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MACDONALD, RONALD, Roman Catholic priest, educator, and bishop; b. 2 June 1835 in Malignant Brook (Maryvale), N.S., son of Hugh MacDonald and Flora MacDougall; d. 16 Sept. 1912 in Montreal.

Ronald Macdonald was born into an old Scottish family established in Nova Scotia since 1787. He received his early education at the local parish school and in Lismore and Cape George. He then studied theology at St Francis Xavier College in Arichat and, after its relocation, in Antigonish. Following his ordination on 2 Oct. 1859, he taught Latin and Greek classics at St Francis Xavier for three years and during the academic year 1861–62 served as director of studies.

From 1862 Macdonald, for a time assisted by his brother Roderick McDonald, was pastor in Pictou, a charge that included Albion Mines (Stellarton) and Merigomish. At some point after confederation he also served as Indian agent for Pictou County. He proved himself an able and frugal administrator, erecting several churches and a convent, and during the mine disaster of 1873 at the Drummond mine in Westville, was a sensitive pastor to the bereaved families.

When the see of Harbour Grace in Newfoundland became vacant following the departure of Enrico Carfagnini* in 1879, Bishop John Cameron* of Arichat was entrusted with finding a successor. He recommended Macdonald for the position and consecrated him bishop in Pictou on 21 Aug. 1881. That the new bishop arrived as “an entire stranger” in his diocese was an asset, since he needed to heal the wounds caused by the authoritarian and divisive rule of Bishop Carfagnini and his administrator, Diomede Falconio. Where his predecessor had attempted to centralize control of the large mission territory and had concentrated his efforts in the populated areas, Macdonald especially sought to serve “the isolated familes in . . . remote communities” and to raise the status and economic opportunities of Roman Catholics. He worked to establish harmony between priests and people and between Catholics and Protestants. The need for such peace was vividly demonstrated by the bloody Harbour Grace affray of 1883, which left five dead and seventeen injured.

In matters of theology the bishop hardly distinguished himself from other church leaders of his day. He was progressive, however, in seeing the potential for agricultural development in Newfoundland and in actively encouraging the exploitation of natural resources at a time when industrialization had belatedly reached the island’s resource-rich central and western regions. The bishop’s 23-acre model farm, inherited from his predecessor, became a centre for agricultural experiments and demonstrations. In 1899 he was appointed chairman of a government commission “to enquire into agriculture and industries.”

Macdonald personally saw no conflict between science and religion. That it existed elsewhere he attributed to positivist or anti-Christian ideologies, which rejected the claims of revealed religion on philosophical grounds. The key to scientific and technological progress, he believed, lay in education; in 1906 he proclaimed, “Education brings forth the best that is in us, and lays open to energy and enterprise all that is best in the resources of our environment.” The bishop’s efforts resulted in the building of 115 schools, including the Harbour Grace Academy, which provided a first-class education for Catholics outside St John’s.

Macdonald also strengthened Roman Catholicism from within by establishing new churches and missions, increasing the number of clergy, and encouraging the work of the Presentation sisters. Together with Bishop Michael Francis Howley of St John’s, he agitated in Rome for provincial status for the church in Newfoundland and, against the wishes of its vicar apostolic, Neil McNeil*, for a separate diocese of St George’s on the west coast, both of which became realities during Macdonald’s episcopate.

Failing health and advancing years led to the bishop’s resignation in 1906. After serving briefly as administrator of the diocese, he retired with archiepiscopal honours to Pictou. He died while in hospital in Montreal and is buried in Maryvale.

Hans Rollmann

Publications by Ronald Macdonald include The earliest Highland Catholic mission in Nova Scotia: a sermon preached at the dedication of the Church of StMargaret’s, Arisaig, July 15th, 1878 (Pictou, N.S., 1878); “Catholic higher education,” in StFrancis Xavier’s College, Antigonish, N.S.: prospectus and course of studies, with the introductory lecture . . . at the opening of the college, Sept. 10th, 1878 (Pictou, 1878); and his farewell address, Pastoral letter addressed to the clergy and laity of the diocese of Harbor Grace (Harbour Grace, Nfld, 1906). As chairman of the Newfoundland agricultural commission, he co-authored Report of agricultural commissioners appointed by the government to enquire into agriculture and industries (St John’s, 1899).

Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, “Diocese of Harbour Grace”; Macdonald to M. F. Howley, 17 Feb. 1899, 2 Nov. 1902. NA, MG 17, A25, “Inventaire des principales séries de documents intéressant le Canada, sous le pontificat de Léon XIII (1878–1903), dans les archives de la Sacrée Congrégation ‘de Propaganda Fide’ à Rome,” Monique Benoit, compil. (1985). St Francis Xavier Univ. Arch. (Antigonish), J. D. Cameron, “History of St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish)”; John Cameron papers, Macdonald to Cameron, 11, 22 Feb. 1879; A. A. Johnston, “Antigonish diocesan priests,” no.174. Daily News (St John’s), 19 Sept. 1912. Evening Mail (Halifax), 18 Sept. 1912. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 18 Sept. 1912. Harbor Grace Standard, 3 Sept., 1–15 Oct. 1881; 20, 27 Oct. 1883. “Right Rev. Ronald MacDonald: a brief sketch of his life and work,” Harbor Grace Standard, 8 Oct. 1881. John Roe, “A famous letter: Father Roe’s account of the Harbor Grace tragedy,” Evening Mercury (St John’s), 15 July 1884.

      Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Canadian R.C. bishops, 1658–1979, comp. André Chapeau et al. (Ottawa, 1980). Centenary of the diocese of Harbor Grace, [1856]–1956, [comp. R. J. Connolly] ([St John’s, 1956]). DNLB (Cuff et al.). J. K. Hiller and Paul O’Neill, “Notes from the lecture on the Harbour Grace affray – one hundred years later” (typescript of lecture read before the Newfoundland Hist. Soc., [St John’s], 24 Nov. 1983; copy in Memorial Univ. of Nfld Library, St John’s). A history of the Roman Catholic Church in Harbour Grace, comp. R. J. Connolly (St John’s, 1986). A. A. Johnston, A history of the Catholic Church in eastern Nova Scotia (2v., Antigonish, 1960–71). D. J. Rankin, A history of the county of Antigonish, Nova Scotia (Toronto, 1929), 176–79.

General Bibliography

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Hans Rollmann, “MACDONALD, RONALD (1835-1912),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed October 31, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_ronald_1835_1912_14E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/macdonald_ronald_1835_1912_14E.html
Author of Article: Hans Rollmann
Title of Article: MACDONALD, RONALD (1835-1912)
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: October 31, 2014