An t-Easbuig Mor, Alasdair MacDhonuill a Gleanna-Garadh – The Big Bishop, Alexander Macdonell of Kingston by George F. G. Stanley.

Continued from Magazine No7. The author was for many years Professor of History at RMC Kingston, Ontario and latterly Director of Canadian Studies at Mount Alison University, Sackville, New Brunswick. His great-great grandfather served with the 1st Regiment Stormont Militia at Ogdensburg and elsewhere, and knew the Big Bishop well.


The fact is that Macdonell had, during his years in Canada, thrown himself open to political attacks. His background was Jacobite. He was therefore bound to sympathize with the royalist and paternalistic point of view. It could hardly have been otherwise, for his hierarchical views were reinforced by his experience both in the church and in the army. He had, in many ways, himself filled the role of chief in the eyes of the Scotsmen he had brought with him to Canada in 1803 and 1804. Moreover, Macdonell was not a man who had ever backed away from an opponent, political or clerical. It was part of his character to battle and to battle hard for the principles in which he believed: and those principles were not the principles favoured by William Lyon Mackenzie and his radical partisans.

The political aspect of Macdonell’s career, although it had never been very far beneath the surface of his ecclesiastical career, came to the fore with his appointment to the Legislative Council of Upper Canada and the outbreak of the rebellion of 1837-38.

The idea of a priest sitting in the legislature was not foreign to British practice. In London, Anglican bishops sat in the House of Lords and Non-conformist clergymen in the House of Commons. In 1817, Bishop Plessis had been named to the Legislative Council of Quebec, and, three years later in 1820, John Strachan, while Rector of York, had been named to the Legislative Council of the Upper province. Macdonell had proved the loyalty of the Jacobite Highlanders in Canada to the British crown, and there seemed to be no reason why he should not be tendered an appointment enjoyed by other leading clergy in the Canadian provinces. He was, therefore, offered a seat in the Legislative Council. Sir John Colborne, the Lieutenant-Governor, who admired the soldierly qualities of the big Bishop, followed up the offer of an appointment, with a grant of £900 from provincial funds to assist Macdonell in the construction of Roman Catholic chapels and churches in the province.

Macdonell was not insensible of the honour attached to a seat in the Legislative Council. Indeed, when he had his portrait painted by M.A. Shea of the Royal Academy, in London, he sat in such a manner as to display the two rings which meant so much to him, his episcopal ring on the fourth finger of his right hand, and the ring indicating his membership of the Legislative Council on the small finger of his left hand. There are several copies of this portrait, one of which is in the anteroom of the Bishop’s house in Kingston. The original is, I believe, at St. Raphael’s in Macdonell’s old house, Iona College, which until a year ago continued to be used as a school.

Despite his satisfaction at receiving Colborne’s offer, the Bishop hesitated about accepting. He revealed his thoughts on this question in a letter to his friend, Cardinal Weld:

I am in doubt whether I should accept; considering my time of life and the multiplicity of business with which I am overwhelmed. The only consideration that would induce me to think of accepting such a situation, would be the hope of being able to promote the interest of our Holy Religion more effectually and carrying my measures through the Provincial Legislature with more facility and expedition than I could otherwise do.

In the end he accepted Colborne’s offer and attended his first council session on 21 November 1831, when he was duly sworn in as a member of the Legislative Council of Upper Canada.

I do not know if Macdonell anticipated the extent of the hostility with which William Lyon Mackenzie and the radicals were to greet his appointment. Not that it would have influenced his decision. In any event there was not very much the radicals could do as long as they had little political support and no political power. Then, two years after Macdonell’s appointment, Mackenzie’s party won the provincial election. Concerned more with his grievances and his political hates than with administering the province, Mackenzie set out upon a grievance hunt. And among his complaints, which he and O’Grady expounded at length, were the activities of “preachers taught to meddle in the political quarrels of factions and parties”, and the financial support of “a political priesthood” by the government. But in any battle of words Macdonell could hold his own. If we can believe O’Grady, the Bishop referred to Mackenzie as “a little red-headed rascal” and as “a devil incarnate”. Whether he did so or not, is not of great moment. More significant was his letter addressed to lord Glenelg, the British Colonial Secretary, in 1835, in which he condemned the actions of those “two greatest Radicals and Disturbers of the peace of the province, William Lyon Mackenzie and William John O’Grady, an apostate Irish priest.” “These two worthies”, the Bishop wrote, had pooled their “united talents and abuse” and “formed a partnership” to attack the administration. Then he added

“fortunately for Upper Canada, their barefaced dishonesty and total disregard of veracity and decorum, have rendered them contemptible and despised in the eyes of every person in this province who has the least title to respectability or character.”

