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McDONELL, JOHN, Le Prêtre (1768-1850) – Volume VII (1836-1850)

d. 17 April 1850 in Pointe-Fortune, Upper Canada


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MacDONELL OF SCOTHOUSE (Scotus), ALEXANDER (Alasdair MacDhòmhnuill), Roman Catholic priest and missionary; b. c. 1740 in the West Highlands, Scotland, probably in the traditional clan lands of the MacDonells of Glengarry, son of Angus (Æneas) MacDonell of Scothouse and Catherine MacLeod of Bernera; d. 19 May 1803 in Lachine, Lower Canada.

Born of a Catholic father and a “heretic” mother, Alexander MacDonell entered the Jesuits’ Scots College at Rome (Italy) on 23 Nov. 1759. He took his vows on 25 May 1760 and was ordained priest on 19 May 1767, having completed studies in philosophy and nearly finished theology and dogmatics. The school’s register contains the notation that he was “of good disposition, with a fine mind and aptitude.” He returned to the Highlands in 1767 and served in the Knoydart area of Glengarry. One source states that he was “fairly certainly domestic chaplain at Scotos.” He aspired to the mitre in 1779 but the election resulted in a tie. Bishop George Hay sent the results to Rome with the recommendation that MacDonell’s opponent be accepted, and Rome concurred.

The disintegration of the ancient clans which had already begun before the Jacobite defeat at the battle of Culloden in 1746 proceeded more rapidly thereafter. Few clans suffered more than the Glengarry Macdonells. In 1773 approximately 600 emigrated to New York and settled on the Mohawk valley estate of Sir William Johnson*. In the early 1780s MacDonell’s Knoydart parishioners were evicted from their lands and in 1786 they prepared to emigrate, accompanied by their priest. MacDonell’s letters on the eve of departure refer to mysterious failures of the past and to his own “public bankruptcy,” but the Highland bishop, Alexander Macdonald, wrote that he was “of a respectable family . . . whose abilities both natural & acquired are equal to his Birth.” The party, some 540 strong, sailed from Greenock and arrived in Quebec on 7 Sept. 1786. Although they had intended to settle at Cataraqui (Kingston, Ont.), the emigrants were persuaded instead to join their clansmen of the 1773 emigration now settled in the townships of Charlottenburg and Lancaster.

MacDonell was less than enthusiastic about continuous residence in a remote area and the Quebec hierarchy commenced a long-standing battle to force him to live with his kinsmen in the loyalist settlement of New Johnstown (Cornwall, Ont.). Finding life at the Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice in Montreal more attractive, he was reluctant to join his flock. On 1 Sept. 1787 the superior, Henri-François Gravé de La Rive, declared to the coadjutor, Bishop Hubert*, his intention that MacDonell should set out for his mission because “he is rendering no service to the diocese” at the seminary. However the cantankerous MacDonell was not easily cowed and demanded a parish with a curate as promised by the government. Lieutenant Governor Henry Hope* intervened to deny the priest’s claim that such a commitment had been made, and pressed the church to accommodate MacDonell until his own people could support him. Later that month the church promised him £25 a year for four years once he had settled at New Johnstown. MacDonell was not pleased and complained to Bishop Louis-Philippe Mariauchau* d’Esgly, who agreed only to the allowance and a small pension for MacDonell’s mother at the general hospital.

Meanwhile the Catholics of New Johnstown were without a resident priest and on 11 Dec. 1787 they petitioned Hubert. They wished “above all things to have a Priest settled amongst them” but, being fewer than a thousand and unable to provide adequate financial support, they suggested that the revenues of a vacant parish be appropriated for this purpose. Their choice of priest was MacDonell, “he being the only man that understandes our Country Language [Gaelic].” That same month Hubert granted their request, appointing MacDonell with a stipend of £25 a year for four years. Shortly after, MacDonell was in Quebec, infuriating the hierarchy with his “uncivil reproaches” and complaints to patrons in London about lack of proper support. Gravé de La Rive upbraided him for desiring “to be treated like a milord and abound in wealth.” In turn MacDonell charged that “english priests [are treated] otherwise and more harshly than Canadian priests.” When the church refused to advance him the first year’s salary MacDonell brashly borrowed the sum, directing the lender to seek repayment from Gravé de La Rive, who did not refuse. In May 1788 MacDonell was in the New Johnstown settlement. That September he and the missionary to the Indians at St Regis (near Cornwall), Roderic MacDonell, wrote to their superior denying rumours of quarrelling between them over tithes.

