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Maritimes: Catholic history: part III.

Today Prince Edward Island's people are divided equally as far as the Catholic and Protestant populations are concerned. Within the Catholic segment are the Acadians, who make up twelve percent of the provincial total. Most of the Islanders continue to depend upon the soil and the sea for a livelihood.

Currently in New Brunswick, the Acadians form approximately one-third of that province's population. Following the American War of Independence, United Empire Loyalists amalgamated with the already settled Protestant factions, swinging the balance away from any Catholic majority. In addition to good farmland in the St. John River Valley, New Brunswick's abundant forests supplied a lumber industry that supported many people.

Across the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia, with mining, agriculture and industry, has a population that is thirty-seven percent Catholic, of whom eight percent are Acadian, and among whom only three and a half percent are French-speaking.

The Scots in the Maritimes

One of the largest ethnic groups in the Maritimes is the Scots, originating primarily from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They brought with them a rich oral culture in the Gaelic tongue, a passion for ghost stories and folklore, and a strong adherence to religious principles. Most were dispossessed tenant farmers whose clannish instincts caused them to move en masse.

The beginnings in 1773

Scottish immigration of some consequence really began when the Hector dropped anchor at Pictou in 1773. Having undergone an arduous crossing of the Atlantic, during which eighteen children died, the Scots Highlanders were dismayed to see trees crowding down to the edge of the water and approximately sixteen families, who had arrived in 1767 with the Philadelphia Company, housed in crude shelters. Seventy-eight of the Hector passengers remained in Pictou and, enduring great hardships and hunger, ensured the settlement of the area. They were joined by a second body of settlers in 1783-84, comprised primarily of disbanded soldiers whose Highland regiments had been on garrison duty in Halifax or Quebec or had been fighting in the American colonies. Included in this group were a number of Catholic Highlanders, many of whom later moved to Antigonish.

The next large contingent of settlers emigrated from the Western Isles of Scotland. This group of Catholics disembarked from the ship Dunkeld at Pictou, in 1791, where by this time Presbyterianism was well established. They were practically destitute, and the inhabitants of Pictou, themselves in dire straits, could provide meagre help. Consequently an appeal for aid was made to the colonial government. Reverend James MacGregor, the Presbyterian minister, requested his followers to treat the Catholic newcomers with courtesy. Nonetheless he was distressed by their actions and concerned about the impact they might have on his flock:

Much of their time was spent in naughty diversions, jestings which are not convenient nor decent, in telling extravagant stories of miracles done by priests, and absurd tales about ghosts, witches, fairies, etc. The minds of the Protestant Highlanders, being partly tinctured with these superstitions before the arrival of the Roman Catholics, were less prepared to resist their influence than the minds of more reasoning and sceptical Christians.

At the prompting of Father A. MacEachern, however, many of these Catholics moved eastward to Antigonish and Cape Breton.

More immigration in 1801

In 1801 and 1802 other large groups of Catholic Highlanders arrived, many of whom joined their co-religionists in the Antigonish area. Three hundred and seventy left from the Scottish island of Barra, where they were accustomed to the fisheries. At their request, they were located "on Pictou Island and the shores opposite, for the convenience of carrying on the herring and other shore fisheries, with which that coast abounds". While some of the Catholic Highlanders were involved in the fisheries, others engaged in shipbuilding, small manufacture and merchandising. Most, however, were uninterested in commercial activity, seeking rather to obtain land.

Lord Selkirk, who aided in the immigration of 2000 destitute Scots, observed that they tended to make money in the summer months and then waste it during winter in idleness and drink. A few took to farming, but these Scots, because they were Catholics, were not well received by the resident Methodists and the New Light People. Moreover, they did not speak English and, to make matters worse, the Gaelic differed in pronunciation, word order and meaning from area to area and with that spoken by the Irish. Consequently, conversation was slow, but most itinerant priests were able to accommodate and hear confessions in either the Irish or Scots Gaelic. Nevertheless, in a sizeable sector of the Maritimes, Gaelic was the language commonly heard in homes and on the streets of many villages and towns.

