The credit for the
formation, growth and success of the Dominion of Canada is
documented and firmly established to have been the work of the early
Scot, many to the name of MacDonald and MacDonell. One of those
responsible in aiding in the establishment of an area in eastern
Ontario was the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada, The
Right Reverend Alexander Macdonell.
(Mr. Alexander), "Alisdair Mor" (Big Alexander), and later "Easbuig
Mor" (the Big Bishop), were some of the names the popular priest was
known as by is Gaelic-speaking flock. He was more widely known as
"The Warrior Bishop." He has been described as being very
good-looking, stood 6 foot 4 inches and well built.
Father Alexander was
born on the 17th of July 1762 in Glen Urquhart, (or Inchlaggan, as
reported by other researchers), on the borders of Loch Ness,
Inverness-shire. He received early schooling in the Braes of
Glenlivet, and in 1778, at age 16, he was sent to Douai School near
Paris, France and subsequently to the Scottish College, Valladolid
in Spain, where he was ordained as a priest on the 16th February
His Roman Catholic
father was Angus MacAilean Macdonell, a Bard and a direct descendant
of the Chief of Glengarry. Angus MacAilean had been twice married,
first to Nelly or Helen Grant of Glenmoriston, a granddaughter of
John Grant, 6th Laird, and secondly to Margaret or Marsali Cameron
of Clunes, a Protestant and the mother of the future first Catholic
Bishop of Upper Canada. Descendants of both marriages are still to
be found both in Canada and the U.S.A. The author can include his
spouse and children in this direct line.
Father Macdonell was
never stuck for words and had a great mind and a very quick wit and
there are many stories about "The Big Bishop". One that has to be
repeated refers to a return trip to Scotland where he met a cousin,
on the street in Edinburgh, Alan Cameron of Erracht.
Alan greeted the priest;
"And is it yourself, Alexander Mor, sure, I thought the devil had
you long ago?". The priest replied immediately; "Och no, Alan of
Erracht, he has no room for me, what with hell being already filled
with my mother's relatives."
The future Bishop
arrived in Upper Canada in 1804, long after several migrations had
made the journey and because there were no less than three Alexander
Macdonells who were priests in the new Glengarry of Canada, there
has been much confusion with readers and researchers. All three Rev.
Alex. MacDonells were related as the reader will note.
The early arrivals, to
Upper Canada, with the exception of the few Scots who were in the
area as discharged soldiers of the Frasers following the Battle of
Quebec in 1759, were soldiers and their families who were driven
from their lands
during and after the
American Revolution. They were given lands along Ihc waterways and
with few implements expected to eke out a living on this heavily
forested land with harsh winters. Many of these settlers were Sails
settled in the newly formed Counties of Glengarry and Stormont. The
most prominent Scottish settlement was that of St. Andrews where 38
families, most of whom were MacDonalds or MacDonells, and all but
one Roman Catholic.
A replica of the
original Log Church has recently been built to show how this
community lived in that time frame. Their religious matters were
looked after by the Rev. Roderick Macdonell from the Jesuit Indian
Mission at St. Regis, where he had arrived to serve the Scots in the
area in November 1785.
First Rev. Alex
The next migration
brought the first priest named Alexander Macdonell (1742-1803),
known as Alexander "Scotus" Macdonell. He arrived in Quebec on board
the Ship "MacDonald" or "Sandaig" as it also was called because
Angus "Sandaig" Macdonell was one of the organizers of the voyage.
It arrived on August 31st 1786, and was reported in the Quebec
Gazette of September 7th as "recent arrivals". Scotus was 3rd
cousin, four times removed, of the Big Bishop, the subject of this
article, the common ancestor being Donald MacAngus.
This Father Macdonell
failed to stay with his flock at St. Raphaels, in Glengarry Upper
Canada and preferred the life at the Seminary in Quebec because of
arguments over monies promised him, and finally he was ordered to
"shed his silks" and return to his parishioners and build a church,
which he did about 1791 and this structure was to be known as "The
Blue Church" because of the colour of the ceiling.
Second Rev. Alexander Macdonell (1762-1840):
Following this 1786
migration there would be several groups arriving from 1802 on
through 1804 ant which time the subject of our sketch and the future
first Bishop of Upper Canada arrived. Most of these settlers are
reported to have been members of Father Alexander Macdonell's
Glengarry Fencibles who had served in several locations the most
recent one, prior to their disbanding, being Ireland.
The 3rd priest named
Alexander Macdonell (1833-1905), was actually born in the area
and would be appointed the first Bishop of the Diocese of Alexandria
and was a first cousin, three times removed, of Rev. Alexander
"Scotus", the common ancestor being Ranald MacDonell
of Scotus and Glengarry. He was also 6th cousin, once removed, of
our subject, The Big Bishop, the common ancestor being Donald
MacAngus. The grandmother of this Father Alexander MacDonell
(1833-1905), Janet MacDonell, was the granddaughter of Archibald
MacDonell (1670-1752) 1st of Barisdale. Her father, "Big Ranald"
(1722-1813) had an interesting life and the pirate story about him
would swell the heart of any Scot.