Needless to say, Mackenzie did not take this lying down. In 1836 he introduced a series of resolutions into the Legislative Assembly demanding the dismissal of both Alexander Macdonell and John Strachan. The two clergymen were accused in a litany of complaints of “neglecting their high spiritual functions and care of souls and clinging to their seats in the Legislative Council and devoting their time and talents to political strife.” – this from Mackenzie! – and calling upon them “either to withdraw from the Legislative Council altogether or resign their other offices and forever quit all claim to any salary, pension or other inducement they now hold during the pleasure of the Government.”

Maighstir Alasdair penned his reply on 7 March 1837. He claimed that:

In regard to the Archdeacon of Toronto, having myself so seldom the honour of attending the Legislative Council, all I can say is that I never saw him engaged in political strife, but I have heard of his unwearied attention to his pastoral functions and his charity to the poor of his own and other persuasions.

As for the charges against himself, he wrote:

I feel very little affected by them, having the consolation to think that fifty years spent in the faithful discharge of my duty to God and to my Country, have established my character upon a foundation too solid to be shaken by the malicious calumnies of two notorious slanderers.

Then came the clue to all of Macdonell’s activities:

If instilling in the minds of my flock principles of attachment and loyalty to their Sovereign and the Constitution of their Country, thus preventing his [Mackenzie’s] mischievous endeavours to alienate their minds from the one and the other by his revolutionary and rebellious harangues and writings … be a crime, it is a crime for which I can never expect forgiveness. So far, indeed, from repenting it … neither racks nor gibbets shall ever deter me from so sacred a duty.

Gabhaidh sinn ann rathad mor, ole no math le each e. [1]

The death of William IV brought the existing legislature to an end in 1836, and in the ensuing election Macdonell did not remain silent. To the Bishop the issue was one of loyalty against disloyalty, the Crown against republicanism. It is, as many of you know, the fashion of historians to poke fun at the Family Compact, so-called, and to suggest that the loyalty issue was just a smoke screen to hide other real issues of the election. But such interpretation of the election of 1837 must attribute malevolence and deceit where there was, in fact, sincerity and conviction. Republicanism may not have been a serious threat -that may be debated – but what is not debatable is the fact that many people sincerely believed it was so, including Egerton Ryerson as well as Alexander Macdonell. In any event, Bishop Macdonell entered the fray with his Address to the Catholic and Protestant Freeholders of the Counties of Glengarry and Stormont. In this Address he exhorted the voters of the two Scottish counties to discharge their duty to their sovereign and country by electing men of “sound and loyal principles”. There was no mistaking where the Bishop stood. He left no room for doubt on that score. He was heart and soul behind the Lieutenant-Governor.

Your gracious and benevolent Sovereign sent you out as his representative a personage distinguished for abilities, knowledge and integrity, to redress all the grievances and abuses that had crept into the Government of this Province since its first establishment, but instead of meeting him with cordiality, and offering their cooperation in the important work of reform, what do the rascals do? Why, they assail him, like hell-hounds, with every possible abuse, indignity and insult, and would feign make you believe that they are your friends and the friends of the country, although implacable enemies of yourselves, your religion and your country; and this they proved by stopping the money which the Government had been giving for some years past towards building and repairing Catholic churches, supporting Catholic schools and maintaining Catholic clergy.

It has been with Government money that the Catholics of Glengarry have been able to proceed with the Parish Church of St. Raphael’s after allowing it to remain in a state of decay for the space of sixteen or seventeen years, from the inability of the parishioners to finish h; and it has been by the aid of Government money that almost every other Catholic church in the Province has been brought to the state it is now in – and further advances were ready to be made towards completing them, when, by the false representation of the radicals, orders came from home to stop the issuing of the money, and the consequence is that the greater part of those churches are left in an unfinished and insecure state.

