Breaking new ground

Mary Elsinore “Elsie” Tait (1917) — Mount Allison’s first Bachelor of Music graduate

Mount Allison's first Bachelor of Music graduate, Mary Elsinore Tait.

By Nancy F. Vogan (’67)

Mary Elsinore "Elsie" Tait (1917) was born in St. John's, NL in 1894, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. James Sinclair Tait.

Her father, who graduated from Mount Allison in 1877, was born in Wallace, NS, and taught school in the Maritimes and in Newfoundland before studying medicine in Pennsylvania and later in Britain.

Her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Calkin, born in Albert County, NB, moved to Westmorland County as a young girl with her mother and sisters when her father died. She later moved to Newfoundland, but her mother and sisters took up residence in Sackville, so Tait had relatives in town when she arrived.

Little is known about Tait's early life. She had three older brothers and the family were active members of Gower Street Methodist Church in St. John's where Grace Annie Lockhart's husband, Rev. J. L. Dawson, was minister.

References to Tait's participation in music and other activities can be found, including the Allisonia (Fall 1913). 

"Among the girls who entered our halls in the autumn of 1911 was a certain bright-eyed girl from Newfoundland who loved to wear her cap and gown. But Elsie also took a prominent part in residence life. Many jolly hours were spent on her veranda, or in other words, the fire-escape... In her second year Elsie became a Ladies' College senior. She was a brilliant little musician… She is now taking up her musical studies in Berlin. We have every reason to believe, however, that Mt. Allison will be welcoming her back next year to continue her studies for the degree of Bachelor of Music."

Tait did return to continue her studies with James Noel Brunton, then director of the Conservatory. Music instruction was part of the Mount Allison Ladies' College from its beginning in 1854; various certificates and diplomas were awarded beginning in 1874, but it was not until shortly after Brunton's arrival that the course of study for the Bachelor of Music degree was announced.

References to Tait's various performances as soloist and accompanist can be found over the next three years, including a review of her excellent work as accompanist for a performance of Elijah in 1915 conducted by Alfred Whitehead. In the spring of 1917 she gave her graduation recital in Fawcett Hall.

Following graduation Tait returned to St. John's and served as organist and choir director at her home church for many years. She was active as an accompanist and teacher in the city where she remained for her long life. In 1941 she married St. John's businessman Fred Wylie, a leading tenor in the Gower Street Choir. She died in St. John's in 1989. 

In his remarks at Convocation in May 1917, President Borden commented that the newly-established Bachelor of Music degree was being awarded for the first time, but he hoped this would not be the last. Indeed it wasn't.

However, it was not until 1933 that the next Music degrees were awarded. The recipients were Gwendolyn (McDonald) Black (see Allisonian Archives in this issue) and Dorothy (Swetnam) Hare, two women who played an important role in the development of the Music department.