The word "fencible"
literally means a man active and fit for military duty. It was later
superseded by the term "active militia".
The corps was raised
with the chief of Glengarry as Colonel and Father Alex as Chaplain,
the first Roman Catholic corps since the Reformation.
After the treaty of
Amiens in 1802, Rev. Alexander's Glengarry Fencibles were among the
43 British Regiments
disbanded. At his own
expense Father Alex visited London trying to get assistance for his
people to emigrate to Upper Canada. He was offered, by Addington,
the British Prime Minister, assistance if he would consider
Trinidad, then Nova Scotia, New Brunswick or Cape Breton Island, but
the future Big Bishop held out for Glengarry in Upper Canada because
of favourable reports from Loyalist relatives and friends who had
Macdonell sailed from Ayr on September 5, 1804 and landed at Quebec
and at that time there were but two priests in all of Upper Canada
(it should be noted that the Rev. Roderick Macdonell, priest at the
St. Regis Indian Mission on the south side of the St. Lawrence,
arrived in 1785, was in
what was considered Lower Canada).
The future Bishop set
about establishing Iona College for a seminary, and started the
erection of a Stone Church in St. Raphaels. Most importantly he
assisted many of the early emigrants who had failed to get their
proper deeds for lands.
Years later a plaque was
erected at the Iona College in his St. Raphaels, Glengarry and it
The College of lona;
established by the Rev. Alexander Macdonell, Father of Roman
Catholic Education in Upper Canada and later Bishopof Kingston,
the College of Iona was opened in 1826 in a log building near
The central portion of
the nearby stone structure erected by Macdonell in 1808 as the
presbytery for the parish served as a residence for teachers and
students. Much of the cost of construction and the operational
expenses of the school were borne by Macdonell, In addition to being
the first seminary in Upper Canada the school offered a general
academic education preparing boys for regular vocations. After about
ten years its functions were taken over by Regiopolis College in
He would go on to be a
Member of Parliament and a great statesman. With the outbreak of the
War with the USA in 1812 "the old soldier" in father
Alexander came to
the surface and he again set about assisting in the recruitment
of a regiment
among the Glengarry Scots. With the War of 1812, it is reported;
"The Bishop had been
most active in rousing and recruiting the Glengarries during the
preceding winter. The Fiery
Cross had passed through the land, and every clansman had obeyed
the summons. Partaking of the character of the medieval
churchman, half Baron, half Bishop, he fought and prayed with
equal zeal, by the side of men he had come to regard as his
He was formally
appointed Chaplain of the Glengarry Light Infantry and by October
16,1812, there were 8 companies ready for war with stations at
Prescott, Cornwall, and Kingston. With "Red George" Macdonell
(Leek), the "Big Bishop" crossed the ice of the St. Lawrence River
to be present at the capture of Ogdensburg on February 23, 1813, and
with the Regiment was the Protestant Chaplain, the Reverend John
Bethune, putting backbone into those who were of his religion.
Both Protestant and
Catholic church leaders, like their flocks, worked in harmony. The
story has been told that in Wllliamstown, Glengarry Canada, where
the Reverend John Bethune, Presbyterian Minister had established an
early Church and had the misfortune to have had a fire destroy his
structure, that Rev. John Bethune approached The Big Bishop asking
if he would make an appeal for financial assistance to his
parishioners to assist in the rebuilding of the Church. Father Alex
replied that it would not be possible to ask his Catholic flock to
donate to the building of a Presbyterian Church. He then asked
what would be done with the ruins of the old Church, and the reply
was that when funds were available it would be demolished and
removed. With that the Catholic priest said that indeed he could ask
his parishioners to donate to the removal of the ruins of the
Presbyterian Church, and they gave a large donation.
Additional proof of how
the Protestant and Catholics worked together is shown by extracts of
an address given by the Bishop in 1836:
"I address my
Protestant as well as my Catholic friends because
... When the
of England (Lord Sidmouth), in 1802, expressed to me his
reluctance to permit Scots I lighlanders
to emigrate to the Canadas from his apprehension that the hold
the parent state had of the
was too slender to he permanent. I took the liberty of assuring
him that the most effectual way to render that hold strong and
permanent was to encourage and facilitate the emigration of
Scots Highlanders and Irish Catholics into these Colonies.
To the credit and
honour of Scots Highlanders be it told that the difference of
religion was never known to weaken the bond of friendship; and
Catholic and Protestant have always stood shoulder to shoulder
nobly supporting one another during the fiercest tug of battle.
