FRASER, WILLIAM, Roman Catholic priest and bishop; b. 1778 or 1779 in Glenn Cannich, Scotland, eldest of 12 children of John Fraser and Jane Chisholm; d. 4 Oct. 1851 in Antigonish, N.S.
William Fraser attended the seminary at Samalaman in Moidart, Scotland, after having gone to elementary school in his own district. In January 1794 he began his studies for the priesthood at the Royal Scots College in Valladolid, Spain. Ordained there on 8 Jan. 1804, he soon returned to Scotland, where his cousin Bishop John Chisholm put him in charge of all the missions of Lochaber. For a decade he ministered to the small but scattered population and then spent eight years directing the College of Killechiarain, the seminary for the Highlands, at Lismore. Fraser adapted well to both missionary and academic life and was loved and respected by his parishioners and students. His talents were recognized when his was among the names proposed to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda to succeed another cousin, Æneas Chisholm, bishop of Lismore, who died in 1818. He was not selected but such recognition placed him in good standing for future appointments.
Throughout his years at Lismore, Fraser had expressed a strong desire to follow some of his fellow Highlanders who had immigrated to Nova Scotia. The Roman Catholic Church in Nova Scotia had its origins with missionaries from France and New France who came to minister to the Acadian population during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the colony became part of Great Britain in 1763, a few priests were permitted to come and serve Roman Catholics among the native and Acadian populations as well as among the growing number of Irish and Scottish immigrants. The activities of the church in the Maritimes came under the jurisdiction of the diocese of Quebec and since 1787 had been governed by a local vicar general appointed by the bishop of Quebec. By 1815 Propaganda in Rome had decided that the area covered by the diocese was becoming too large and in 1818 Father Edmund Burke*, vicar general for Nova Scotia, was consecrated titular bishop of Sion and vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia. In June 1821 Father Angus Bernard MacEachern* was consecrated titular bishop of Rosen and was appointed vicar general of Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the Îles de la Madeleine.
Before Bishop Burke died in 1820, he had offered Fraser a mission near Antigonish but it was not until 1822 that Fraser was able to obtain permission to move to Nova Scotia. When he arrived in August, the church had yet to appoint a successor to Burke. Father John Carroll, parish priest at Halifax, was serving as administrator. Bishop MacEachern, a Scot, introduced Fraser to the Highland Scots of Cape Breton Island and the area around Antigonish. Fraser was soon appointed to a mission at Cape Mabou on Cape Breton and in less than a month received responsibility for the Bras d’Or Lakes missions. In January 1824 he was given charge of St Ninian’s parish, centred in Antigonish, where he was to remain for the rest of his life.
Fraser’s ability and dedication to the missions resulted in his being recommended as a worthy successor to Burke as early as December 1823. After a concerted effort to find an Irishman for the post, on 7 Dec. 1824 Pope Leo XII approved Fraser’s appointment as titular bishop of Tanen and vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia. He was consecrated at Antigonish on 24 June 1827 by his good friend MacEachern. Fraser’s vicariate, covering all of mainland Nova Scotia, comprised a substantial Highland Scottish population in the east, Acadians in the southwest, and an active and growing Irish community in and around Halifax. In September 1830 Cape Breton, with its large Scottish population, was added and, six years later, the island of Bermuda came under his jurisdiction. Fraser himself estimated that by 1831 the Catholic population of the province numbered at least 50,000, of whom over half were Scots and only about one in ten was Irish.
From the day of his appointment, Fraser found the Irish in Halifax, who were disappointed that an Irishman had not been named bishop, a particularly onerous responsibility. In choosing to remain at Antigonish, where as a Gaelic-speaking missionary he felt he was needed, Fraser alienated the Halifax Irish who believed that the see of the diocese should have been located in the largest community. The departure of Carroll from the province late in 1827 left Halifax without a parish priest and Fraser’s choice as a successor, Father John Loughnan, although an Irishman, was to bear the brunt of the Irish resentment towards Fraser. In 1839, with the assistance of Archbishop Daniel Murray of Dublin and after repeated representations from Halifax, Fraser was able to obtain the services of two Irish priests, Lawrence Joseph Dease and Richard Baptist O’Brien. They proved popular with the Halifax Irish but did not get along with Loughnan, who felt that they were working too closely with the “rich and powerful” and were subverting his authority as the representative of Bishop Fraser.
Fraser’s difficulties in Halifax did not go unnoticed by Propaganda in Rome. After a visit to Halifax in 1840, Bishop John England of Charleston, S.C., provided Archbishop Murray in Dublin with a firsthand account of the situation there. Murray then wrote to Rome urging the cardinals to appoint an Irish coadjutor bishop with right of succession to assist Fraser. In a letter dated 19 Oct. 1840 a similar recommendation was made by Father Vincent de Paul [Merle], superior of the Trappists in Nova Scotia and a friend of Fraser’s. The situation worsened by late 1841 when a dispute arose over the departure of Dease. A committee of wardens and electors of St Mary’s Cathedral petitioned Fraser to allow Dease to remain. Accusing them of meddling in ecclesiastical affairs, Fraser curtly rejected their petition, stating that “any future application . . . will meet with . . . unqualified and well-merited contempt.” In support of Fraser, Father Hugh O’Reilly, parish priest at Pictou, penned a series of letters to a local newspaper under the name Hibernicus, attacking “the conduct of the Irish Catholic Schismaticks of the Capital.” These anonymous letters brought the conflict into public view and put further pressure on Rome to resolve the issue.
