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Upper Canada and Bishop Alexander MacDonell: Catholic history pt4.

One of the most influential figures in the advancement of the Catholic Church in English-speaking Canada was Alexander Macdonell. As the first Catholic bishop of Upper Canada, he was a remarkable prelate, well qualified to administer a missionary diocese during the pioneer period of this province. A seemingly self-righteous and authoritative Highland Scot, Macdonell was to base the future of his Church and laity on his loyalty to the British crown, his alliance with the Upper Canada Tory faction, and a coterie of Catholic and Protestant "Compact" friends who held the reigns of power.

Alexander Macdonell was born in Scotland in 1762. Despite the penal laws the Macdonell clan members clung to their Catholicism.

Because of the Gordon Riots in 1780 and the renewal of anti-Catholic sentiment, primary Catholic education was non-existent in Scotland, and it seems likely that Macdonell received his early education at home. His parents sent him to the Scots College in Paris and then to the Scots College at Valladolid, Spain, where he was ordained to the priesthood in 1787.

When Father Macdonell returned to the Highlands, he went to Glasgow to seek employment for his laity in the factories. However, mindful of the Riots and fearful for the safety of their operations if Catholics were hired, factory owners were hesitant to employ the displaced highlanders.

For two years, Father Macdonell lived among his people in Glasgow. He said Mass and preached in English and Gaelic without fear of the anti-Catholic rabble or the courts, yet he was canny enough to post a guard at the door when he was involved in those activities. But with an economic depression in 1794 his highlanders were once again out of work. Many were forced to enlist in the British army to survive, but had to declare themselves Protestant before being accepted. In counteraction, Macdonell conceived the idea of forming highlanders into a single regiment wherein they could find employment, retain their religion and still show their loyalty.

At a meeting of Catholics at Fort Augusta in 1794, an address was made to King George III. Father Macdonell offered to raise a Catholic corps, the Glengarry Fencible Regiment, under the command of Macdonell of Glengarry, with himself as chaplain. London, at war with Napoleon, received the deputation and, contrary to the existing penal laws, Father Macdonell was gazetted chaplain in the first Catholic regiment raised since the Reformation. The regiment was dispatched first to the Isle of Guernsey, and in 1798 was sent to Ireland, during the rebellion there. Because of Father Macdonnell's presence among his soldiers, the excesses generally committed against the Irish peasantry by other regiments and the native Yeomanry Corps were prevented. Macdonell was appalled to find that most of the Catholic chapels of Wicklow, Carlow and Wexford had been turned into stables. Once they were cleaned and restored, he encouraged the return of clergy and congregation, "most of whom had been driven into the mountains and bogs."

Having served its purpose, the Glengarry Highlanders were disbanded in 1802. Father Macdonell attempted to gain some compensation for the service and conciliatory effort put forth by his men:

"They every where won golden opinions by their humane behaviour to the vanquished, which was in striking contrast with the floggings, burnings and hangings which formed the daily occupation of the rest of the military."

The Imperial Government offered some options in land settlements: one in Trinidad and another on the shores of Canada's Lake Superior. Macdonell rejected both. In his opinion the climate of Trinidad was unsuitable for men of his ilk, and the land around Lake Superior too barren for farming. The third offer was acceptable: to settle his highlanders in the Glengarry district of Upper Canada, with a grant of two hundred acres for every soldier in his regiment.

Scots in Upper Canada

Highland Scots had moved into Upper Canada after the American War of Independence. When the King's Royal Regiment of New York and the Royal Highland Emigrants were disbanded in 1784, the men were given lots along the St. Lawrence River and lake fronts. Another group of Catholic Scots from the Mohawk Valley settled in the western section of Glengarry and around St. Andrew's in Stormont between 1780 and 1784. In addition, the Rev. Alexander Macdonell of Scotus brought his parish from Scotland in 1786 to the area around St. Raphael in Glengarry. It was to this particular Highland Scottish enclave that Father Macdonell sent his clansmen in 1803, followed by a second wave in 1804.

Father Macdonell first contacted Bishop J.O. Plessis, coadjutor to Bishop Denault of Quebec, to advise him of his arrival, and then went to Longueuil, where he received from Bishop Denault the ecclesiastical authority to act as a priest in Upper Canada. With a glowing introduction, Macdonell proceeded to York (today Toronto) to secure the land grants promised his flock in Britain. While there he developed a close friendship with Lieutenant-General Hunter, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. From that period, Macdonell utilized his personal loyalty to win the support of succeeding Lieutenant-Governors of Upper Canada to gain advantages for himself, his clergy, teachers and flock.

