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Saint Mary's University: the Catholic years, 1838-1971.

Saint Mary's University, an institution of more than 8,000 graduates and undergraduates, located in the south end of Halifax, appears Roman Catholic, even Jesuit. Its name sounds Catholic and the main building, named after Archbishop Thomas McNally, holds its crosses high. The chancellor is the Jesuit Archbishop of Halifax, the chaplaincy run by a young Jesuit, Father Con Mulvihill, and there is a fairly well-attended university mass Sunday night in Canadian Martyrs, the Jesuit parish located on the edge of the campus. Still, Saint Mary's is a modern secular university with an Anglican president and a student body that is mostly indifferent to, and ignorant of, the goals for which it was founded.

According to Lawrence Shook, Catholic colleges usually were founded as an adjunct to the local seminaries. They would not likely to have been started for the seminaries alone, but students who were not entering the priesthood were still wanted. In Halifax, Bishop Edmund Burke, with great difficulty, managed to operate a seminary in Saint Peter's Glebe House between 1818 and 1820. The latter year, both he and the seminary died. Burke's seminary, conceived against a residue of the Penal Laws, had five ordinates largely moulded at Quebec and polished in Halifax. The school never developed a college and formal higher education for Catholic men, religious or otherwise, disappeared for a generation. Burke's only educational legacy was boys' and girls' schools, which provided elementary education and thus secured government support.

Then in the late 1830s, the Nova Scotia government became willing to support higher education denominationally. In fact, they produced too many little colleges. On the other hand, this enabled a broadening of higher education outside the narrow confines of King's College, with its obligatory assent for the 39 articles. The Baptists quickly established Acadia in Wolfville (1838). Two years later, the Methodists established Mount Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick, while religiously indifferent Dalhousie (1818), tried and failed again to get off the ground.

St. Mary's starts up

Now it was the Catholics' turn. In the generation since Burke's death, Catholic Halifax had made considerable progress. His cathedral had been finished (1829), and its patron saint was now Mary, not Peter. Also, the middle class had expanded considerably. In 1838, led by barrister Laurence O' Connor Doyle, Halifax Catholics petitioned Archbishop Murray of Dublin for priests for a seminary/college. The Nova Scotian, of 7 August 1839, reports Reverend Doctor Richard Baptist O'Brien of Maynooth Seminary was charged with the government of the college, and Reverend Laurence Dease, a priest of nine years' standing, would accompany him to Halifax.

Richard Baptist O'Brien's name still resonates. Born in Limerick, he had a distinguished career at Maynooth, before becoming the first president of Saint Mary's and one of those who obtained its charter on March 29, 1841. Then, unlike subsequent college presidents, O'Brien kept the little college in the news. He was a leader of the local Repeal Association and an intellectual, lecturing to the Mechanics' Institute and the Literary Association. His recall to Dublin in 1845 was a major blow for Halifax. Both Catholics and Protestants poured out their affection and grief. Years later, his career in Ireland still made the local pages. Also, after O'Brien's departure, Saint Mary's virtually disappeared from the public press, one paper complaining that there was no news at all. Saint Mary's lived very quietly, receiving government support like the other little colleges while listing its graduates in the local, and short-lived, Catholic papers.

The years of struggle

Then, in 1863, with the help of the Presbyterians, Dalhousie finally got off the ground. After that it was up and away with the newest college, while Saint Mary's stagnated until 1868 when Archbishop Thomas Connolly (1859-1876) brought the Brothers of the Christian Schools from Montreal. This enabled him to open Saint Mary's first campus, Bell Aire, in the rapidly filling fields of North End Halifax Unfortunately, eight years later the Christian Brothers left abruptly and Belle Aire was lost. An unsatisfactory building on Grafton Street, next to the Basilica, was obtained by Connolly's successor, Michael Hannon (1877-1882), while Saint Mary's struggled on.

Simultaneously, the duplication of too many colleges led the government in 1876 to establish the University of Halifax, modeled after the University of London. They invited Saint Mary's, Acadia, Mount Allison and Saint Francis Xavier (1853) to join Dalhousie and the Halifax Medical College in the formation. Funding to all colleges would be increased for five years, then end completely if there was no union. Unfortunately, the idea was both bold and naive. The University of London had been formed because of Oxford's and Cambridge's exclusive degree-granting powers. London attracted candidates from many small institutions, including the Jesuit College at Stoneyhurst, after receiving the right to grant degrees. Also, there were many professors available in England and a large and sophisticated student body. In Nova Scotia, on the other hand, all colleges had degree-granting powers, but there were neither that many good professors, nor enough sophisticated students.