On 9 Jan. 1842 Pope Gregory XVI approved a recommendation from Propaganda to raise the status of the vicariate apostolic of Nova Scotia to that of a diocese and to appoint an Irish priest, William Walsh, as coadjutor to Fraser with the right of succession. Throughout all their discussions, officials in Rome had neither been in contact with nor heard from Fraser. He learned of Walsh’s appointment from an article in a Halifax newspaper and in a letter from Walsh written after the latter’s consecration in May 1842. Fraser had some justification in feeling that he had been treated unfairly, and he was annoyed that a few dissidents among the 60,000 Catholics in the province had been able to provoke such drastic action by officials in Rome. He was supported by 21 of the 23 priests of the diocese who, on 27 May 1842, sent a petition to Cardinal Giacomo Filippo Fransoni, prefect of Propaganda, urging the pope to cancel Walsh’s appointment and expressing their loyalty and support for Fraser. Thirteen of these priests also wrote to Walsh stating their opposition to his appointment and to the Halifax “faction” which had provoked the situation.
The arrival of Walsh in Halifax in October 1842 further polarized the pro- and anti-Fraser forces. A coadjutor traditionally can act only when his bishop so authorizes and Fraser was reluctant to give Walsh any authority until he received official confirmation of the appointment from Rome. He did, however, instruct Walsh to assume responsibility for the temporal affairs of the church in Halifax from the wardens and electors of St Mary’s, a body that he felt had instigated many of his difficulties. He also left Loughnan in his post as vicar general, a decision that was to cause an open rift between Walsh and Loughnan. For almost a year and a half both sides flooded Rome with memorials. Finally, in March 1844, Walsh set off for Rome to seek a final resolution of the matter. It seemed to most observers that the only solution was to divide the diocese along ethnic lines: the Scots in one diocese and the Irish in another. Fraser had suggested this course of action in May 1842 before he knew of Walsh’s appointment. Walsh agreed with the plan but felt that part of the problem was Fraser’s inability to administer and govern a diocese no matter how small and that even if Fraser were put in charge only of the Scottish areas he would still require a coadjutor to assist him.
The debate continued, with Fraser and Walsh and their supporters placing their respective cases before the cardinals, who, on 2 Sept. 1844, decided that the diocese was to be divided. Fraser’s diocese, officially created on 22 September, included Cape Breton and the area that is now Antigonish and Guysborough counties. On 20 July 1845 Walsh became bishop of Halifax and Fraser bishop of Arichat. Despite the fact that the see of the diocese was Arichat, Fraser chose to remain in Antigonish, a decision that was later to cause problems with the Acadians in Cape Breton similar to those with the Irish in Halifax.
Fraser had lost the battle but won the war: the Irish “faction” in Halifax was no longer his concern and for the next six years he concentrated on his first love – developing the missions within the diocese through the construction of schools and churches for his fellow Scots. His difficulties with Halifax had arisen for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the historic antagonism between the Scots and the Irish. The personality of Loughnan and the determination of the Irish Catholics in Halifax to participate in church matters were also factors, but ones that Fraser could have handled. His lack of administrative ability prevented him from resolving the problem before it got out of hand. He remained in Antigonish and ultimately the decision making was left to others.
Although the jurisdictional battle marked his term as bishop, Fraser did accomplish much in the field of education. In 1838 he had reluctantly agreed to a proposal from the Irish-Catholic community in Halifax to establish a college there, incorporated on 29 March 1841 as St Mary’s College. In Arichat he began St Andrew’s Grammar School, the precursor of St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. He also encouraged the establishment of a number of temperance groups throughout the diocese.
When Fraser died at Antigonish on 4 Oct. 1851, it was not his administrative shortcomings that were remembered. Instead he was described as a “profoundly learned, . . . venerable prelate [who] was ever singularly affable, honest and unobtrusive,” who “never cared for human applause,” and who “won the attachment and respect of all classes.” He shunned riches and lived simply among the people he served. It may be said of him that he was a good missionary and one whose talents lay more in the basic ecclesiastical virtues of his calling than in the administrative and political aptitudes required of a bishop of the church. He was succeeded by Colin Francis MacKinnon*.
AAH, William Fraser papers; William Walsh papers. Hibernicus [Hugh O’Reilly], The letters of Hibernicus: extracts from the pamphlet entitled “A report of the committee of St. Mary’s, Halifax, N.S.,” and a review of the same (Pictou, N.S., 1842). G. M. Haliburton, Clansmen of Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1979). A. A. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S. D. J. Rankin, A history of the county of Antigonish, Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1929). J. E. Burns, “The development of Roman Catholic church government in Halifax from 1760 to 1853,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 23 (1936): 89–102. A. A. Johnston, “The Right Reverend William Fraser, second vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia, first bishop of Halifax, and first bishop of Arichat,” CCHA Report, 3 (1935–36): 23–30; “A Scottish bishop in New Scotland: the Right Reverend William Fraser, second vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia, first bishop of Halifax, and first bishop of Arichat,” Innes Rev. (Glasgow), 6 (1955): 107–24. Mason Wade, “Relations between the French, Irish and Scottish clergy in the Maritime provinces, 1774–1836,” CCHA Study sessions, 39 (1972): 9–33.
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