When Father Macdonell arrived in Upper Canada, there were three Catholic churches and two priests: Father Fitzsimmons at St. Andrew's, who departed the province within a year, and the French-speaking Father Marchand at Sandwich, who served the French settlement around what is now Windsor. From the mission of St. Raphael in Glengarry, Macdonell visited the Catholics throughout the whole of Upper Canada, an expanse that ranged from the provincial line at Coteau du Lac to Lake Superior. He travelled through country without roads or bridges, on horseback, wagon, canoe or on foot, carrying the essentials for the mass.

Bishop of Kingston, 1826

In recognition of his singular missionary work, Macdonell was made Vicar General by Bishop Plessis in 1807. On 12 January 1819 he was appointed Bishop, and consecrated by Bishop Plessis on 31 December 1820.

The title gave him a certain stature in his relationship with the miliary establishment and the elite, as well as a hierarchal position exceeding that of the Anglican Archdeacon John Strachan of York. More significantly, it paved the way to his appointment as Bishop of Kingston when Upper Canada was made a single Diocese in 1826, independent of Quebec.

Macdonell was surrounded by a group of loyal and influential Highland Scottish Catholics. Among his friends were four prominent members of Clan Donald, which included the Cadet families of Abercholder, Collochie, Greenfield and Leek. Alexander Macdonell (Collochie) was a member of the Legislative Assembly and Council, a magistrate and Sheriff of the Home District. He was also a land speculator, a member of the Masonic Order, and holder of a pew for his wife in St. James Anglican Church in York. However, it was he along with others who founded the first Catholic church in York, St. Paul's.

Family influence

The group of tight-knit, wealthy Scots Catholics was of great assistance to Bishop Macdonell in obtaining land grants. Macdonell sat on the Legislative Council from 1831 until the time of his death, and in that position maintained constant contact with those families. Furthermore he could rely on the assistance of various members of the influential Baby family in York and in Windsor. One in particular was James Baby, an Executive and Legislative councillor, Lieutenant of the County of Kent, Judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and Inspector General of Accounts for Upper Canada. Macdonell could also count on the support of the Catholic faction of a well-established Loyalist family, the Jones. The interlocking marriage relationships of that family gave Macdonell leverage with the Protestant Compact families including the Sherwoods, Boultons, Elmsleys, Crawfords and MacNabs. Through friendship with the military elite, the governors, and well-placed men like John Galt, Macdonell achieved the material advancement of his Church, specifically in land grants and pensions.

Although differing on points of religion, Macdonell and the Anglican Bishop Strachan maintained excellent terms. As staunch Tories, both sat in Council. Competition was minimal. For example, Macdonell did not disagree with the concept of the Clergy Reserves which benefited the Anglicans; he just wanted a larger share in them.

Beyond what existed in 1804, Macdonell gained land and established missions in York, Niagara, Peterborough, Prescott, Bytown, Belleville, Kingston, Perth, Cobourg, Port Hope, Dundas, Guelph, St. Thomas, London and St. Catharines. He sent missionaries from main centres into the hinterland to make contact with isolated Catholic families. He established a seminary at St. Raphael's in Glengarry to educate priests and the sons of prosperous families, and in 1838 built Regiopolis College in Kingston. In 1830 he founded a diocesan newspaper, The Catholic, printed in Kingston, and later re-established with the same format and under the same name between 1841 to 1844 in Hamilton.

Changes in population

Meanwhile, the Catholic population began to change from Scottish Catholics in Glengarry and a detached French block at Sandwich to encompass a rapidly growing Irish element. By 1834 there were 52,428 Catholics; approximately 10,000 were Scots, 8,000 French and 34,000 Irish. The Scots remained dominant in Glengarry; the French, still dominant in Windsor, had also moved into Ottawa (Bytown) and Penetanguishene from Drummond Island; and the predominant Irish settled in the central area of Upper Canada. Ethnicity contributed to divisiveness.

Bishop Macdonell failed to divide his massive Diocese into local deaneries, to call a synod of priests or to establish church courts. It took years before he finally appointed a coadjutor, even though well-qualified and trained personnel were available. Instead he depended almost solely upon the force of his own personality and exclusive friends to maintain control.

Meanwhile his relationship with the growing Irish population became problematic. In Macdonell's evaluation they were lukewarm Catholics, semi-barbarous in comparison to his Catholic highlanders. But he could compliment them for their good points, even at the expense of his own kin: "As you and I know well the difference between the liberality of open-hearted Irish men and close-fisted Scotsmen."

His opinion of the Irish, however, was swayed somewhat by that of his episcopal superiors. Bishop Plessis called them the "scum of the population." Bishop Lartique labelled them an unwanted race, disloyal and radically anti-British (in a period when the French Church was seeking British accommodation).

