Alexander MacDonell did his theological studies at the College of Killechiarain in Lismore, Scotland, from 1803 to 1808. Both he and Colin P. Grant, another Highland Catholic missionary who served in Nova Scotia, were ordained by Bishop John Chisholm on Easter Sunday, 17 April 1808. Following ordination he was appointed to a mission at Kintail, Scotland, where he remained until poor health forced him to relinquish his charge in 1811. That same autumn he went to Nova Scotia; it is not known whether anyone asked him to come or whether he simply decided to immigrate on his own accord.
Shortly after his arrival MacDonell began serving as an assistant to the Reverend Alexander MacDonald in the parish of Arisaig. His first months in the province were fatiguing; Gaelic-speaking missionaries such as MacDonell were few in number, and he was forced to cover an extensive territory on foot, on horseback, or by boat. Apart from Arisaig, he ministered for a while to Antigonish, and he also covered the western section of Cape Breton. Throughout this period he suffered from poor health, and on a pastoral visit in 1811 Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* found him to be sickly. During this same visit Plessis suggested to MacDonell that he should undertake further study in order to compensate for deficiencies in his theological training, but because of his enormous work-load MacDonell was not able to follow this suggestion until 1815, when it was arranged that he study under the Reverend François Lejamtel* in Arichat, N.S. He stayed there for four months, returning to Arisaig in November.
MacDonell’s responsibilities were dramatically increased by the death of his pastor, Alexander MacDonald, in April 1816. For the next two years he continued to serve Arisaig and did missionary work in Cape Breton; as well, from October 1816 to September 1817 he attended to the spiritual needs of the people in Antigonish, replacing the Reverend Rémi Gaulin*. His flock in Arisaig were apparently satisfied with his pastoral efforts, since they petitioned Bishop Plessis to allow him to remain there. Although MacDonell did not originate this petition, Vicar General Edmund Burke* of Nova Scotia assumed that he had and showed his annoyance by suggesting to Plessis that it might be better for MacDonell to work in Cape Breton or return to Scotland. Plessis officially appointed MacDonell to Cape Breton on 15 April 1818.
Upon arrival in Cape Breton, MacDonell is said to have lived with a cousin in Indian Point. Selecting the Judique district as his base, he ministered – despite his continuing bad health – to all of the Highland Catholics in what is now Inverness County. In Cape Breton in the early 1820s there were seven Scottish Catholic settlements and only MacDonell and the Reverend William Fraser* to serve them. Vicar General Angus Bernard MacEachern* of Prince Edward Island, who had responsibility for Cape Breton at this time, met MacDonell on his first pastoral visit there in 1823; he stated that the priest would need assistance in order to cover his extensive mission, since “he is too heavy for snow shoes, and no horse can carry him through deep snow.” On another occasion MacEachern expressed the belief that MacDonell was simply too slow to cover his territory satisfactorily. The corpulent MacDonell may have been slow in his movements but he was certainly effective: he assisted in having a number of churches erected, became involved in educational matters, and had some influence in provincial politics. Moreover, along with MacEachern, Grant, and Fraser, he must be given some credit for maintaining the strength of Roman Catholicism in northeastern Nova Scotia.
Worn out by missionary labours, MacDonell died in Indian Point on 19 Sept. 1841; at the time of his death he was the longest-serving priest in what is now the diocese of Antigonish. Buried in the old cemetery by Father Vincent de Paul [Jacques Merle*], his remains were later transferred to the new one in 1894. Strong and favourable memories of MacDonell remain in the Judique area. Among his ecclesiastical colleagues in Nova Scotia, Burke apparently had little use for him, referring to his “very limited ability.” Fraser, however, was more impressed. In 1828, by now vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia, Fraser noted that MacDonell “is an elephant in bulk and, like the elephant, good natured. He wants activity, but that cannot be expected; in other respects exemplary.”
AAQ, 210 A, VIII: 301; IX: 354; 310 CN, I: 92; 312 CN, IV: 3, 122, 125 (copies at Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish, N.S.). Arch. of Scots College (Pontifical) (Rome), Vicars Apostolic, 12, A. B. MacEachern to Angus MacDonald, 10 Aug. 1830 (copy at Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish). Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish, Files of the diocesan historian, A. A. Johnston, manuscript sketches, no.97 (Alexander MacDonell). PANS, RG 14, 39, 1841, nos.60, 64. [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). J. -O. Plessis, “Journal de deux voyages apostoliques dans le golfe Saint-Laurent et les provinces d’en bas, en 1811 et 1812 . . . ,” Le Foyer canadien (Québec), 3 (1865): 73, 105; Journal des visites pastorales de 1815 et 1816, par Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis, évêque de Québec, Henri Têtu, édit. (Québec, 1903), 61. Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” ANQ Rapport, 1927–28, 1928–29, 1932–33. Mabou pioneers . . . , ed. A. D. MacDonald and Reginald Rankin (2v., [Mabou, N.S., 1952?]–77). Tanguay, Répertoire (1893). A. A. Johnston, A history of the Catholic Church in eastern Nova Scotia (2v., Antigonish, 1960–71). J. L. MacDougall, History of Inverness County, Nova Scotia ([Truro, N.S., 1922]; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1976). J. C. Macmillan, The early history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island (Quebec, 1905). Cornelius O’Brien, Memoirs of Rt. Rev. Edmund Burke, bishop of Zion, first vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia (Ottawa, 1894). [Sagart Arisaig (Ronald MacGillivray)], History of Antigonish, ed. R. A. MacLean (2v., [Antigonish], 1976).