GRACE, THOMAS, named Father James, Roman Catholic priest and Capuchin; b. December 1755 in Knocktopher (Republic of Ireland), son of Richard Grace and Elizabeth O’Neil; d. 2 March 1827 in Halifax.
Thomas Grace was educated at the Capuchin convent in Bar-sur-Aube, France, where he took the habit of the order on 25 July 1774. Following his ordination at Bordeaux in 1777, he returned to Ireland; he then served as a priest at Callan for several years, and possibly elsewhere in Ireland. In 1789 he was sent to be a missionary in Nova Scotia under the direction of the superintendent there, the Reverend James Jones*, another Capuchin. Travelling by way of Newfoundland, Grace reached Halifax early in 1790 and was appointed to the mission of St Mary’s Bay.
The task of a missionary in Nova Scotia required a mixture of qualities almost too great to expect in one man. Since most Catholics in the colony lacked luxuries and had little money to spare, a priest either had to have outside support or be self-sufficient. But the resourcefulness necessary to survive meant more than learning how to provide for oneself without financial assistance from the faithful; it also meant being a jack of all trades, a tactful diplomat, and a skilled linguist. A Nova Scotian missionary had to be carpenter and cook, trail-blazer and oarsman, doctor and lawyer, friend to his flock and to others. He had to be true to his Catholicism yet not arouse the suspicion of the colonial authorities about “popery.” He had to speak French to Acadians, Gaelic to Irish and Scots, English to some, perhaps Micmac to a few, and always remember his Latin for the mass. These demands called for a man of considerable bodily vigour, if not of great physical strength, a man of some presence and psychological stamina who could bear the solitude of being perhaps the only literate man for miles around, cut off for months from the intercourse of his peers. Those who had the fortitude, character, and faith might succeed and even thrive.
Unfortunately, Grace was misplaced. Jones described him as a holy and humble monk but an ineffective missionary, and claimed that he was too wrapped up in his breviary – a charge which probably meant that he preferred thought to action. On the whole, Jones’s view of Grace would seem to be just. A reflective man quite unprepared for the shock of being set down amidst poor fishermen in a land of rock, Grace displeased his superiors by failing to erect the much-needed churches and rectories. In addition, he celebrated mass only on Sundays, and he even lacked the confidence to preach. Not that all his problems were of his own making. During his ministry in the St Mary’s Bay region, the Acadians had little use for him since the last Irish priest among them, the Reverend William Phelan, had made off with a large amount of money they had collected to build a church. In 1791 Jones, thinking that Grace’s difficulties in this mission were less the result of his own shortcomings than of Phelan’s scandalous conduct, transferred the “simple and good” Capuchin to Memramcook, N.B., where he was to act as an assistant to Father Thomas-François Le Roux*.
Grace did not stay in New Brunswick long, however, for about 1792 he was assigned his own mission: the coastline of mainland Nova Scotia from Sheet Harbour to Liverpool. Here, again, Grace did what he could, but he was not aggressive enough to suit the hierarchy. He remained in his mission, serving mainly the settlements of Chezzetcook, Ketch Harbour, and Prospect, until the autumn of 1801, when he had what appears to have been a nervous breakdown. By November 1802, Edmund Burke*, the vicar general of Nova Scotia, was nearly at his wit’s end as to what to do about Grace. Grace was then in Halifax living among poor people, and only after a direct order in 1805 from Joseph-Octave Plessis, the coadjutor bishop of Quebec, did he return to his charge.
When in 1815 Plessis, by then bishop, came to Grace’s mission, he found fault with nearly everything connected with “this pitiable colony.” In his journal he noted that Grace “has as yet no lodging of his own, and changes it every day, eating in the house of one inhabitant and sleeping in another. Until this year he had had no chapel, or rather he had none other than one of the dwellings.” He went on: “How can one reform a man of this age, who has his habits formed so long, and Irish ones at that! who with the devotion of an excellent monk, is found isolated in a mission for which he was in no way prepared . . . who for ten years has worn only rags, because he believes himself too close to death to undertake to dress himself.” Yet Plessis was kind enough to accept the fact that the old priest could not do his job. Grace was in good health for a few years afterwards, but he soon had to live in Halifax where the Reverend John Loughnan supported him and gave him the last rites in 1827. He was buried by the church in Ketch Harbour.
Grace’s career and character raise questions about the level of his education and preparation, the sort of person he was, and his effect upon those he served. A simple and rather gullible man he may have been, but he did have three languages, English, French, and, of course, Latin. He had studied in France and would have been relatively well educated for the times. As to practical preparation, none of the early missionaries who came to Nova Scotia had prior experience of the conditions that would face them, or knowledge about how to cope with them. Grace was a genuinely humble man. He was happiest among poor working people, and he had the good sense to see the futility of squeezing support from people as hard pressed as his Irish fishermen. Not surprisingly, therefore, he seems to have been a beloved figure to many. At Ketch Harbour there is an old well called Father Grace’s Well, because he had blessed it during a drought and it never went dry. Although there are few precise traditions about Grace, after his death people were quick to let visitors know that they had been part of “old Father Grace’s circuit.”
[The assistance of the director of the AD, Aube (Troyes), and the Right Reverend Gerald B. Murphy of Ketch Harbour, N.S., in providing additional information concerning Thomas Grace is gratefully acknowledged. t.m.p.]
AD, Aube, Couvent des capucins irlandais (Bar-sur-Aube), reg. des vêtures et professions, 24 sept. 1773, 25 juill. 1774. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Halifax, J. M. McCarthy papers, D-2 (Visitation of Bishop Denaut, 1803). Cyril Byrne, “The Maritime visits of Joseph-Octave Plessis, bishop of Quebec,” N.S. Hist. Soc., Coll., 39 (1977): 23–47. [H.-R. Casgrain], Mémoire sur les missions de la Nouvelle-Écosse, du cap Breton et de l’île du Prince Édouard de 1760 à 1820 . . . réponse aux “Memoirs of Bishop Burke” par Mgr O’Brien . . . (Québec, 1895), 42, 62–63, 66–69, 81. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S. T. M. Punch, Some sons of Erin in Nova Scotia (Halifax, 1980). Père Pacifique [de Valigny] [H.-J.-L. Buisson], “Le premier missionnaire de langue anglaise en Nouvelle-Écosse,” Soc. de géographie de Québec, Bull. (Québec), 26 (1932): 46–62.