At the same time that those radicals who aim at the destruction of our Holy Religion are loud in their complaints against the Government for affording me assistance towards establishing it on a permanent foundation in this Province, they are cutting and carving lucrative situations for themselves, and filling their own pockets and those of their champion O’Grady (an abandoned priest whom the Bishop was obliged to excommunicate) with your money and that of your fellow subjects. It was for this purpose that they stopped the supplies last session and thereby prevented the issue of the money which was to be laid out on the public roads, canals and other improvements of the province.

Macdonell’s Address was not exactly an impartial statement of fact. The Bishop believed in fighting fire with fire.

The Catholic Scots of Glengarry and Stormont could be expected to rally to Macdonell’s appeal. It is surprising to find that Toronto Orangemen did so as well. In an address presented to the Bishop of Kingston they said:

We … beg to approach your Lordship with sentiments of unfeigned respect for your pious and loyal labour in the Service of your church and country, and during a long protracted life, for the Christian liberality which you have ever evinced towards those of a different creed. We beg to reciprocate the charitable feelings breathing throughout your Lordship’s address to the electors of Stormont and Glengarry … we trust the approaching contest for the maintenance of the British constitution, may array Catholics and Orangemen side by side, and hand in hand, to achieve a victory more bloodless than, yet as glorious as that which they won on the empurpled field of Waterloo.

The election was not wholly bloodless; but there was no question as to who won the victory. The combined voices of the Catholic Scots, the Orange Irish, the Methodists and the old Loyalists carried the day. Not only were the radicals beaten, they were almost driven out of the Legislature, Mackenzie and most of his principal supporters, Perry, Bidwell and Lount, were all defeated.

Unfortunately, the election results went to the Lieutenant-Governor’s head. Sir Francis Bond Head believed that he had saved Canada and that there was no further need for concern. He did not seem to realize that Mackenzie, in his frustration, would turn to Papineau’s ideas of separation and the establishment of an independent republic. Macdonell, although he shared the Governor’s satisfaction at the election results, did not share his optimism about the future. He warned Sir Francis that the danger to the province was not over and suggested that a military officer of energy and decision should be appointed to take command in Upper Canada. He even returned to his familiar suggestion that a corps of Highlanders should be raised in Glengarry for the internal protection of the colony.

Head paid no more attention to the Bishop’s warnings than he did to the Bishop’s suggestion with regard to a new force of Fencibles. Confident in his electoral victory, he sent the regular troops in Upper Canada to Lower Canada to assist the government forces in that province against Papineau, thus exposing his own administration to attack from Mackenzie. It was more a matter of good luck than good management that the militia, weak though it was in discipline and training, was able to cope with Mackenzie’s men at Montgomery’s Tavern in December 1837, and forced Mackenzie and a number of his supporters to flee to the United States. Here, in the safety of the American republic, the rebel leader set about establishing the ephemeral Republic of Upper Canada and endeavoured to enlist support for a renewed invasion of the Canadian province.

One of the military objectives of the new Republic was the city of Kingston. The story of what Macdonell called these “anxious days” is familiar to the members of the Society from previous papers delivered to the Society and published in Historic Kingston. It is sufficient for our purpose to take note of Macdonell’s own view of the situation. Following the collapse of the planned attack upon Kingston, Macdonell wrote to a friend in London, on 2 March 1838, expressing his opinion of the situation in the Canadian provinces:

The present State of the Canadas is anything but secure. The poison which Mackenzie and Papineau and their rebel associates have so extensively infused into the minds of the people has taken too deep a root to expect that it will be eradicated in a short time …

Our present Lieutenant-Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, returns home loaded with addresses of thanks from all classes of the population of the Province. Yet his administration has not been without censure, indeed, I do not believe but it is impossible for any men to administer the Government of Upper Canada in a manner to give satisfaction to all parties, so jarring are the various interests in the Province. But of all the causes of envy, jealousies and discontents, the greatest and most fertile source is the question of the Clergy Reserves, and until that be decided I do not hesitate to predict that there will never be perfect tranquility in Upper Canada.