The result of Saint Mary's reluctance, and that of the other little colleges, to prepare students for the examinations of the The east wing view of University of Halifax and to surrender their degree-granting powers led to the burying of the University of Halifax and the cancellation, in 1881, of all government grants for almost eighty years.

This withdrawal of funding presented an immediate crisis for the new Archbishop of Halifax, Rev. Dr. Cornelius O'Brien (1883-1906). Born in Prince Edward Island, this O'Brien was a first-place graduate of the Urban College, member of the Royal Society of Canada, and author of 39 books. Also, if ever there was a building bishop, this was he.

The other Catholic college in Nova Scotia, Saint Francis Xavier, had survived because it had a high school that still received government funding and an alumni association. Unfortunately, Saint Mary's had neither. On the other hand, Saint Mary's had a chance at the Patrick Power estate. This Halifax merchant died on December 23, 1881. The bulk of his money would go to Saint Mary's, if the Jesuits ran the school. O'Brien seemed sure he could get them, but they would not come, probably because of his close association with Bishop Peter McIntyre of Charlottetown, who had a had a short and very unhappy relation with the Jesuits running Saint Dunstan's College a few years before.

Meanwhile, O'Brien kept Saint Mary's alive through the great sacrifices of Father Richard Kearns, the young rector. Unfortunately, Kearns seems to have worked himself to death and his ill health and death led the archbishop to finally close both the college and seminary in 1883.

The college rises again

As the years passed, and no college appeared, O'Brien did what he could to give his boys an education. He established a private high school (1888-1898) and opened a new diocesan seminary, Holy Heart (1896), on a tract of land he had bought in central Halifax. By this time, he had also provided the Acadians with their own college, Sainte Anne, at Church Point, Nova Scotia.

Since the Power executors interpreted the will literally and O'Brien still felt it was necessary to reopen Saint Mary's, he proposed a "friendly," test in the courts. The Archbishop won the first two tests, but two of the executors still disagreed. The case went to the Supreme Court of Canada which rendered an adverse decision in 1903, just before O'Brien reopened Saint Mary's College next to Holy Heart Seminary, (Sept. 21). Because too many locals pooh-poohed the idea of a worthwhile local college, the bishop had to almost drain his bank account and personally supervise much of the construction. Despite little money, Saint Mary's had an outstanding Anglo-Irish staff, including a priest from the seminary, and a parish priest as chancellor and registrar. O'Brien's death on 9 March 1906 led to a slow substitution of parish priests and brought an end to this pioneer stage. Still, Saint Mary's College produced at least one outstanding graduate, Rev. Doctor Gerald Phelan, whom Halifax permanently loaned to Toronto where he became a very important figure at Saint Michael's College.

O'Brien's successor, Right Rev. Dr. Edward McCarthy (1906-1931), a Saint Mary's College graduate of half a century earlier and rector of Saint Mary's Cathedral, succeeded where his predecessor failed. McCarthy got the Irish Christian Brothers to run Saint Mary's and the executors of the Power Estate finally released the money. The Rice Brothers were able to make an agreement with the Nova Scotia Technical College to admit Saint Mary's students after two years of pre-engineering. But they were not to get Dalhousie to admit the sophomores, unlike the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1905 and Mount Saint Vincent in 1914. Still, there were some very good Saint Mary's students who made it to Dalhousie on their own.

In 1922, another attempt was made to unify the five English Maritime colleges. The Carnegie Corporation offered three million dollars, if the institutions would move to Dalhousie's campus, offering the first two years only. The Christian Brothers were willing, but Bishop James Morrison of Antigonish was so opposed to sacrificing Saint Francis Xavier that he went to Rome and influenced the pope to ban the union. Therefore, the second attempt at rationalization ended only with the recently burned University of King's College moving to the Dalhousie campus and Saint Mary's continuing to have the Christian Brothers, but not getting a whole lot of respect.

The prelates after McCarthy found the contract with the Christian Brothers was too generous, as it made them virtually independent. Especially, this did not sit well with the authoritarian Archbishop, John T. McNally (1937-1952). In 1940, he obtained a Vatican decision against them. The Brothers immediately resigned and established a college in New Rochelle, New York. Their leaving was a sad day, for they had won the affection of Catholic Halifax.

