MacDONALD, JAMES, Roman Catholic priest and educator; b. 12 May 1819 in St Andrews parish, P.E.I., probably at St Peters Lake, Lot 39, son of Ronald “the Lake” MacDonald and Nellie MacDonald, both natives of Scotland; d. 26 June 1905 in Charlottetown and was buried in St Andrews.
Pedigree helped determine the course of James MacDonald’s career in an Island church long dominated by an interrelated circle of Highland Scots. One of his ancestors was James MacDonald*, the first Scottish Catholic missionary on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island; his mother’s sister was the widow of John MacDonald* of Glenaladale, who in 1772 had founded its first Scottish Catholic settlement.
Little is known of MacDonald’s early life. The Reverend John C. Macmillan later recorded that he was among the first students to enter St Andrew’s College, established in 1831 by Angus Bernard MacEachern*, bishop of Charlottetown, chiefly to educate prospective seminarians. He subsequently studied at the Grand Séminaire de Québec. Ordained there on 28 June 1842, he arrived back in Charlottetown on 1 September.
MacDonald’s first appointment was to the missions of eastern Prince County, including Indian River, where he took up residence. The diocese of Charlottetown was still a missionary diocese in 1842, with 13 clergy struggling to serve 22,500 Roman Catholics scattered over 33 parishes and missions. MacEachern’s successor, Bernard Donald Macdonald*, needed orthodox missionaries who could work effectively in relative isolation. In James MacDonald he got the kind of priest he badly needed. During his 27 years at Indian River, MacDonald got on well with his Scottish and Irish flock, constructed churches and parochial houses, and firmly supported his sometimes embattled bishop.
In 1856 religious controversy erupted over Bishop Macdonald’s opposition to proposed compulsory Bible-reading in the colony’s denominationally mixed public-school system. When deteriorating health prevented the bishop from responding to attacks by the pro-Bible faction, Father James defended his superior’s actions and the church’s teachings in letters in the Charlottetown Examiner on 2 and 30 March 1857. Despite this intervention, MacDonald does not appear to have been either polemical or political by nature.
Conscious that he was dying, the bishop appointed MacDonald administrator of the diocese on 11 Sept. 1859. He served in that capacity from the bishop’s death on 30 December until Peter McIntyre* was named to the vacant see on 8 May 1860. In the following autumn McIntyre appointed him one of two vicars general in the diocese, a position of seniority and trust.
In August 1869 McIntyre named Father James to succeed Angus McDonald* as rector of St Dunstan’s College, Charlottetown, then heavily in debt. Although MacDonald had served on its board of trustees since 1861, he was not an academic, and professors were brought in for the first time during his rectorship. He began his term with cautious optimism, which gradually diminished as political events impinged on college affairs. McIntyre’s long campaign for a government-funded separate-school system was crushed when a “Free School” coalition under Louis Henry Davies* won the provincial election of 1876. St Dunstan’s thus lost its best hope of financial salvation, and MacDonald became increasingly discouraged. In 1879 the board of governors elected Cornelius O’Brien, a former head professor, as rector, but when he refused the post, MacDonald was forced to continue. A year later McIntyre persuaded the Jesuits to take over the school, and MacDonald returned to pastoral work.
Perhaps as a reward for his labours, he was assigned to his native parish, St Andrews, and its adjacent mission at Morell. His pastorate there was uneventful, marked chiefly by his appointment as monsignor by Pope Leo XIII in August 1887. In 1900 failing health forced his retirement, and he spent his last years quietly in Charlottetown.
James MacDonald was notable for neither the force of his intellect nor the power of his leadership, and his years as rector of St Dunstan’s ended in a kind of quiet desperation. But he was remarkable for his nearly six decades of yeoman service in the diocese of Charlottetown. He began his career as a peripatetic missionary in a pioneer community; he ended it a venerable country priest in the place of his birth.
AAQ, 310 CN, I: 146, 149; II: 17. Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown, Episcopal acts of the diocese, 1886–1919: 13; Indian River, RBMB (mfm. at PARO, Acc. 3271/18–19); B. D. Macdonald papers, box 3, folder 2; Peter McIntyre papers; Reports for St Andrews parish and for St Lawrence O’Toole parish [also known as St Joseph’s] (Morell), 1884, 1886–90, 1894–95. Diocese of Charlottetown Chancery Office, Records of St Dunstan’s Univ., minutes of the board of trustees, 29 July 1869; 4 July, 5 Aug. 1879. NA, RG 31, C1, 1891, Prince Edward Island (photocopies at P.E.I. Museum). PARO, Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island, Estates Div. records, liber 6: f.50; liber 16: f.543 (mfm.). P.E.I. Museum, Geneal. Div. files, esp. cemetery transcriptions for St Andrews Roman Catholic Cemetery. Univ. of P.E.I. Library (Charlottetown), P.E.I. Coll., R. B. Macdonald, “MacDonalds in P.E.I.” (typescript, c. 1892–94). Charlottetown Herald, 13 Aug. 1869, 7 Sept. 1887, 28 June 1905. Daily Examiner (Charlottetown), 27 June 1905. Daily Patriot (Charlottetown), 27 June 1905. Examiner (Charlottetown), 2, 30 March 1857. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 6 Sept. 1842. The arrival of the first Scottish Catholic emigrants in Prince Edward Island and after, 1772–1922 (Summerside, P.E.I., 1922), 110–11. Katherine Hughes, Archbishop O’Brien: man and churchman (Ottawa, 1906), 29–35. G. E. MacDonald, The history of St. Dunstan’s University, 1855–1956 (Charlottetown, 1989). J. C. Macmillan, The history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island from 1835 till 1891 (Quebec, 1913). I. R. Robertson, “Religion, politics, and education in P.E.I.”