Perhaps the disrespectful behaviour of some Irish towards Macdonell could be attributed to the fact that the bishop seemed to court the favour of the Orange Order, arch-enemy of Irish Catholics: "It is with no small gratification that I here acknowledge having received from Orangemen unequivocal and substantial proofs of disinterested friendship and generosity of heart" reads one of the Bishop's observation.

Because Macdonell had been so supportive of the conservative administration of 1836, the Orangemen cancelled their parade on 12 July, cheering him and toasting his patriotism. Observing what seemed to be Orange esteem towards their bishop and with the knowledge that he had served as chaplain in an occupying regiment in Ireland, Irish Catholics were uncertain where they stood in Macdonell's estimation.

Toronto and the Irish

What Bishop Macdonell failed to perceive was that York was the rising commercial centre of Upper Canada and merited more concentrated ecclesiastical attention. He mistakenly believed that the Rideau Canal would make Kingston the capital of the province and, therefore, chose it as his See. Besides, Kingston was a short distance from Glengarry where Macdonell kept his major residence, among his own people. He travelled to Toronto only on business or when Council met. It was not until two years after Macdonell's death that the church recognized the importance of Toronto and made it a separate diocese, divided from Kingston, in 1842.

Toronto was a focus for Irish Catholics. They settled on the waterfront, in Cabbage Town and in the liberties on the town's perimeters. Among that pre-famine group there arose a number of outspoken ethnic leaders like Francis Collins of the Canadian Freeman, and James King and Father William O'Grady of the Correspondent and Advocate who supported reform politics. To quell them Bishop Macdonell threatened to excommunicate Collins for attacking the Compact, and later on did excommunicate James King and suspended Father O'Grady for stirring revolt.

As Upper Canada approached political rebellion by the 1830s, the vast Diocese of Kingston was also in a state of unrest. As Bishop of Kingston, Macdonell's span of control was too large to be effective; changes were required or authority over priests and laity would be eroded.


Irish Catholics in the Gore of Toronto refused to support the clergy; Macdonell responded by withdrawing the sacraments from the congregation. In Penetanguishene, the church wardens refused to pay the priest's salary, forcing him to beg among the people. Defying Macdonell's endorsement of Tory politics and cry for loyalty, many priests looked upon William Lyon Mackenzie as the Daniel O'Connell of Upper Canada. Even in Kingston, Macdonell's own See, the Irish demanded that church land be registered in the name of the laity and not in that of an episcopal land speculator. That problem was not settled until 1845 when the Church was granted the right to act as a corporation.

Responding to what he perceived as a lack of trust among the laity, Macdonell instructed priests to say Mass at inconvenient times until the people came to their senses. Irish priests in Bytown incited the various factions in the Church to the extent that Governor Sir John Colborne directed Bishop Macdonell to replace the priests with his Vicar General, W.P. Macdonald. In Niagara, the Irish petitioned for the removal of the priest because of a diminishing congregation; only half the pews were filled and the remaining adherents refused to make up the difference in salary the priest required for survival.

With such overt statements on the part of Catholics in Kingston, Bytown, Penetanguishene and Niagara, it was obvious that the church was in disarray and that some decisive action was needed. Early in 1831 the bishop thought of holding a meeting of all the clergy, but there is no evidence the meeting was ever held.

Perhaps the ensuing events of 1831 prohibited it from taking place.

The congregation in Sandwich had become bitterly divided along political, educational and ethnic lines. The French priests Fathers J. Crevier and Fluet were deeply involved in the disputes and were criticized by the minority English-speaking Irish and Scottish laity, as well as by some of the more conservative French. Then the parish priest, Father Crevier, was accused of disposing of [pounds sterling]2000 New York currency. He refused to answer questions addressed to him, so Bishop Macdonell sent from York his newly appointed Vicar-General, William O'Grady, to audit the books. Crevier had falsified the records, but he surrounded himself with a group of French supporters. When O'Grady suspended both Fathers Crevier and Fluet and placed the church in Sandwich under interdict, Crevier appealed over the head of Bishop Macdonell to the Bishop of Quebec who, in return, espoused Crevier's cause. O'Grady, who by this time had returned to York, was made to look the fool. Father Fluet left the Church and became a Protestant; Crevier, without any stigma, became Bishop Macdonell's secretary at York. But Fr. O'Grady was made the scapegoat, with Bishop Macdonell denying him the editorship of The Catholic, which was given to the bishop's friend, W.P. Macdonald.

