Marcia Isabelle Watson Hollister

Emily Sibley Watson's family

Marcia Isabelle Watson Hollister (May 15, 1858- April 19, 1903)

Image Courtesy Rochester General Hospital Archives

“[Isabelle Watson Hollister] was eager to know both sides of a question, and to learn the point of view of those who held unusual or unpopular doctrines. From sectarian bias and conventional prejudices she was singularly free, ready to meet truth in the open, and recognize it wherever found.”1

Isabelle, also called Isabella and Belle, was the oldest child of  Caroline and Don Alonzo Watson. She was one of two Watson sisters-in-law of Emily Sibley Watson. The women had known each other for their entire lives thanks to their parents’ long-standing friendship.

She grew up on North Clinton Avenue in the family home, where she was described this way by her mother, Caroline Watson, in a letter to Elizabeth Sibley in Europe on May 11, 1865: “Bella is as much interested in her school as ever, and not quite so crazy, I hope.”2 Emily Sibley Watson’s older sister Louise Sibley Atkinson wrote to her mother a few months earlier on January 3, 1865:  ”Bell" is the strangest child I ever saw and I think more and more difficult to manage.” Pity the little girl in the 1860s with a passion for school and an inquisitive temperament!3

According to her obituary, she was educated at Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Back in Rochester, she was active in a number of philanthropic projects and organizations, including the Young Women’s branch of the Women’s Christian Association, the Ladies Art Exchange (corresponding secretary), and the Industrial School. Following her marriage to Granger A. Hollister on June 23, 1886 in St. Luke’s Church, she moved away from the downtown neighborhood to 375/987 East Avenue. A few years later, Isabelle’s sister Bess (Elizabeth Chapman Watson) and their mother followed them to the fashionable part of town, moving next door soon after the death of patriarch Don Alonzo Watson.

In the 17 years between Isabelle’s marriage and death, she dedicated herself to many philanthropic causes, in particular the Homeopathic Hospital (later Genesee Hospital) and St. James the Greater Episcopal Church. She was the first treasurer of the hospital’s board of supervisors. As well, she was a generous donor, supporting the ongoing operation of the hospital and its care of indigent patients. She furnished eleven rooms of the Hollister ward and contributed to their maintenance. In 1901, she provided the resources to build a cottage on the hospital grounds for the superintendent’s residence. Charities that supported children, young men and young women were also the beneficiaries of her generosity: the Rochester Orphan Asylum, the Y.M.C.A., the University of Rochester, the Exchange Street Industrial School, the Episcopal Church Home, Mechanics Institute, Kindergarten Association, Infants Summer Hospital, Boarding Home for Working Girls (an arm of the Woman’s Christian Association), Rochester Homeopathic Hospital Training School for Nurses, and the Y.W.C.A.

At St. James church, the mission church of St. Paul’s, she taught a Sunday school class and assisted the service organization “The King’s Daughters.” It was said in the church history that the “great friendship shown us by Mrs. Isabella Watson Hollister” could not be forgotten as [she] was always ready and willing to do anything possible for the King’s Daughters of St. James’s Church.”4 Three years following her 1903 death, a chancel window designed by Rochester artist George Haushalter was dedicated to her memory, presented on December 9, 1906 by her husband and sister, the second Mrs. Granger Hollister.5  Her obituary described her Sunday school class for girls: “She had rare power as a teacher and the girls soon felt the stimulating force of her mind upon theirs. They gathered about her to question, to study, to think, and they loved her with a devotion that years have no power to chill. She never forgot her girls, helped them in misfortune, rejoiced with them in joy and never failed them in any difficulty.”

The few letters that exist from her mother describe a close knit family, apparent as Belle is rarely mentioned without a mention of her sister, Bess. Caroline Watson wrote to Emily Sibley Watson on June 25, 1897, “The great event of the week has been celebrating Belle & Granger's eleventh anniversary on Wed. by a picnic in the ‘big woods’…Belle had some pretty presents (Bess and I gave her a painting by Richards a view off the coast of Guernsey) and John Warner played the wedding march on the organ and Belle & G[ranger] marched around the house to it - We had a drive of 12 miles and found an ideal spot in which to have our luncheon which was quite elaborate and worthy of the occasion and as it was quite late before coffee was made and everything ready, our appetites were keen - We had a very jolly time and then Beka and Bertha produced an Ode written for the occasion… - then followed charades, all impromptu but so good by Bess and Bertha and the Warner boys afterwards. It was the merriest, pleasantest time imaginable, and we all wished you and James were there with Sibley and Miss Jones…”6

In December 1901, the Hollisters and sister Bess Watson took the social reformer Mrs. W. A. Montgomery (Helen Montgomery) with them on a trip through the Mediterranean.7 They planned to visit Egypt and make the trip up the Nile, visiting Constantinople, Athens and points of interest in the Holy Land.8 One of the party fell ill and was quarantined for four weeks “in an isolated villa near Athens,” and Isabelle used that time to read the Gospel of John in the original Greek. She was able to do this as she “took up the study of New Testament Greek with characteristic thoroughness” in the months of mourning following her mother’s death.