Catholic Highland Scots settlements centred more particularly in the eastern portion of the Maritimes, in Antigonish, Prince Edward Island, and along the west shore of Cape Breton. While priests accompanied the later waves of immigration, their numbers were insufficient to serve the needs of the scattered Catholic populations. As a responsive measure, the Bishop of Quebec issued commissions to laymen to perform marriages and baptisms. The Scots were poor and unable to afford either altar cloths or albs, and it was said that only a Scots priest would consent to say Mass under those conditions.

While the fervour of their faith might have been great, the Highlanders suffered a loss of religious attention. Beginning with a small log chapel, the first Catholic parish was established in 1793 at Arisaig. Considering that its first pastor, Father James MacDonald, had also to serve Pictou and the western part of Cape Breton, it is not surprising that he succumbed to such a heavy load and died in 1807. Two other Scots priests took up the burden, covering Prince Edward Island, the Gulf Shore and Cape Breton. These men, like other Catholic clergy in Scotland, had been educated for the priesthood at either the Scots College in Paris or at the Royal Scots College in Valladolid, Spain. To compensate for the lack of Gaelic-speaking priests, a number of young men from Prince Edward Island and eastern Nova Scotia were sent to study for the priesthood in Quebec, but only two were ordained.

Bishop Plessis of Quebec

Bishop Plessis of Quebec, under whose jurisdiction the Maritimes remained until 1817, made two pastoral visits, in 1812 and 1815, when he learned how much deprived of spiritual needs were his Gaelic-speaking flock. He was disturbed by the lack of church furnishings in Prince Edward Island. One church had no missal, another used a tin cup for a chalice. At St. Andrew's, dogs were running loose in the church. Moreover, the Scots women wore dresses with plunging necklines. What shocked him most was a custom of the Scots falling to the floor and crawling to the altar rail during the distribution of communion. In his opinion, things were never quite as bad in Upper Canada. On the other hand, the Acadians in Cape Breton beautified their churches.

Bishop Plessis appointed Father Remi Gaulin, who would later became the Bishop of Kingston in Upper Canada, as first pastor to St. Ninian's in Antigonish in 1815. Father Gaulin, who also ministered in Margaree and Cheticamp in Inverness County, was disturbed by the behaviour of his young Scots charges:

I take the liberty earnestly to beseech your Lordship to issue a special mandate against drinking on Sundays and at funerals, and regulating the weddings, which are among the Scotch, as scandalous as their funerals, and specifying the public penances to be imposed upon the transgressors. Your Lordship may rest assured that nothing less can put a stop to evils at which even Protestants are shocked.

Father Gaulin was hindered by a lack of Gaelic, but it seems he expressed the same complaints about his young French-speaking Acadian charges. In the next decade, Bishop Angus MacEachern, whose missionary service was more extensive than that of any other of the pioneer priests, reported:

The Catholics of these counties are well attached to their Religion. And Govt. is vastly kind to us. The Acadian French, in the Gulf, are the most correct Christians in these parts. Our Highlanders are staunch Catholics.

And what of these staunch Catholics? The Highlanders carried with them their old hatreds, particularly toward the Campbells who, they believed, raised their status by trickery and deception and placing obstacles in the path of other freehearted clans like the MacDonalds, MacLeans and MacGregors. They also brought with them a rich heritage of household arts, games, dances, music and unwritten literature. A favourite Gaelic proverb, thig crioch air an t-sao-ghas, is interpreted as "An end will come to the world, but music and love will endure". However, just as few books were printed in Gaelic so that oral literature was left unwritten, so too Highland music was entirely unrecorded. Songs accompanied work. For example, the women sang a milling frolic as they beat woven cloth to raise its nap. But songs did not spring only from folk memory; many were composed in the Maritimes. The bagpipes were the instrument of the Highlands, and pipers were among the early settlers. They were considered suitable and, indeed, almost indispensable at any occasion of celebration, or rite of passage. And the pipers' skills were graced by those of the fiddlers.

