McDONALD, JOHN, priest, landed proprietor, colonizer, and land agent; b. in 1796 or 1797 at Tracadie, P.E.I., third son of Captain John McDonald and his second wife Margaret Macdonald; d. 12 Oct. 1874 at Brighton, Eng.
John McDonald was born into the Jacobite family of a Highland tacksman or laird who in 1772 sent 210 Roman Catholic Scots to the central part of the Island of St John (P.E.I.). John McDonald Sr arrived in 1773, established a large house, New Glenalladale, at Tracadie, and settled the “opprest people” on his estate. In September 1813 his widow sent her sons John and Roderick to Lower Canada where they studied at the college of Nicolet. In 1820 John proceeded to England and later to France for further study; he was ordained in Paris in May 1825, the second Island native to become a priest.
Family financial difficulties had compelled John McDonald to obtain assistance from a Scottish bishop to complete his education. In return he had agreed to do missionary work in Glasgow after his ordination, and he remained there until spring 1830. At that time Father McDonald departed for Prince Edward Island taking with him 206 Scots and Irish as tenants for the lands he had inherited. He settled the immigrants at Fort Augustus, and took up residence with his mother at Tracadie. In addition to being priest and landlord, he also acted as land agent for his brother Roderick. This accumulation of functions resulted in considerable discontent among the tenants in the area, most of whom were his parishioners. As a result he soon left for a position in Lower Canada but, after a brief stay, returned to Tracadie. In mid-1835 renewed conflict in Tracadie and the need for a Gaelic-speaking priest in eastern Kings County led Bishop Bernard Donald MacDonald* to transfer McDonald there. He was for a time more successful as a priest than he had been previously. However he was working in an area well known for its radical or escheat views on the land question [see George Coles], and it became apparent that he and his parishioners were in fundamental disagreement. The situation was aggravated by McDonald’s attitude toward the people whom “he regarded as his inferiors in every respect,” according to the Catholic historian John C. MacMillan.
In March 1843 Sir Henry Vere Huntley* called out troops to enforce the legal rights of property on lots 44 and 45 of the Cunard estate. When they were given accommodation by Father McDonald many of the settlers suspected that his class position and sympathies had led the priest to concur in, or even suggest, the action. Local sentiment against him was so strong that the bishop, after a visit to the district, requested in September 1843 that Father McDonald leave the area within a month. He refused, with the result that his parishioners took matters into their own hands. On 1 Jan. 1844 under the leadership of their escheat assemblyman, John Macintosh*, they elected new elders (customarily appointed by the priest) and directed them to tell McDonald “to quit the Parish, in a fortnight, or month, as they might determine.” At the next Sunday mass, McDonald refused to recognize the new elders; Macintosh rose demanding a hearing and was only silenced when the priest knelt in prayer. The service then ended with Father McDonald retreating to the parochial house and Macintosh angrily berating him.
The priest took legal action against the assemblyman, and employed as his lawyers the Tory politicians Robert Hodgson and Edward Palmer*. Macintosh was acquitted by a jury, and the bishop, who had opposed the action, ordered McDonald to leave the parish. Although many of the congregation were now boycotting his church, the priest refused and did not withdraw to Tracadie until he was suspended from his duties late in 1844. After this reprimand, McDonald, who felt the bishop and neighbouring priests had conspired with the escheators against him, resolved never again to serve in the Island diocese. Leaving his estate on lots 35 and 36 in the hands of an agent, he went to Quebec City in 1845. After teaching church history at the seminary there, he proceeded to England where he held several charges near London until his health deteriorated. He then retired to a convent in Brighton where he died.
Father John McDonald appears to have been a man of considerable talent. According to MacMillan “he was a preacher of more than ordinary power,” and the author of “a few minor works, one of which, a manual of devotion and an abridgement of Christian doctrine combined, had at one time a wide circulation among the people of eastern King’s County.” He was fluent in three languages – Gaelic, English, and French. Nevertheless, during his years in his native colony these abilities were largely negated by his class position and attitudes, and by his insensitivity to the antagonisms thus generated. By the mid-1840s John McDonald had outlived his usefulness as a pastor in P.E.I. and was virtually compelled to go where the performance of his religious functions would not be impaired by his social rank.
Archives of the diocese of Charlottetown (Roman Catholic), Bishop Bernard D. MacDonald papers, letter book of bishops MacDonald and Peter MacIntyre; a tattered copy of a volume published by Father John McDonald containing reprints of documents relevant to his conflicts with John Macintosh, Bishop MacDonald, and his fellow priests (the first four pages are missing but the probable date of publication is 1845). Prince Edward Island, Supreme Court, Estates Division, will of John McDonald, 14 June 1872. Examiner (Charlottetown), 16 Nov. 1874. Islander (Charlottetown), 26 July, 16, 23 Aug. 1844. Palladium (Charlottetown), 25 July 1844. R. C. Macdonald, Sketches of Highlanders: with an account of their early arrival in North America . . . (Saint John, N.B., 1843). The arrival of the first Scottish Catholic emigrants in Prince Edward Island and after, 1772–1922 (Summerside, P.E.I., 1922), 27, 37–40, 50–53, 110. James Donahoe, Prince Edward Island priests who have labored or are laboring in the sacred ministry outside the diocese of Charlottetown (St Paul, Minn., 1912), 3, 25–28. J. C. MacMillan, The early history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island (Quebec, 1905), 43–44, 151, 189, 193, 208–9, 279–80, 292–93; Catholic Church in PEI, 3–5, 10–11, 45–52, 308. John Prebble, The Highland clearances (London, 1969), 12–19. A. F. MacDonald, “Captain John MacDonald, ‘Glenalladale,’ “ CCHA Report, 1964, 21–37. Ada MacLeod, “The Glenaladale pioneers,” Dal. Rev., XI (1931–32), 311–24. J. F. Snell, “Sir William Macdonald and his kin,” Dal. Rev., XXIII (1943–44), 317–30.