The City Grocery” located on the corner of 50th Avenue and 51st Street. He prided his business as “The Store on the Corner that deals on the Square.” Like Mary Keogh, John was an Irish Catholic—the Christophers had moved from Ireland to PEI in 1849—who had left his family in eastern Canada for the hope of a better life out west.
On 5 September 1915, John Christopher and Mary Keogh were married at St. Joachim’s Catholic Parish in Edmonton. The small, private ceremony was held at 6:30 AM on a Monday and was officiated by Father Walravens. According to a newspaper article, Mary wore a navy serge tailored suit and a black velvet picture hat with silver garnitures. She also carried a bouquet of white roses. Miss Mary Morriarity acted as bridesmaid, while Mr. P.J. Haney served as best man. Following the ceremony, John and Mary embarked on a honeymoon to the Okanogan Valley and other points of interest in British Columbia, via Banff. Upon their return to Wetaskiwin, the Christophers assumed residence at 406 Beatrice Street, west of the present Baker Funeral Chapel site.
Interestingly, many of Mary’s closest friends in Wetaskiwin referred to her as “Pat”—a nickname inspired by her noticeable Irish accent. Having been raised in an Irish-Canadian community, Ed recalls her “Ontario-Irish twang.” In 1981, Ed remembers visiting Mrs. MacEachern in Wetaskiwin. She was the only person still living who knew Mary, besides her own children. When Ed asked, “Do you remember me, Eddie Christopher?”, Mrs. MacEachern replied, “Oh, yes. I knew your mother Pat so very, very well.” Ed remembers that it was strange to have somebody refer to his mother as Pat. “You know,” he says, chuckling, “we never knew her as ‘Pat.’ We knew her as Mom.”
Mary ended her professional nursing career when she married John, and in 1916 Mary gave birth to a daughter, Mary Kathleen. Two years later, in 1918, the couple’s son, Thomas Edmund, was born. Ed suspects that the biggest challenge his mother faced, as a nurse, was the lack of adequate medical information and drugs. But he adds, “Bringing up two little kids, that’s always a challenge, I’m sure.” Shortly after Ed’s birth, the Christopher family moved to a home several blocks south of Main Street. Despite leaving the nursing profession, Mary’s community involvement did not diminish. She was active in the Catholic Church, serving as local president of the Catholic Women’s League and as a member of the Edmonton Diocesan Subdivision. She also fundraised for St. Joseph’s Basilica in Edmonton. Outside of the Catholic Church, Mary served as Secretary of the Hospital Aid Society. As Ed says, “She was very devoted to her church, her family, and her profession.”
Additionally, Mary was a strong supporter of women’s rights. She was interested in gaining the vote and securing equal rights for women, and was even involved with the famous group of campaigners from Edmonton. But in 1925, disaster struck the city of Wetaskiwin. An influenza epidemic ravaged the community. Mary Keogh Christopher, retired from nursing for more than a decade, was under no professional obligation to aid the sick. Nevertheless, Mary was determined to help the citizens of her community, considering that Wetaskiwin was under-served by medical professionals at the time. Volunteering her expertise, she traveled from house to house, nursing patients back to health. Ed remembers a young friend telling him that he owed his life to Ed’s mother.
The Christopher household was not immune to the disease either. Ed recalls being very ill at the time. Almost inevitably, Mary also became ill. On Thursday, 10 December 1925, Mary Keogh Christopher passed away at home. She was just thirty-four years and eight months old.
In Mary’s obituary, the Wetaskiwin Times wrote that a “gloom was cast over the entire community.” The following is an excerpt:
The funeral was held Sunday forenoon in the R.C. Church, the impressive service being conducted by Rev. Father Bonface, of Edmonton. The Church was packed to the doors some time before the service commenced and scores were unable to gain admittance. The pallbearers were Messrs. A.P. Moan, A. McIllhargey, E.D. O’Neil, P.J. Hearey, F. Turner and B.M. Parker… The spiritual and floral offerings were unusually numerous and beautiful and showed in what high esteem and friendship the deceased was held.
Such a published tribute serves as a testament to the impact Mary had upon her adopted home during her short life, and supports Ed’s claim that “Everybody knew my mother.” Following the funeral, interment took place in the Roman Catholic cemetery. Upon his death in 1955, John Christopher, who never remarried, was buried beside his wife.
When she died, Mary’s children were still very young. Kathleen, age nine, and Ed, age seven, were suddenly motherless. And a few years later, John moved the family to Westlock, although they did return to Wetaskiwin in 1935. Kathleen would eventually move to Detroit, Michigan, where she was married to Mr. Harold Donnelly. Her children, Hal Donnelly and Kathy Wheeler, both reside in the United States. Kathleen passed away in 1998.
Ed served in the Air Force during the 1940’s before settling in Burlington, Ontario. In 1981, following a successful business career, Ed and his wife, Lorraine, moved back to Alberta. They now reside near Mulhurst.
Mary Keogh Christopher’s selfless character was an extraordinary trait. When asked what influences caused her to be so community-minded, Ed replies that “She was a person who apparently really and truly cared for people… She had the compassion to help people out.”
The Latin motto on the Edmonton General Hospital Class of 1913 graduation invitation is “Estote Fideles,” translated as “Be Faithful.” Throughout her life, Mary maintained that vow, exemplifying those two words in so many ways. As Ed says, “She went out and helped her friends to the point where she gave up her own life.” Fortunately, the memory of her life and service is now permanently preserved, and will be remembered as a remarkable individual contribution to the history of Wetaskiwin.
Compiled in 2008.
Compiled by: Dakin McDonald
Sources: T. E. Christopher, Catholic Women's League, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Parish, Provincial Archives of Alberta