The coming of the Irish

British imperial policy not only promoted Scottish immigration, but it also caused that of the Irish. Among the first settlers in Nova Scotia were a group of Irish Catholic soldiers serving under the command of a Colonel T. Hierlihy, himself not a Catholic. After the evacuation of New York, the regiment was sent to Halifax and then to Prince Edward Island. Hierlihy and his soldiers were given a sizeable grant of land on both sides of Antigonish Harbour. As veterans, they received considerable government assistance in setting up their homesteads.

Included in the passenger lists of Scottish Catholic immigrants were a number of Irish during the period of intense emigration from 1815 to 1821. By the late 1820s, the Nova Scotia government discouraged immigration because it was unprepared to cope with the destitute and diseased condition of arriving passengers, particularly the Irish. Consequently, many of the new Irish arrivals moved on to the United States. And this pattern of movement to urban centres that could better support them, particularly to Halifax, continued. While some were able to lead comfortable lives, many of them worked under wretched conditions, and lived hungry in substandard homes. Disaster needed no explanation and was accepted without complaint, most likely because of the treatment they had endured in Ireland under the British. They were not, however, much better received in the new world. Richard John Uniacke, Attorney General for Nova Scotia, said:

The Irish immigrant, before he comes out, knows not what it is to be in a bed, he has not been accustomed to a bed; if you put him in a bed and give him pork and flour, you make the mon (sic) sick.

The Irish outnumbered the United Empire Loyalists, who by the 1830s dominated the social and political life of the colonies. But the Irish, like the Scots, never received the assistance the Loyalists got. Pushed to the periphery, they were noted for drunkenness, rowdyism and crime. Generally speaking, they were pessimistic; having lost faith in any temporal improvement, they sought consolation in their religion.

In extending its hegemony the British Government was often rather cruel in its treatment of the populations in Ireland and Scotland. While Ireland had been an English colony for centuries and suffered subjugation, the Highland Scots, many of them Catholic, faced banishment in the `clearances', beginning in the late eighteenth century when men were replaced by sheep for economic gain. Similarly, the Acadians had been removed from the Maritimes by the British between 1755 and 1757. But by 1800, the Acadians were found again, chiefly in three locations: along the upper St. John River and the east coast of New Brunswick, and in Prince Edward Island where they comprised half the island's population.

Catholics and the State

At the political level there had been a number of events that affected the participation of Catholics in the social sphere. In 1757, the Nova Scotia Council declared that no `popish recusant' could vote in the approaching elections. With the repeal of the Penal Laws in 1784, Roman Catholicism was accepted as a legal, viable religion, so Scots, Irish, Acadians and Micmac Catholics could worship God in their own rite. After the repeal of the Penal Laws, emancipation of Catholics would follow. By 1789, they were allowed to vote in Nova Scotia but not until 1810 in New Brunswick.

Although allowed to vote, Catholics were excluded from public office because of The Test Act, which was passed in 1673 and in force in Great Britain till 1829. This Act required holders of public office under the crown to make the `Declaration against Transubstantiation' and to receive the Eucharist according to the usage of the Church of England. Encouraged by the disvowal of the Tests and Corporation Act, the Nova Scotia legislature passed an act to abolish all remaining disabilities. This, however, was nullified when Catholic emancipation was accepted in Great Britain and extended to the whole empire in 1829. And while improvements in the political status of Catholics occurred in the Maritimes, they were often countered by a bitter resurgence of anti-papal sentiment.

The institutional Church in the vast area was weak, and it had to struggle to meet the spiritual needs of a laity that was dispersed over large areas and divided along ethnic and linguistic lines. What a momentous occasion it must have been when Bishop Pierre Denaut made a pastoral visit in 1803, the first since that conducted by Bishop Jean Baptiste de Saint-Vallier of Quebec in 1695! The purpose of the trip was to confirm the members of the laity, and hundreds received the sacrament in Cape Breton, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. At Arichat alone, one thousand and sixty-two were confirmed, almost the entire population.

