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Alexander MacDonell

First Bishop of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, b. July 17, 1760, at Inchlaggan in Glengarry, Scotland; d. January 14, 1840

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Macdonell , ALEXANDER, first Bishop of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, b. July 17, 1760, at Inchlaggan in Glengarry, Scotland; d. January 14, 1840, at Dumfries, Scotland. His early education was received at Bourblach on Loch Morar. He attended the Scots Colleges at Paris, and Valladolid, Spain, and was ordained priest at the latter place February 16, 1787. Returning to his native land he exercised the ministry for five years in the Braes of Lochaber. In 1792 his people were evicted from their homes, and their lands were converted into sheepwalks. Despite the bitter feelings against Catholics, lately intensified by the Gordon Riots, and disregarding the fact that, being a Catholic priest he was ipso facto an outlaw, undaunted, he led his clansmen to the city of Glasgow, where he secured employment for them, acting as their devoted pastor and faithful guardian, a sharer in their fortunes, as indeed he continued to be for fifty years. Within two years after the Highlanders’ arrival in Glasgow, the Revolution on the Continent ruined the export trade of Glasgow and deprived them of their livelihood. The only avenue open to the unemployed was service in the militia but even this was closed to the Glengarry men, who, being Catholics, could not declare themselves Protestants, as required for enlistment.

The genius for organization possessed by Father Macdonell, which was destined to make a great name for him on two continents, and render valuable service to Church and State, quickly showed itself. He boldly offered to organize his clansmen into a. Catholic regiment. The pressing need of strengthening the forces made the offer acceptable, and in 1794 the “Glengarry Fencible Regiment” was raised, and Father Macdonell, though it was contrary to the existing law, was appointed chaplain, thus becoming the first Catholic chaplain in the British Army since the Reformation. The regiment was dispatched to the Isle of Guernsey in 1795, then threatened by the French, and on the breaking out of the Rebellion, they were sent to Ireland in 1798. Bernard Kelly in the “Fate of Glengarry”, writing of their sojourn in the latter country says: “They everywhere won golden opinions by their humane behavior towards the vanquished, which was in striking contrast with the floggings, burnings, and hangings which formed the daily occupation of the rest of the military. Father Macdonell, who accompanied the regiment in all their enterprises, was instrumental in fostering this spirit of conciliation, and his efforts contributed not a little to the extinction of the Rebellion. The Catholic chapels in many places had been turned into stables by the yeomanry, and these he caused to be restored to their proper use. He often said Mass himself in these humble places of devotion, and invited the inhabitants to leave their hiding places and resume once more their wonted occupations, assuring them of the king’s protection, if they behaved quietly and peaceably. Such timely exhortations had an almost magi-cal effect, though the terror-stricken population could scarcely believe their eyes when they beheld a regiment of Roman Catholics, speaking their language, and among them a soggarth, a priest, assuring them of immunity from a government immemorially associated with every species of wrong and oppression.” An American bishop, lately deceased, has given this testimony to the chaplain’s services and to the Irish people’s gratitude: “The memory of Father Macdonell is as green in those regions as the fields they cultivate. That holy, chivalrous priest saved the lives of many innocent Irishmen and restored the chapels to their original purpose.” At the close of the Rebellion Father Macdonell was called to London in the interest of the regiment, and was at the same time commissioned by the Bishops of Ireland to make known to the British government their sentiments in regard to the proposed legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland. The Fencibles were disbanded in Glasgow in 1802.

The next two years found Father Macdonell in negotiation with the government for the immigration of his people to Canada. Powerful forces were arrayed against him, both at home and in the government, but he eventually triumphed, and brought out in 1803 and 1804 large numbers of Catholic Highlanders to Glengarry in Upper Canada, where many of his faith and race were already exiled on account of persecution in their native land. Father Macdonell arrived at York, now Toronto, November 1, 1804, and proceeded to settle the people on the lands granted by the British government. The whole of the present Dominion was then the vast Diocese of Quebec. Father Macdonell with authority of vicar-general was assigned to the mission of St. Raphael‘s in Glengarry, “the Cradle of the Church in Ontario“, which he made his headquarters for twenty-five years, though his home was every-where in the province. On his arrival he found three priests in the province, the Rev. Roderick Maodonell (Leek) at St. Andrew’s and St. Regis, the Rev. Francis Fitzimmons in Glengarry, and the Rev. Father Richard at Sandwich.

