Arthur divorce caused consternation at church meeting

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

On Aug. 10, 1870, Rev. Andrew Holmes of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Arthur performed a wedding.

The ceremony was much like others he had performed there, though the bride, Maria Buschlen, was the daughter of Anthony Buschlen, the chief driving force in the Arthur business community.

Maria Buschlen, was only 17, but that was not an unusual age for marriage in 1870. The groom, Henry C. Lewis, was a 22-year old American émigré who worked in one of the village’s stores.

The young couple set up housekeeping in Arthur, and in 1871 Maria gave birth to a son, named Fred. By then, Harry Lewis was growing restless in Arthur. The town moved too slowly to suit his ambitions. He began drinking heavily, and occasionally exhibited violent and abusive behaviour.

In 1872, Harry took a lengthy trip to his home in New York. While there, he became involved with another woman. Somehow, word of the affair got back to Maria. He returned to Arthur later in 1872 to resume his marriage, only to find Maria livid and not readily disposed to forgiveness. After several months of attempts at a reconciliation, Harry left Arthur for good.

The only thing the young couple could agree about was that the marriage, due to Harry’s drinking and philandering, had broken down completely.

With young Freddie, Maria moved to her father’s house. The village had been incorporated late in 1871, and Anthony Buschlen was elected the first reeve of the new municipality. The care of his daughter and grandson was now added to his business and civic responsibilities.

Maria had shown considerable musical ability since childhood, and she began to offer music lessons to support herself and her son. She gained a reputation as an effective and enthusiastic music teacher.

In 1876 she formally joined St. Andrew’s Church. About the same time, she wrote to her husband in New York, telling him that she intended to sue for divorce. He replied that she could do as she pleased.

Divorce in Canada 125 years ago was not a simple affair. Marriages could only be dissolved by an act of the federal parliament, and the only grounds permissible were adultery. The whole business was lengthy and expensive. Witnesses had to be trotted to Ottawa to testify to a parliamentary committee, and the sessions could drag on for days. As well, Roman Catholic MPs and Senators, opposed to divorce on any grounds, did all they could to delay the process. In practice, those circumstances restricted divorce to the wealthy and to the well-connected.

Maria decided on a simpler course. She told her husband that she was moving to New York State to establish residency there. After two years, she could apply for a divorce. At that time, New York possessed some of the easiest divorce regulations in the United States.

In April 1879, Maria applied for and was granted a divorce from Harry Lewis, on the grounds of drunkenness and desertion. She might have brought up the matter of the adultery, which, in many eyes, would strengthen her case.

Perhaps she chose not to drag the sordid affair through a court session. Whatever the reason, omitting Harry’s adultery from her petition would cause her much anxiety during the next 16 months.

Following the divorce decree, Maria returned to Arthur and briefly resumed her residence with her father. A month after returning, she married Thomas J. Phillips. Rev. Donald Stewart of St. Andrew’s performed the ceremony.

The wedding created a bit of a stir in the congregation, and infuriated a portion of the communicants. After months of whispering and grumbling, the St. Andrew’s Session took up the case. That body asked the Saugeen Presbytery to investigate, and consider two chief questions: whether Rev. Stewart was justified in performing the ceremony; and whether Maria should be allowed to continue as a communicant in the church.

Appointed investigators took evidence from several witnesses, two of whom (one of them Maria’s mother) testified that Harry Lewis had admitted his adultery to them. The Session reached no conclusion, and referred the matter to the Saugeen Presbytery for action.

Several months of ecclesiastical buck-passing followed. The Saugeen Presbytery, after an inclusive discussion at their quarterly meeting at Mount Forest on Dec. 16, 1879, referred the matter to the Synod of Toronto and Kingston for advice. They, in turn, passed the question on to the general assembly of the Canadian Presbyterian Church.

Maria’s divorce and remarriage ranked high on the agenda when the assembly met in Montreal in June 1880.

There, the assembly referred the question to its judicial committee, with instructions to report back to the full assembly on June 18.

The judicial committee came back with a split decision. The majority report began by affirming that “Inasmuch as marriage is a civil contract as well as a religious ordinance, due regard to the law of the land and to the interest of public morality requires that the church should not lend her sanction to divorces or re-marriages which our law, in this matter conformable to Scripture, does not recognize.”

As might be expected, the top minds of the Presbyterian Church took a strictly legal view of the matter. It was a hot issue, and whatever they said might be cited later as a precedent. They admitted that while Maria had just grounds for divorce under Canadian law, based on her first husband’s adultery, she had not been divorced on those grounds. Their ruling was that she should apply for a Canadian divorce, on the grounds of adultery, and that she should “not be regarded as in full communion with the Church” until she had done so.

Interestingly, they were gentler with Donald Stewart, the minister. Their words were that “they have no evidence before them upon which to pronounce any judgment.”

The committee’s majority report implies that a New York divorce was not recognized by Canadian civil authorities. If that had been the case, Maria could have been prosecuted for bigamy. The real intent of their ruling was to discourage Canadians from seeking divorce under the quicker and easier laws of the United States, and to discourage divorce in general.

The Presbyterian Assembly fully realized that Maria Phillips was a very sympathetic figure. They had a very thin line to tread. Several of the ministers present stated that Canadian divorce should be easier for people such as her. One even offered to donate money to defer her expenses in seeking a Canadian divorce.

Seven members of the judicial committee disagreed with the report, and one of them, Rev. D.J. Macdonnell, moved an amendment that “the General Assembly does not deem it necessary … to disturb the Church standing of the parties, inasmuch as there has been no moral offence committed.”

Another moved that the whole question of divorce and the church be referred to a special committee to investigate, and to report the Assembly in 1881.

Both those amendments were lost, and the Assembly approved the report of its judicial committee.

Maria’s reaction to the decision of the Canadian Presbyterian Assembly is unrecorded. She and Tom may have decided they could live nicely without being “in full communion with the Church.” After all, it was never her idea to push the matter in the first place. She did manage to stir up discussion in the newspapers about Canadian divorce law, but there would be no major changes until well into the 20th century.

Maria and Tom Phillips lived in Arthur for another 20 years. Tom was involved in several business ventures over that time, a couple in partnership with his Buschlen inlaws. In 1893 he took over W.W. White’s insurance and real estate business, operating as “T.J. Phillips, Conveyancer.”

Maria, meanwhile, continued to give her music lessons, and developed her own reputation as a skilled pianist.

About 1900, Maria, Tom and the boys moved to Harvey, Illinois, a small city on the southern edge of Chicago, which was then enjoying a boom. Maria stayed there after she was widowed, and two of her sons remained in Harvey when they grew up.

In old age, Maria continued to take delight in her piano, and could manage complicated fingerings into her early 90s. She died on May 9, 1948, in her 96th year.

Her body came home by train to Arthur, and Rev. Percy Deeth of Arthur United Church conducted the funeral to Greenfield Cemetery. It was an appropriate resting place: Maria’s father, Anthony Buschlen, had been on the committee that established the cemetery in 1877.

Newspaper accounts made much of the fact that she was the oldest Arthur native at the time of her death. There was no mention of the fact that, 68 years earlier, her divorce from Harry Lewis had thrown the Canadian Presbyterian Church into a frenzy.

*This column was originally published in the Advertiser on Sept. 5, 2003.

Thorning Revisited