In October 1789 James Jones, missionary at Halifax, N.S., and superior of missions, urged that MacDonell was the logical choice for the Highland and Acadian settlements on St John’s (Prince Edward) Island, which had been without a priest since the death of James MacDonald* in 1785. Hubert raised the matter with his vicar general at Montreal, Gabriel-Jean Brassier*, who broached it with MacDonell. Shortly after MacDonell wrote to Hubert declaring that he had “not the least inclination . . . [because] Mr. MacDonald, my old comrade, died there in wretchedness . . . I could never . . . accept any place where it would be impossible for me to enjoy feasible access to my colleagues.”

Hubert also brought up the subject of MacDonell’s stipend. The priest admitted his failure “in the pastoral attention owed to my office” but added that “it has thus far always been impossible for me to settle amongst my Scots parishioners . . . [unless] I am given more abundant resources.” He was also reluctant to take up permanent residence in the wilderness of New Johnstown because of the “advantages and amenities” of seminary life. Hubert replied on 18 Dec. 1789 that his allowance would be withheld unless MacDonell joined his flock. The letter had its desired effect and in 1790 MacDonell finally began to reside permanently in his parish.

In 1791 the old province of Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower Canada. For a brief period MacDonell’s ministry, in what became in 1792 the county of Glengarry, seems to have been unmarked by conflict. He attended to his mission and on occasion sought dispensations from the bishop to legitimize the often complicated matrimonial entanglements of his parishioners, whose customs did not always accord with those of the church. But in 1794 Hubert was once again taking MacDonell to task for presuming to hold extraordinary powers which, in fact, had not been granted. Special minor powers were often accorded to missionaries to give them some authority to settle cases such as mixed marriages normally falling within the bishop’s exclusive jurisdiction, and on 7 Nov. 1794 Hubert accorded such powers to MacDonell; they were renewed on 7 Sept. 1797. A more important issue was the reprimand by Edmund Burke (1753–1820), superior of Upper Canadian missions, ordering MacDonell “to wear his ecclesiastical habit, to stay in Montreal only in the case of necessity, and to begin to have a church and presbytery built, and to reside there.” Hubert considered MacDonell’s conduct in these matters sufficiently negligent to abrogate the condition for supporting his mission set down on 18 Dec. 1789. In a note dated 7 Nov. 1794 MacDonell discharged the bishop “from every obligation in money matters towards me,” adding acidly, “supposed to be my right.”

In 1801 MacDonell was once again embroiled in conflict. Problems had arisen over his various attempts to ensure adequate support in the Glengarry settlement. Specifically, he had demanded increased supplies of wood, the assumption by the parish of incidental expenses incurred in clothing himself properly and administering the sacraments, and the provision of “a steady and educated servant.” A servant was needed to assist him in serving mass, for “I often had to make the responses in the mass to my own self”; he could also help in attending the old, sick, and isolated. These tasks were particularly difficult because the mission was “vast in extent and split up by great barriers of forests and by Protestants,” he wrote to Hubert’s successor, Bishop Denaut, in a letter of 20 April 1801. MacDonell complained that “there were no disagreements . . . while they [his parishioners] were so poor . . . now they have been a little better off, and . . . I am having more and more difficulties every year.” He saw in their opposition not only “the intrigues of one demagogue or two” but the results of Upper Canada’s religious heterogeneity. In 1793 he had incurred the wrath of John Stuart, the Church of England clergyman at Kingston, for “assiduously . . . endeavouring to gain Proselytes” and distributing a pamphlet, no longer extant, apparently called “A Catholic’s reasons why he cannot become Protestant.” MacDonell took umbrage at “the plainness of the Calvinist worship . . . the irreligion or even the paganism of the Americans . . . who have no minister of any religion called Christian . . . and the sordid greed so natural to vile hearts, [which] led them to refuse me everything.” Burdened with debt and prey “to a mistaken hospitality,” MacDonell had been forced to give a lien on his chalice, vestments, silverware, and books. Thoroughly plunged in all sorts of afflictions, MacDonell wrote, “I have spoiled my people and I have undermined myself.” He urged Denaut to combine the Catholic usages of Scotland with the customs of Lower Canada and the Indian missions to provide a “solid and permanent footing” for religion. In May 1801 Denaut visited Glengarry in an attempt to deal with the long-simmering disputes, and he noted then that MacDonell had been sick for a month.