The Rev. Roderick Macdonell died in 1806 and Father Fitzimmons removed shortly afterwards to New Brunswick; this left Father Macdonell in charge of the whole province for the next ten years without any assistance, Father Richard being unable, to speak English. He was obliged to travel over the country from the province line of Lower Canada to Lake Superior, carrying the requisites for Mass, and the administration of the sacraments, sometimes on horse-back, sometimes in Indian birch canoes, and sometimes on foot, living among the savages with such fare as they afforded, crossing the great lakes and rivers, and even descending the rapids of the St. Lawrence in their dangerous craft. Equal hardships and privation he endured among the new settlers. Thus he spent those years in traveling about, offering the Holy Sacrifice in rude huts, teaching the children, administering the sacraments and preaching to the widely separated settlers throughout the great province, now Ontario. During the War of 1812 his powerful influence was successfully used in rousing the martial spirit of his countrymen, and indeed of the other inhabitants, in defense of their adopted land. With the reorganized “Glengarry Fencibles” he was present in several engagements against the American forces. His civil and military services were recognized by the British Government in 1816 by an addition to his own government allowance, and by an annual grant of £ 100 each, to three clergymen and four schoolmasters.

In 1817 Upper Canada was set apart from the See of Quebec as a vicariate Apostolic, and two years later Father Macdonell was appointed vicar Apostolic, his consecration as Bishop of Rhosina taking place in the Ursuline chapel, Quebec, on December 31, 1820. A significant incident was the gift to Bishop Macdonell of a magnificent episcopal ring by King George IV. Six years later, February 14, 1826, the vicariate was raised to a bishopric by Leo XII, and Bishop Macdonell then became the first Bishop of Upper Canada with his see at Kingston. Advancing age caused him to apply for a co-adjutor. Father Weld of Lulworth Castle, England, was appointed and consecrated Bishop of Amycla, and co-adjutor of Upper Canada, August 1, 1826, but his health becoming impaired he never assumed office. Bishop Macdonell’s thorough knowledge of the country and its people and his great administrative ability made his counsel desirable to the government, and on October 12, 1831, he was called to the Legislative Council, and thereafter was accorded the title “Honorable”. In a letter to a friend he writes of his appointment as follows: “The only consideration that would induce me to think of accepting such a situation, would be the hope of being able to promote the interests of our holy religion more effectually, and carrying my measures through the Provincial Legislature with more facility and expedition than I could otherwise do.”

Five voyages to Europe, an average travel of two thousand miles per year through Ontario, the personal selection of church sites, in nearly all the places now marked by cities and towns in the province of Ontario, untiring and successful efforts to obtain a fair share of government grants in money and land for church and school purposes (the first grant of public money for a Catholic school in Ontario was obtained for St. Andrew’s, Stormont County, in 1832), are all evidences of an unusually active life. His zeal for the formation of a native priesthood is abundantly shown in the establishment of the Seminary of Iona at St. Raphael‘s, in 1826, and of Regiopolis College at Kingston, in 1838, not to speak of the many priests educated at his own expense. There is a statement left among his papers showing that he expended £13,000 of his private funds for the furthering of religion and education.

His voluminous letters reveal the master mind of the organizer and ruler, and the singleness of purpose of the great churchman. His life was a striking example of the truth that in the Catholic Church piety and patriotism go hand in hand. In the year 1840 he died in his native Scotland, whither he had gone with the hope of interesting Irish and Scotch bishops in a scheme of emigration. In 1861 his remains were brought to Kingston by Bishop Horan and were interred beneath the cathedral. Bishop Macdonell in 1804 found three priests and three churches in Upper Canada. By his energy and perseverance he induced a considerable immigration to the province, and left at his death forty-eight churches attended by thirty priests. The memory that survives him is that of a great missionary, prelate, and patriot—the Apostle of Ontario.


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