The loyal and martial character of Highlanders is proverbial.
The splendid achievements of your ancestors under a Montrose and
a Dundee in support of a fallen family proved their unshaken
adherence to honour... You have indeed reason to be proud of
and your friends
have reason to be proud of your conduct since the first of you
crossed the Atlantic."
Progenitor of Catholics in Upper Canada:
The late Ewan Ross,
author and historian, in a sketch on St. Raphaels and The Big Bishop
"... He always
seemed to have his opponents convinced he was right before any
matter came to a public issue. The repeal of the Test Acts in
1829 let him become a public figure officially. Long before that
his raising of the Glengarry Fencible Regiment in Scotland in
1794, and the Glengarry Light Infantry in 1812, and his acting
as chaplain and spokesman for both had shown the British
officials that in this big Scots priest they had found a man who
was also a British Leader type. To his own folk in Glengarry he
was a friend, counsellor, pastor and leader - to Protestants as
well as to Roman Catholics,
He encouraged the
building of schools and had a mill built for the settlers' use
on the River Garry, as well he had the stone church at St.
Glengarry in 1816
had 12 public schools, more than were in any other County, and
these were not church schools. In addition, Iona Academy at St.
Raphael's, from 1818 on, was education potential priests for
Upper Canada. From this nucleus at St. Raphael's was formed the
Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada."
The Big Bishop made
several trips back to his Highlands of Scotland and on his last
visit in 1839, seeking funds for the completion of the Regiopolis
College, and to discuss with the Scots and Irish Bishops a plan for
a large immigration to Canada of Scots and Irish Catholics he
contracted a heavy cold and died at Dumfries, on January 14,1840, in
the home of the Reverend Father Reid from whom he received the Last
Sacraments. His funeral took place in Edinburgh. The remains were
interred temporarily in the vaults of St. Margaret's Convent.
Twenty-one years later the remains of the Bishop were brought back
by a successor, Bishop Horan, and laid beneath the cathedral at
And so the first
Catholic Bishop of Canada goes down in history to be listed with
others of the name MacDonell and MacDonald who have "made their
mark" and were responsible, in a very big way, for the formation of
the Dominion of Canada, and to mention but a few of these:
The Honourable John
Sandfield Macdonald, Prime Minister of "The Canadas" 1862-1864 and
the first Premier of the Province of Ontario after Confederation
Sir John A. Macdonald,
Canada's First Prime Minister, 1867.
MacDonell, 1790-1862, wife of the famous explorer of the river named
after him; Simon Fraser.
Macdonald, 1817-1896, Postmaster General and later Lt. Governor of
Ontario, 1875, and brother to the Hon. John Sandfield Macdonald.
John Macdonald of Garth,
one of the partners of the old Northwest Company, known by the
French as "Monsieur Macdonald le bras croche", because of a slightly
deformed arm from an accident at birth.
Lt Col. John
to Major General
Sir Isaac Brock, who fell at Queenston on the 13th October 1812 and
lies buried beside the General. (Greenfield)
Hugh Macdonell, M.P. for
Glengarry in the first Parliament and subsequently
Commissary-General at Gibraltar, 1805; Consul-Genera] at Algiers,
Sir Hugh Guion
Majesty's minister to the court of Denmark. (Aberchalder)
Catherine A. Macdonell,
wife of General Sir Robert Wynyard military Governor of the Cape of
Good Hope. (Aherchalder)
LL Col. Donald Macdonell
(1788-1861), General of militia in Upper Canada, Deputy Adj. General
Judge Ian Macdonell,
(1895-1992) decorated; Member of the British Empire, Lt. Col.
Queen's Own Rifles during
W.W.II, Vice-chairman Toronto Police Commission, and the first High
Commissioner for Clan Donald in Canada. (Greenfield)
Sir Archibald Cameron
Macdonell, K.C.B., C.M.B, D.S.O., (1864-1941), Major General W.W.I,
1st Division, Canadian
Army, Inspector of North West Mounted Police. (Greenfield)
The Hon. Alexander
Macdonell, 1762-1842, M.L.A. for Glengarry, Deputy Paymaster General
in 1812, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, and Superintendent
of the Perth Settlement. (Cullachie)
Angus Macdonell, (?-1804),
first clerk of the legislative Assembly, Ontario 1792. M.L.A. for
Durham-Simcoe. Treasurer of the Law
Society 1801-1804. (Cullachie)
Auditor General of Canada 1973-1980. Of
This in outline, is the
life story of one of Canada's greatest men - Priest, Bishop,
Patriot, Educationist and Statesman, and the man who helped form the
Highland Society of Canada in 1819.
Feedback. If you have any comments, additions or corrections
to this article, please post them in the forum as a new thread
here. Please make the title of your post the title of the
article and put a link back to the article in your post. You will
have to register to join the forum.