The events in Sandwich were but a prelude to the occurrences in York. Originally, Father William O'Grady had left Ireland and travelled as chaplain with a regiment assigned to settle in Brazil. But the venture failed and O'Grady emigrated instead to York in 1828. After checking O'Grady's testimonials, Bishop Macdonell placed him at St. Paul's in charge of the Mission at York, replacing Father Angus Macdonell, the bishop's nephew. Father O'Grady achieved some success in organizing what had been a neglected mission, for according to the exemplary mission priest, Father Edward Gordon,

"He appears to be activated by no other motive than that of advancing the interest of Holy Religion, it is truly edifying to see the number that go to the Sacraments, not only the poor (Irish) but the most respectable heads of families are frequently seen at the Holy Communion. He has commenced, a few Sundays past, a series of sermons stressing the marks of the True Church, the most part of the Protestants of York go to hear him.

Initially, Father O'Grady used Bishop Macdonell's methods to extend the influence of the church in the Home District. His visitations covered not only the town of York but also the surrounding townships where he established Sunday schools and building committees to collect funds for churches. From Sir John Colborne he obtained in York a lot worth [pounds sterling]1000 for a school and the promise of ten additional acres. Convinced of the importance of York, O'Grady tried to influence the bishop to make it a Catholic centre. Because Kingston was far away and St. Raphael's further, Father O'Grady asked him to reside part of the year "at York where certainly the sphere of your Lordship's utility must be considerably enlarged."

In trying to create a strong Catholic laity in York, O'Grady's popularity with the Irish increased. But it declined with the Compact elite. Father O'Grady's demands for compliance with Church law in the practice of religion, rigid opposition to membership in the Masonic Order, and the raising of sons Protestant by prior arrangement in mixed marriages, rankled the elite Catholics, who accused him of going beyond his jurisdiction. Because O'Grady was alienating the Tory Compact group in the Church and had caused problems with the Bishop of Quebec in handling the Crevier case, Macdonell sought to remove him, even though he was held in fearfully high esteem by the Irish. The bishop found what he needed in an article published by the radical journalist Francis Collins. The latter, who had been under threat of excommunication by Bishop Macdonell for his attack on the ruling Compact elite, hated O'Grady because of a rebuke concerning the practice of his religion. So in the Canadian Freeman Collins cast aspersions on O'Grady's character, implying an adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law:

(O'Grady) became pompous, got a gig and a sleigh, and drove the lady who accompanied him from Rio through town and country, by night and by day, using his brother as a coachman.

That unproven and slanderous accusation caused a break between the bishop and O'Grady which ended with the suspension of the priest and the withdrawal of his assistant. The bishop placed his church under interdict. Thereupon some four hundred Irish followers of Father O'Grady, those of the lower order in Bishop Macdonell's estimation, seized St. Paul's Church and locked the bishop out; he had to say Mass in a building known then as the Soup Kitchen.

Throughout 1833-34 legal actions ensued over the possession of the church, which the Bishop finally won. The Irish collected funds and sent O'Grady to Rome, where he was ordered to submit to Macdonell's authority. During his absence a petition, signed by eight hundred Irishmen, labelled Bishop Macdonell a tyrant and a political partisan, and demanded an end to a pensioned clergy. The petition became public knowledge, having been presented to the government. It was printed in the press and from there carried to Rome.

An embarrassed Bishop Macdonell had to defend his position. He attacked his enemies publicly, declaring them unworthy of being heard. Thereupon the suspended Father O'Grady began his journalistic career in earnest together with the excommunicated James King and the Canadian Correspondent, all supporting the politics of William Lyon Mackenzie against the Family Compact. O'Grady became actively involved in the reform movement and wrote the Declaration of Reformers of the City of Toronto in 1837. In the end, however, it was O'Grady who kept the Irish out of the rebellion while Bishop Macdonell, through his powerful friends, gained the credit.

To his death, Macdonell clung to the old ways that had served him well in the past but placed him beyond the reach of the people. And even in his choice of Ramigius Gaulin as Auxiliary Bishop, his judgement was questionable, for Gaulin was to suffer mental illness shortly after the succession in 1840 and was virtually ineffectual.

The authorities in Rome realized that many Catholics lived in the central portion of Upper Canada, which had been the hot bed of revolt, and decided it was essential to have a bishop in their midst whose presence might help to quell civic and religious insubordination. Michael Power, an Irish Canadian, became the first Bishop of Toronto in 1842. He found,

"I have but twenty clergymen throughout the whole country . . . I have neither colleges, nor schools, nor men."

Still, Bishop Macdonell had been a great missionary prelate, but now the age of missions had passed him by.
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Author:Murray Nicolson
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:May 1, 1996
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