In addition to learning Greek, she had a keen intellectual curiosity: “Her mind was of unusual vigor and acuteness. Study was always an exhilaration and delight to her. The best books of the most substantial sort were read with eager interest and discussed with keen intelligence. For years she maintained the custom of systematic daily reading on some special topic of study. No day was so busy that she would not find time in it for at least a half hour with the books she loved; the great poets, the masters of science and discovery, works in philosophy and sociology.” Some of her philanthropic efforts were directed toward educational reform and efforts on behalf of higher education for women at the University of Rochester.9 Her relationship with Helen Barrett Montgomery, who was a powerful advocate for women’s rights, suggests that she may have been sympathetic to the suffragist cause, as does a February 16, 1897 letter written by Isabelle’s mother Caroline Watson to Emily Sibley Watson in Algiers, which stated “last evening Belle & Bess with Granger went to Miss Anthony’s reception which was a great success & which they quite enjoyed, though hardly expecting to…”. The reception honored Miss Anthony’s 77th birthday, held at Powers Hall.10 

One of the greatest (in the context of its time) compliments paid twice to her in her obituary was likening her abilities to those of men. The description of her bookkeeping skill on behalf of the hospital is that of a meticulous worker who took a professional pride in her record keeping: “Mrs. Hollister’s practical business ability and good judgment were recognized by all who came into contact with her. Her grasp of detail, system and accuracy made her an ideal treasurer for the Homeopathic Hospital, which office she held from the organization of the hospital until her death. The same sort of daily drudgery over detail that a man gives to his business she gave to the business of the hospital. Daily visits, numberless committee meetings, the actual keeping of the treasurer’s books, the writing of many letters of acknowledgment to donors to the hospital, and a hundred other services were performed with a lavish disregard of personal ease and comfort.”

More research may yet turn up letters and papers related to this gifted woman who died so young. Isabelle Watson Hollister was a supporter of education for women, a career woman in all but salary, and a woman who sought to expand her intellectual horizons throughout her life.

1Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from Isabelle Watson Hollister’s obituary in the Democrat & Chronicle. “Mrs. Granger Hollister,” Democrat & Chronicle, April 29, 1903, page 11,

2Letter, Caroline Watson to Elizabeth Sibley, May 11, 1865, D.226 11:31. University of Rochester Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

3Letter, Louise Sibley Atkinson to Elizabeth Sibley, January 3, 1865, D.226 11:15. University of Rochester Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation.

4 William S. Beard, compiler, The Church of St. James the Greater, Episcopal: Fifty Years of History 1874-1924, (July 1924), pp. 26, 39,

5 Isabelle Hollister died of heart disease at age 44; three years later, on May 22, 1906, Granger Hollister married Belle’s younger sister, Elizabeth (Bess) Hollister.

6Letter, Caroline Watson to Emily Sibley Watson, June 25, 1897, Moving Image Stills Archive, George Eastman Museum, Box C524 Letters to Emily (4/10/1865-12/20/1900).

7 Helen Barrett Montgomery [1861-1934] was one of the leading women of Rochester in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She was the first woman elected to the Board of Education in (1899), and the first woman elected to any office in Rochester. Along with Susan B. Anthony, she was instrumental in founding the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Rochester in 1893. Also with Susan B. Anthony, she led women in the city to raise funds for admission of women students to the University of Rochester.

8”Sails for Europe Today,” Democrat & Chronicle, Dec. 10, 1901, p. 10,

9 “Educational Reform: Members of the Committee Appointed,” Democrat & Chronicle, March 29, 1890, page 5,; "Good Showing for Coeducation," Democrat & Chronicle, June 17, 1899, p. 10,

10 Letter, Caroline Watson to Emily Sibley Watson, February 16, 1897, Box C348 Letters to Mrs. James S. Watson 1/1/1897-2/21/1897, Moving Image Stills Archive, George Eastman Museum;  “An Ovation to Susan B. Anthony,” February 16, 1897, Democrat & Chronicle, page 14,