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b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


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MacDONALD, WILLIAM PETER, Roman Catholic priest, journalist, and author; b. 25 March 1771 in the parish of Eberlow, Banffshire, Scotland, son of Thomas MacDonald and Ann Watt; d. 2 April 1847 in Toronto.

William Peter MacDonald studied at the seminary of Douai, France, and at the Royal Scots College in Valladolid, Spain, where he was ordained to the priesthood on 24 Sept. 1796. After teaching for two years at the seminary in Aquhorthies, Scotland, he was employed from 1798 to 1810 in the Catholic ministry in his native land. In 1810 he participated in the expedition to liberate the deposed Ferdinand VII of Spain, held prisoner by Napoleon, and two years later he was appointed chaplain of the Baron de Roll’s regiment of infantry. For some time before his return to Scotland in 1814 he served as chaplain to the British embassy in Madrid. He continued to work in the Scottish missions until Bishop Alexander McDonell of Kingston, Upper Canada, invited him to his diocese in 1826. Having responded favourably to this overture, MacDonald was assigned to St Raphaels parish in Glengarry County, where he ministered from December 1826 to 1829 and became first rector of Iona College. Shortly after his arrival, he was promoted vicar general of the diocese of Kingston. The Canadian clergy was impressed with Bishop McDonell’s new recruit, a man who had already published a book of poetry dedicated to Edward* Augustus, the Duke of Kent.

MacDonald was to serve as pastor of a number of Upper Canadian parishes: Kingston 1829–34, Toronto 1834–35, Bytown (Ottawa) 1835–36, Brockville 1836–38, Hamilton 1838–46, and Toronto 1846–47. He wrote two more works during these years, one a polemical anti-Protestant tract, the other a pamphlet refuting arguments made by the Anglican archdeacon of Toronto, John Strachan*, on the occasion of the conversion to Roman Catholicism of John Elmsley*. He also compiled a collection of hymns which remained unpublished. Upon being transferred to Hamilton late in 1838, he immediately undertook the construction of a stone church, completed in the autumn of 1839, and a stone rectory, which was finished shortly afterwards.

MacDonald never got along well with his ecclesiastical superiors. Mutual suspicion, even contempt, seems to have been the prevailing mood. After arriving in Bytown in the autumn of 1835, he proceeded to make arrangements with the Catholics of Hull and Templeton, in the diocese of Montreal, to serve their religious needs in return for their contributing to the support of the two priests in Bytown. Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue of Montreal was not consulted and was consequently miffed. The year before, when Bishop McDonell had appointed MacDonald to Toronto, coadjutor bishop Rémi Gaulin* commented that given his poor qualities as a parish administrator, MacDonald was a most unfortunate choice, particularly in the light of the strong feeling in Toronto against the Scots. For his part, MacDonald was regularly critical of his bishops and his fellow clergymen.

On 22 Oct. 1830 appeared the first issue of the Catholic, a weekly newspaper established by MacDonald and printed in Kingston by Thomas Dalton. The title page explains the paper’s raison d’être: “an exposition of the Catholic doctrine, designed to repel the calumnies and misrepresentations, which though so often refuted, have been constantly reiterated in the sectarian papers in these provinces.” A spirited, and sometimes acrimonious, debate was thus initiated between the Catholic, Egerton Ryerson*’s Christian Guardian, Adam Hood Burwell’s Christian Sentinel, and other newspapers. The last issue of volume I of the Catholic appeared on 14 Oct. 1831. The author/publisher then discontinued the paper, alleging overwork and some criticism. Ten years later, however, MacDonald resurrected the periodical. It continued until May 1844, when it was sold. From 1841 through 1844, MacDonald frequently complained of the lack of financial support for his paper from various churchmen. “All is dead in our Diocese,” he commented.

Following the erection of the diocese of Toronto on 17 Dec. 1841, its first bishop, Michael Power, appointed MacDonald his vicar general (10 May 1842). MacDonald was the promoter of the first Toronto synod, held in early October 1842. In March 1844, however, Power dismissed MacDonald as vicar general for disciplinary reasons, although he kept him as pastor of Hamilton. The bishop’s main complaint was that, contrary to the regulations of the synod, MacDonald did not wear his soutane on the streets of Hamilton.

Within two years MacDonald had not only been reinstated as vicar general but, along with Father John James Hay, had also been chosen by Power to administer the diocese of Toronto during the bishop’s six-month journey to Europe. In December 1846 MacDonald left Hamilton, where he had been replaced by Edward John Gordon*, to reside in the newly completed bishop’s palace in Toronto. He died there on 2 April 1847, his remains being buried in the unfinished St Michael’s Cathedral.

Robert Choquette

William Peter MacDonald’s volume of poetry dedicated to the Duke of Kent was published in London in 1818 as The moneiad: or, the power of money. His anti-Protestant tract appeared under the title The Protestant, or negative faith refuted, and the Catholic, or affirmative faith demonstrated from Scripture (Kingston, [Ont.], 1836). The Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto holds a bound volume of his manuscript hymns entitled “Hymns translated from the latin Originals; With Others; and Occasional Poems on Sacred Subjects, composed by the Revd. Wm. MacDonald, Vicar General, U.C.” at M (Macdonell papers), AE22.01. MacDonald is also the author of Remarks on Doctor Strachan’s pamphlet against the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist . . . (Kingston, 1834).

ACAM, 255.102, 834-5. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Kingston, AI (Alexander MacDonell papers, corr.), 1 C24-9, 2C3-32, 2C4; BI (Remigius Gaulin papers, corr.), 1C15-1, -3, -5; CI (Patrick Phelan papers, corr.), 2C21. Arch. of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, LB 02 (Michael Power, letter-book, 1842–65): 130–32, 145–47, 260–61; M (Macdonell papers), AE01.01–2, .04; AE02.01; AE16.01; AE19.03; CA17.01, .03, .09. Michael Power, Constitutiones diocesanœ in synodo Torontina prima latæ et promulgatœ (Toronto, 1842). Catholic, a Religious Weekly Periodical (Kingston; Hamilton, [Ont.]), 1830–31, 1841–44. Robert Choquette, L’Église catholique dans l’Ontario français du dix-neuvième siècle (Ottawa, 1984). S. D. Gill, “‘The sword in the Bishop’s hand’: Father William Peter MacDonald, a Scottish defender of the Catholic faith in Upper Canada,” Study Sessions, 50 (1983): 437–52.

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Cite This Article

Robert Choquette, “MacDONALD, WILLIAM PETER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_william_peter_7E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_william_peter_7E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Choquette
Title of Article:   MacDONALD, WILLIAM PETER
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   March 4, 2024