Henry McKeagney received his early education and perhaps some of his theological training in Ireland since he was a student at the Séminaire de Québec only from September 1820 until his ordination to the priesthood by Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis* of Quebec on 30 Sept. 1821. McKeagney was then assigned to St Patrick’s Church in Quebec, where he served until October 1822. During his period at the seminary he had met Bishop Angus Bernard MacEachern*, who as Plessis’s suffragan was responsible for Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Cape Breton Island, and the Îles de la Madeleine. It was perhaps at MacEachern’s request that McKeagney agreed to go to Cape Breton in 1822. He served with the Reverend Hyacinthe Hudon* at Arichat from November 1822 until January 1823 and then moved to L’Ardoise as its first resident priest. He evidently had a difficult time there, telling Plessis in 1823 that “ever since I came here I have suffered the utmost misery.” MacEachern concurred that McKeagney was “half starved at L’Ardoise.”
From his base on southern Cape Breton, McKeagney served a large Acadian population and some Irish Catholics as well as caring for the Micmac Indians at the historic Chapel Island mission. The missionary thought highly of his Acadian people and they in turn liked him as their pastor. He spent most of his first winter in the region on Chapel Island, informing Plessis that he did so because of inadequate accommodation at L’Ardoise. In reply, Plessis informed McKeagney that he was pleased with his work among the Indians but that his principal residence was to be at L’Ardoise. This conflict with the hierarchy was a foretaste of things to come.
Because of a scarcity of priests on Cape Breton Island, in October 1823 MacEachern asked McKeagney to take over the eastern district of the island. McKeagney, in a demonstration of independence for which he later became noted, did not wish to move and argued that his obedience was due only to Bishop Plessis. He remained at L’Ardoise until Plessis ordered him to move in October 1824. When he finally made the transfer in January 1825 he was instructed to live at Low Point but chose instead to live at a boarding-house in Sydney, where he was the first resident pastor. Plessis had reservations about McKeagney’s living in Sydney, believing that he would perform better in a rural setting. Among the places included in McKeagney’s new mission were Sydney, Little Bras d’Or, and Main-à-Dieu.
Although dissatisfied with his appointment McKeagney was to stay in Sydney for the remainder of his active pastorate. His time there, however, was not particularly happy, for almost from the moment of his arrival he became involved in controversy with either his parishioners or his superiors. In 1828 he began the erection of a stone church, St Patrick’s, but many years passed before it was completed. It was in connection with the building fund that some of his parishioners complained to both McKeagney himself and MacEachern. They claimed that those who contributed were not credited with the full amounts given. McKeagney was also accused of racing horses, buying shipwrecked foods at a public auction and selling them at a profit, threatening his congregation from the altar, disregarding his priestly duties, and obstructing the civic magistrates. MacEachern informed Bishop Bernard-Claude Panet* of Quebec that he had received many criticisms of McKeagney, but the Sydney pastor denied the charges and accused his detractors of lying.
Although he continued as pastor in Sydney until 1840, McKeagney still had his critics. In 1836 he was absent from his parish for several months and Bishop William Fraser, the vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia, had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Patient with McKeagney for a number of years, Fraser finally suspended him from his pastorate in 1840. McKeagney continued to reside in Sydney and made unsuccessful efforts to have the bishop restore him as pastor. According to Bishop William Walsh, after his retirement McKeagney became involved in court litigation in Halifax. He died in Sydney on 4 June 1856 and was buried in St Patrick’s cemetery by the Reverend James Quinan.
Henry McKeagney worked effectively as a missionary priest but his tenure in Sydney cannot be described as completely peaceful. It may be that, like some other clerics from abroad, he found it difficult to adjust to pastoral life in a rugged environment. Certainly, he was not cast from the common mould.
AAQ, 210 A, XI: 16, 209; 310 CN, I: 114; 312 CN, VII: 25, 39–40, 46, 333 (copies at Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish, N.S.). Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish, Files of the diocesan historian, A. A. Johnston, manuscript sketches, no.87 (A. B. MacEachern); no.114 (Henry McKeagney). Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown, A. B. MacEachern papers, Plessis to MacEachern, 1825 (copy at Arch. of the Diocese of Antigonish). T. C. Haliburton, An historical and statistical account of Nova-Scotia (2v., Halifax, 1829; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973). Cape Breton: a bibliography, comp. and ed. Brian Tennyson (Halifax, 1978). David Allison, History of Nova Scotia (3v., Halifax, 1916). J. G. Bourinot, Historical and descriptive account of the island of Cape Breton (Montreal, 1892). Richard Brown, A history of the island of Cape Breton, with some account of the discovery and settlement of Canada, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland (London, 1869). A. A. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S. J. G. MacKinnon, Old Sydney; sketches of the town and its people in days gone by (Sydney, N.S., 1918).