Civil recognition

Since the time of the conquest, Catholic Church officials in Quebec had been in a precarious position, as the Church of England sought to establish itself in Lower Canada. Bishop Plessis, who succeeded Denaut, proved to be an astute statesman. In recognition for loyalty to the King, particularly during the War of 1812, Plessis received civil and legal recognition to his title from the imperial government, paving the way for the division of the Diocese of Quebec. During 1815, the year in which Plessis made his second pastoral visit to the Maritimes, he wrote Propaganda in Rome concerning the division. Two years later, Rome named Edmund Burke Vicar Apostolic of Nova Scotia (excluding Cape Breton). The fact that Burke made an independent visit to Rome to report the Church's depressed condition in the Atlantic provinces and to request approval for his appointment as Vicar Apostolic displeased Plessis. Nonetheless, Burke was consecrated by Plessis in Quebec in 1818. Meanwhile Plessis interceded with Rome and the British government to obtain another suffragan and vicar apostolic for the rest of the Maritimes. In 1819, Angus MacEachern was made suffragan to Plessis, with jurisdiction over Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Two years later he was consecrated by Plessis to the missionary episcopacy to rule Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton.

While these arrangements should have strengthened the Church, they failed to do so initially because of Scots-Irish ethnic clashes. When Bishop Burke died in 1820, the administration of his district fell to his nephew, Father John Carroll, a twentytwo-year-old who had been ordained for only six months, because Burke's coadjutor refused to serve. The seminary was dissolved and church building in Halifax halted. Funds ran out and the older Irish priests resented Carroll's authority. The arrival from Scotland to Antigonish in 1822 of some three hundred Highlanders with the Gaelic-speaking Father William Fraser prompted a local "revolt" of Scots against their Irish priest.

Bishop MacEachern became Father Fraser's patron and as a consequence Fraser was appointed Burke's successor in Nova Scotia and consecrated some six and a half years after the latter's death. Bishop Fraser, however, refused to live among the Irish Catholics in Halifax, preferring the company of his fellow Scots in Antigonish; he left an Irish vicar general to administer in Halifax. In 1842, Fraser was made titular bishop of Halifax and an Irishman, William Walsh, his coadjutor. The two men were not on speaking terms, and trouble was avoided only in 1844 by transferring Fraser to the new bishopric in Arichat, which encompassed Antigonish and Cape Breton, and making Walsh Bishop of Halifax. St Thus the Scottish and Irish elements were split.

In the same period New Brunswick was separated from Prince Edward Island. Bishop Bernard Donald McDonald, a native of the Island, who had succeeded MacEachern in 1837, continued as bishop there, while an Irishman, William Dollard, became the first bishop of New Brunswick.

By 1850, a large, loyal and devout Catholic population was well established in the Maritimes. Economic stability because of timber, fish and agricultural trade supported the rapid expansion of educational institutions and church buildings. The people benefited from the founding of St. Mary's College in Halifax, ironically by Bishop Fraser who had refused to live there. The opening of a seminary at Arichat by a native Nova Scotian, Bishop Colin Francis Mackinnon, provided the priests needed for the whole of the Maritimes. It was chartered in 1866 as St. Francis Xavier University; located in Antigonish, it sponsored the Antigonish Movement that was to gain renown in the twentieth century.

Acknowledging the need to recognize the Acadians' identity, the Church created a second diocese in New Brunswick, that of Chatham. The foundation of a petit seminaire later evolved into St. Joseph's College, which stimulated the revival of Acadian culture. Consequently the Catholic fabric woven into the Maritimes was a blend of Scots, Irish and Acadians.
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Author:Murray Nicolson
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Mar 1, 1996
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