McNally replaced them with the Jesuits, whom the locals, after a trial period, accepted. Not having succeeded in becoming Canada's first English-speaking cardinal, McNally compensated with another goal, a new Saint Mary's College. In 1943 he bought the southern portion of the Gorsebrook Golf Course in South End Halifax, and eight years later, opened the new campus in the great granite building that carries his name and dominates the upper-middle class housing to the west. Unfortunately, his construction left a large debt, which would be a factor in the de-Catholization of the college, now Saint Mary's University.

Then, in 1951 the entire plant at Mount Saint Vincent University burned and the nuns became willing to buy 10 acres of the Gorsebrook estate. This, the Jesuits torpedoed. They claimed the property was too small and, anyway, they did not want co-education.

Change and secularization

The 1960s were a time of great change, and Saint Mary's changed too. Through most of 1960s, it was still suit coat and tie in class and attendance at extra religious functions. Also, in 1963-64, the Archdiocese of Halifax pressured debt-free Mount Saint Vincent to unite with Saint Mary's, which was saddled with $250,000 interest per year by McNally. The terms, however, were such that the nuns felt they would be absorbed. A proposal to form a Catholic University of Halifax with Saint Mary's, the Mount, the Convent of the Sacred Heart and Holy Heart Seminary also came to nothing.

Meanwhile, it seemed the local hierarchy under Archbishop James Hayes had lost the will to maintain a Catholic education system. He allowed the abandonment of the separate school system during the 1970s, and in 1971, the archdiocese turned Saint Mary's over to a secular board. Among the goals of the new Saint Mary's was to maintain a Christian atmosphere, something it has had some success doing.

Over the last 30 years the last two Catholic presidents, Doctors Owen Carrigan and Kenneth Ozmon O.C., have come and gone. The faculty has a residue of Catholics, and there is still a university holiday on December 8, although, for many, it doesn't have a religious meaning. The alumni gatherings no longer list the Masses at Canadian Martyrs, although the reunions run through Sunday, not a very busy day. There is also a Saint Mary's Protestant students' group. On the other hand, the chaplaincy is still Catholic, the Department of Religion teaches Catholic history, and an outstanding Catholic historian, Dr. Terrence Murphy, is the academic vice president. Also, there are no condom dispensers in the washrooms ... yet. Meanwhile, the president, Doctor Colin Dodds, has formed a working relationship with the nearby Atlantic School of Theology. Saint Mary's offers academic courses toward their Bachelor of Theology. In essence, Saint Mary's has a Catholic residue and still officially favours religion, so perhaps not all is lost yet.


The Acadian Recorder, (Halifax), 1839-1844.

Beck, George, The English Catholics, 1880-1950. London, Burns Oates, 1950

Berard, Robert, "A Cardinal for English Speaking Canada, 1930-37." The Canadian Catholic Historical Association, 1997.

Cameron, James, "'For the People,' A history of Saint Francis Xavier College. Montreal, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996.

Corcoran, Sister Theresa, Mount Saint Vincent University, 1873-1989. Washington, DC Catholic University of America Press, 1999.

The Morning Chronicle, (Halifax), 1844-45.

Hannington, Brian, Every Popish Person." The Archdiocese of Halifax, 1604-1983, Halifax, Archdiocese of Halifax, 1984.

MacDonald, G. Edward, The History of Saint Dunstan's College, Charlottetown, Saint Dunstan's Board of Governors, 1989.

McGuigan, Peter, "The Convent of the Sacred Heart," Halifax, The Southender, February 2003.

McGuigan, Peter, "Holy Heart Seminary, 1896-1969," Halifax, The Southender, August 2003.

O'Brien, Cornelius, Memoirs of Right Reverend Edmund Burke, Ottawa, Thorburne, 1894.

Saint Mary's University Calendar, Halifax, Saint Mary's University, 2004.

Shook, Laurence, Catholic Post Secondary Education in English Speaking Canada, Toronto, U of T press, 1971.

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, Judgement A, Number 11959. October 31, 1902.

Waite, Peter, The Lives of Dalhonsie, Montreal, McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.

West, Anne, Saint Mary's University, an Anniversary Portrait, Halifax, Saint Mary's University, 2002.

Peter McGuigan has written widely on Canadian Church history. He lives in Halifax. His last contribution to Catholic Insight was on his uncle, Cardinal James McGuigan of Toronto, November, 2003.
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Author:McGuigan, Peter
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CNOV
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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