Right Reverend Alexander MacDonell, D.D. (1762-1840) Bishop of Regiopolis (1826-1840) First Roman Catholic Bishop of Upper Canada by Duncan W. (Darby) MacDonald, U.E.

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.

“Maighster Alasdair” (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 1787.

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.

Many Tales:

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 and they 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 Macdonell:

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.

Glengarry Fencibles:

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 located there earlier.

Father Alexander 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, having 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 reads:

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 this site.

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 Kingston.

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 hereditary followers.”

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 Bethune 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 I feel … When the Prime Minister 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 Canadas 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 such ancestors 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 would write:

“… 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. Raphael’s built.

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 Kingston (Ontario).

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 1867-1871.

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s First Prime Minister, 1867.

Catherine “Leek” MacDonell, 1790-1862, wife of the famous explorer of the river named after him; Simon Fraser.

Donald Alexander 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 Macdonell,(178S-1812),P.A., D.C., K.B, Aide-de-Camp 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, 1811. (Aberchalder)

Sir Hugh Guion Macdonell, K.C.M.G., C.B., Her 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 1848-1853. (Greenfield)

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)

James MacDonell (1915-1983), Auditor General of Canada 1973-1980. Of Glen Nevis, Glengarry, Canada.

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.