These quarrels within the mission came to a climax in 1802 after seven families labouring “under a load of oppression for some time past, and Debared from the Eclesiastical dues . . . like Hereticks,” petitioned the bishop to provide another confessor. They resented MacDonell’s extravagant demands for wood and opposed supporting a chapel which was both remote and privately owned. They claimed that most of the 170 families had resisted the priest but then acquiesced in the face of “the most Opprobious words and Slurs” and threats to withhold the sacraments. Only these seven families, castigated by MacDonell as “Cecedars,” held out. Some had been without the sacraments for almost three years. On 27 Feb. 1802 MacDonell proposed to Denaut that all previous arrangements about finances be continued and in addition urged the bishop to set fixed tithes on produce. In return he was willing to turn over his chapel to the parish. On 25 April Denaut answered both priest and petitioners in a pastoral letter which two days later he ordered MacDonell to translate into Gaelic. Denaut made a bow to the legitimacy of the complaints by characterizing them as imprudent rather than ill-intentioned as MacDonell had done. However he urged piety and respect for the priest and was concerned to establish a church discipline conducive to good order. MacDonell would continue as priest and a parish would be formed under the invocation of the archangel Raphael – the name attached to the parish ever since. To support MacDonell, Denaut ordered the adoption of Lower Canadian customs with regard to tithes and casual dues. The organization of the church would be regulated by three churchwardens elected by 12 electors nominated by the parish; the priest would preside over the deliberations of the wardens. In addition the parish would begin immediately to keep proper records, to observe all ceremonies of the church practicable in a new parish, and to erect a proper church.

MacDonell did not live long under the new order. During the winter of 1803 he fell ill and was taken to Lachine where he died on 19 May. His estate, including 1, 200 acres for which he had petitioned on 7 Aug. 1800, was administered by his relative Miles Macdonell*. Finding a successor seemed a problem but not for long. In October 1804 an illustrious and capable namesake, Alexander McDonell*, took over the parish. A man of much promise in his early years, Alexander MacDonell of Scothouse seems to have had his ambition frustrated in Scotland. Determined to enjoy a support equal to his status and reluctant to give up seminary life in Montreal for his wilderness mission, he proved a constant Highland thorn in the side of his French Canadian superiors throughout his ministry.

In collaboration

AAQ, 20 A, II: 161; III: 147; 210 A, I: ff.72, 78, 95, 111, 187; II: ff.46, 145, 166; IV: ff.78, 149, 198; V: f.221; VII: ff.3v, 4r; 1 CB, I: 42–43, 57, 71, 73; VI: 50; 9 CM, VI: 2, 156b; 90 CM, I: 11b; 312 CN, III: 3; 320 CN, I: 1; III: 3–8. AO, ms 444, C-1-2 (Histories of Glengarry); RG 22, ser.6–2, United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, administration of Alexander MacDonell. PAC, RG 1, L3, 331: M5/33. PRO, CO 42/18: ff.11–12; 42/82: ff.15–21. Scottish Catholic Arch. (Edinburgh), Blairs letters, 19 June 1786, Alexander MacDonell to George Hay; 3 Feb. 1788, MacDonell to John Geddes. “Clergy lists of the Highland District, 1732–1828,” comp. F. Forbes and W. J. Anderson, Innes Rev.: Scottish Catholic Hist. Studies (Glasgow), 17 (1966): 148. Mandements, lettres pastorales et circulaires des évêques de Québec, Henri Têtu et C. O. Gagnon, édit. (18v. parus, Québec, 1887– ), 2: 525–29. Kingston before War of 1812 (Preston), 287–88. Records of the Scots colleges at Douai, Rome, Madrid, Valladolid and Ratisbon . . . (Aberdeen, Scot., 1906), 138–39. “Roman Catholic Church in Upper Canada,” PAC Report, 1896, note C: 76–77. J. F. S. Gordon, Ecclesiastical chronicle for Scotland (4v., Glasgow, 1867), 4: 177, 263, 591. Alexander Mackenzie, History of the Macdonalds and lords of the isles; with genealogies of the principal families of the name (Inverness, Scot., 1881), 363.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

In collaboration, “MacDONELL OF SCOTHOUSE, ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 17, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_of_scothouse_alexander_5E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonell_of_scothouse_alexander_5E.html
Author of Article:   In collaboration
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   April 17, 2024