John Baptist McMahon, who had been an officer in the British army, came to Lower Canada in 1821 bearing a testimonial from the bishop of Kilmore. In September of that year Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue selected him to teach English at the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe. There McMahon was able to study theology and learn French. After his ordination to the priesthood in Montreal on 18 Sept. 1824, he was sent to Chambly and then to Saint-Eustache. In September 1825 he became chaplain of the church of Saint-Jacques in Montreal. McMahon remained to a degree independent of the archbishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, and of his auxiliary in Montreal, Lartigue: he did not take an oath to stay in the colony and he provided for his own living, securing ordination through “a patrimony fixed on the seigneury of Monsieur Dessaules [Jean Dessaulles*], of Maska, and on another [property] in the town of Quebec.” Consequently he claimed in 1828 “to be lending himself” to the bishop of Quebec for the Percé and Douglastown missions, and six years later in a spirit of sacrifice he accepted the cure of souls in Sherbrooke.
In 1834, then, McMahon became the first resident priest of the new parish of Saint-Colomban (Saint-Michel), an area for which the Drummondville mission had taken responsibility since 1816. With 280 families numbering 1,124 persons, it covered an immense territory, 90 miles by 70, and a complete pastoral visit entailed a 400-mile trip and 11 days on horseback.
Demanding in size, the Sherbrooke mission had a diversity of population that made it still more difficult. Three ethnic groups lived side by side: the British, American loyalists, and the Canadians. Among these groups at least three classes of citizens had appeared: a wealthy aristocracy of Protestant clergy and members of the legal profession; a bourgeoisie of property owners, primarily British; and a proletariat of craftsmen, day labourers, servants, and squatters, of American or Canadian descent. McMahon’s parishioners were by no means generous and he often complained of their apathy towards religion. “It is sinful for a young priest to spend his best years . . . among the indifferent,” he said in a letter of 28 March 1835 to the archbishop of Quebec, Joseph Signay. The ethnic multiplicity meant variety in religion, and the Catholic priest was in contact with Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers who, while they adopted a conciliatory attitude in their personal relations, denounced papistry and sometimes harboured a certain jealousy towards Catholicism.
It was probably this political and religious situation that prompted McMahon to take a strong stand against the Patriotes in 1837 and 1838. In proclaiming his loyalty to the crown he hoped to win the confidence of the region’s British residents. He published a long article condemning the rebellion in the Sherbrooke Gazette and Townships Advertiser of 16 Nov. 1837. Then, during the octave of Christmas he delivered three hour-long sermons on the duty to obey constituted authority. He also called a meeting at Tingwick and had some Canadians and Irish sign a proclamation of submission. His zeal was judged ill-timed and brought him a severe reprimand from Archbishop Signay.
The population’s diversity may also explain the accusations against McMahon which were communicated to Signay in the spring and summer of 1839. He was accused of being drunk, of being vicious towards non-Catholics, particularly Methodists, and of engaging in immoral conduct. A canonical investigation conducted early in October by vicar general Thomas Cooke*, the parish priest of Trois-Rivières, and Hubert Robson, the curé of Drummondville, was unable to establish that he was guilty. Nevertheless, taking into account the harm done to McMahon’s reputation and the requests he had made in 1835, 1837, and 1838 for an exeat, Signay agreed early in 1840 to let him leave his charge.
McMahon was replaced by Peter Henry Harkin, who until then had been assistant priest of the parish of Saint-Roch at Quebec. In March 1840 Cooke advised Harkin about the attitude he should adopt towards McMahon, admonishing the new incumbent “to see him only rarely and at his home in order to avoid scandal [and] to urge him to go and offer his services elsewhere.” Cooke was in fact afraid that he might soon see “this poor priest wandering about the country despite his Exeat.” But McMahon chose to go to the United States, where no further trace of him has been found.
AAQ, 2 CB, XI: 8; 320 CN, VII: 194. Annuaire du séminaire Saint-Charles-Borromée, Sherbrooke, affilié à l’université Laval en 1878, année académique 1916–1917 (Sherbrooke, Qué., 1917). Desrosiers, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Lartigue,” ANQ Rapport, 1941–42. C.-P. Choquette, Histoire du séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe depuis sa fondation jusqu’à nos jours (2v., Montréal, 1911–12), 1. Albert Gravel, Messire Jean-Baptiste McMahon, premier curé-missionnaire de Sherbrooke, 1834–1840 (Sherbrooke, 1960). Maurice O’Bready, De Ktiné à Sherbrooke; esquisse historique de Sherbrooke: des origines à 1954 (Sherbrooke, 1973). Léonidas Adam, “L’histoire religieuse des Cantons de l’Est,” Rev. canadienne, 89 (janvier–juin 1921): 19–34. É.-J. [-A.] Auclair, “La pénétration catholique et française dans les Cantons de l’Est,” Semaines sociales du Canada, Compte rendu des cours et conférences (Montréal), 5 (1924): 360–73. J. I. Little, “Missionary priests in Quebec’s Eastern Townships: the years of hardship and discontent, 1825–1853,” CCHA Study sessions, 45 (1978): 21–35. Gladys Mullins, “English-speaking priests who evangelized the Eastern Townships,” CCHA Report, 7 (1939–40): 5O–52.