It was because of his vivid recollection of the military services of the Scots in days past that Macdonell once more suggested the formation of a corps of Fencible infantry in the province, and in his letter he expressed regret that the British Government had not taken his advice in 1802 and given more wholehearted backing to a policy of military emigration to Canada. “Had it taken place,” the Bishop wrote, “it would have saved millions to the British nation and secured the Canadas from foreign or domestic enemies for ages to come.” Not far beneath the soutane and the purple, one could always find the soldier in Alexander Macdonell.

Throughout 1838 there were constant warnings that the republican rebels were planning another attempt upon Upper Canada. Shortly before Nils von Schoultz landed his men on the north shore of the St. Lawrence near Prescott, Macdonell issued an address to the people of Glengarry praising their loyalty in the past and calling upon them to “turn out to a man” in the event of a renewal of the fighting. When the attack did take place and the rebel sympathizers under von Schoultz were defeated at the Battle of the Windmill in November, the Bishop issued a pastoral letter condemning the rebels and blaming their ill-conceived actions upon the influence of self-interested agitators. He reminded his flock that it was their religious duty to be submissive to the authorities. “That is to say,” he wrote, “under the government of a king, we must honour and obey the king, and give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Such were the political views of the man who occupied the episcopal throne in the diocese of Kingston in those eventful years. Strongly loyalist and strongly conservative, Macdonell never eschewed reform, but he believed that reform must come by constitutional not by violent methods. Above all the devils of republicanism and rebellion must be laid low.

On the arrival of lord Durham, Macdonell prepared a memorandum for the new Governor’s instruction. In the Bishop’s opinion the basic cause of discontent in Canada had been the Clergy Reserves. This, he maintained, provided the explanation why Mackenzie had succeeded in drawing so much of his support from the Non-conformist religious groups in the province. He pointed out that the Irish and the Scottish Roman Catholics, too, had their grievances against the Clergy Reserves, but in spite of these grievances few of the Bishop’s communion had, in fact, taken part in the rising. The Scots, as previously, had rallied to the support of the Government, although they wondered if their services in the past had received just and adequate recognition. Perhaps, Macdonell suggested, a share of the provincial funds might be devoted to Catholic Indian missions. In 1839 both Macdonell and his coadjutor, Bishop Gaulin, presented a memorial to the Governor pointing out that the Catholic population now numbered over 86,000. The Church needed help, help which might be forthcoming from a share in the Clergy Reserves. The Legislative Assembly did not return a favourable answer. The Constitutional Act, they argued, would not allow it, and such a grant would probably exasperate the Protestants in the province. The Assembly, however, did agree to a resolution suggesting that the Queen might well afford aid to the Catholic community out of the Jesuit properties in lower Canada. It was, at least, a gesture towards Macdonell and the Catholics, although a somewhat empty one.


One of Macdonell’s first actions, after coming to Canada, had been to establish the seminary at Iona. This small educational institution had provided men for the Upper Canadian priesthood. But not in very large numbers. Thus it was that in the last years of his life, Macdonell began to think of replacing Iona with a more elaborate establishment in Kingston. He must have men for the priesthood. And what better time to launch the project of a new seminary than the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bishop’s ordination? On 16 February 1837 a great celebration was held at St. Raphael’s. Some 2,000 people and 19 priests attended, despite the cold weather and the heavy snow. It was a magnificent tribute to the Bishop’s popularity from Protestants as well as Catholics. This celebration was followed by a gathering held in Kingston, some months later, at which it was proposed that a new college for the training of clergy should be opened in that city. To obtain funds the Bishop, accompanied by his nephew, the Rev. Angus Macdonell and Dr. Thomas Rolph [2], of Ancaster would go to Scotland and England. Meanwhile, however, steps might be taken to begin the work of construction. On 11 June 1838 the cornerstone of the new college of Regiopolis on Sydenham Street was laid by Macdonell with -the assistance of his coadjutor, Mgr. Gaulin.

The Bishop’s proposed trip to Great Britain did not take place for another year. The Lieutenant-Governor was anxious that Macdonell should not leave the province during the critical months of 1838, and it was not until the summer of 1839 that he set out for Great Britain. Just prior to his departure he was entertained at a public dinner at Carmino’s Hotel, Sponsored by the Celtic Society of Upper Canada, of which Macdonell had been one of the founding members. The main address was given by Dr. Rolph. The Bishop himself had only a few words to say:

It being my intention shortly to visit Great Britain, probably for the last time, I must wish farewell for a while, to my friends; but my hopes and expectations are to return to Kingston as soon as I can, and spend my few remaining days among friends, whom I love, and esteem, and in whose society I expect to receive whatever comfort this world can afford me, at my advanced period of life.

Several days later he embarked on the steamer Dolphin and sailed down the St. Lawrence to Montreal while the bell at St. Joseph’s Church tolled a parting salute [3]. It was 1 August when the Bishop arrived in Liverpool. He went at once to London to see the Colonial Office about plans for further Scottish emigration to Canada and then went to Ireland to attend a conference of Catholic prelates in Cork. While travelling in Ireland in a small jaunting car he took a chill from the wind and the rain and took to his bed, first at Carlow College and later in Dublin. Although not fully recovered, he went to Gosford Castle to spend a few days with Lord Gosford, who had been Governor-General between 1835 and 1838. Here he seemed to improve in health and felt sufficiently strengthened to go to Dumfries in Scotland, where he stopped at the home of Fr. William Reid. But the big man’s recovery had been deceptive. His strength was not equal to his will, and within a few days he was dead. The date was the 14th of January 1840, and the Bishop’s age was seventy-seven years and six months.

The body of the big Bishop was taken to Edinburgh where it was laid in the chapel adjoining St. Mary’s Church. Here it remained for over twenty years. Finally, in 1861 Bishop Edward John Horan of Kingston went to Scotland, where he arranged with the Vicar Apostolic of Eastern Scotland, Mgr. James Gillis, a Canadian-born Scot, for the return of Macdonell’s body to Canada. After a procession through Glengarry, where the Bishop’s body lay in state for four days at St. Raphael’s, the funeral party arrived in Kingston on 25 September 1861. The requiem was sung by Mgr. Horan and the body of Maighstir Alasdair was laid to rest with full military honours.

Although the greater part of a generation had passed since Macdonell had left Kingston in 1839, the editor of The British Whig could still write with feeling and sincerity:

Of the individuals who have passed away from us during the last twenty-five years, and who have taken an interest in the advancement and prosperity of Canada West, no one probably has won for himself in so great a degree the esteem of all classes of his fellow citizens as has Bishop Macdonell. Arriving in Canada at an early period in the present century, at a time when toil, privations and difficulties inseparable from life in a new country, awaited the zealous missionary as wall as the hardy emigrant, he devoted himself in a noble spirit of self-sacrifice and with untiring energy to the duties of his sacred calling, to the amelioration of the conditions of those entrusted to his spiritual care. In him, they found a friend and counsellor; to them he endeared himself through his unbounded benevolence and greatness of soul.

Moving among all classes and creeds, with a mind unbiased by religious prejudices, taking an interest in all that tended to develop the resources or aided the general prosperity of the country, he acquired a popularity still memorable, and obtained over the minds of his fellow citizens an influence only equalled by their esteem and respect for him.

The tribute in the Whig continues for several more paragraphs. But I imagine that were he able to give his own opinion, Macdonell would express his preference for the brief words on the tablet to be found in the church at St. Raphael’s:

On the 18th day of June 1843
The Highland Society of Canada
Erected this Tablet to the Memory of
The Honourable and Right Reverend
Alexander Macdonell
Bishop of Kingston 

Though dead, he still lives in the hearts of his countrymen.

Steidhich e an Eaglais ann an Canada Uachdarach. Thug e do. Cheasar na nithe a ‘s le Caesar, agus do Dhia, na nithe a ‘s le Dia [4].


[1] We will take the high road, let them take it ill or well.

[2] An English physician who practised for several years at Ancaster. In 1839 he became Canadian Immigration Agent in Great Britain.

[3] This church, incidentally, had been built by French Canadians in 1808 under the invocation of St. Columba. It was of plain stone construction with a belfry and crowned with a floriated iron cross surmounted by a cock. Prior to the building of St. Mary’s it was the only Catholic Church in Kingston.

[4] He laid the foundations of the Church in Upper Canada. He rendered unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s, and unto God the things that were God’s.