DESBRISAY, THEOPHILUS, Church of England clergyman, jp, office holder, and politician; b. 9 Oct. 1754 in Thurles (Republic of Ireland), son of Thomas Desbrisay* and Ellen Landers (Landen); m. 1778 Margaret Stewart, daughter of Peter Stewart*, and they had six sons and seven daughters; d. 14 March 1823 in Prince Edward Island.
Theophilus Desbrisay’s appointment as governor’s chaplain for St John’s (Prince Edward) Island was obtained for him in 1774 by his father, the lieutenant governor. A student at Trinity College, Dublin, Theophilus was already in deacon’s orders. He was ordained to the priesthood by the bishop of Waterford on 3 July 1775, although he was not yet of canonical age, and he then set out for Charlottetown. In the Strait of Canso the vessel on which he was a passenger was captured by American privateers who had just plundered Charlottetown. Following his release, he arrived late in the year at the capital only to discover that there were no funds for his support and the £3,000 allocated by the crown in 1772 for construction of a church, court-house, and jail had been appropriated by Governor Walter Patterson* to pay government salaries.
Desbrisay found a berth on a man-of-war, which he served as chaplain for two years. In 1777 he was assured a stipend and he took up residence ashore. When the parish of Charlotte was created in 1781, Desbrisay became the first rector. Later he served as a justice of the peace and an overseer of roads. By 7 Oct. 1782 he had become a member of Council, but his resignation was accepted on 16 April 1784. Reappointed on 15 May 1787, he did not attend any meetings after 24 September, and it is possible that his disappearance from the record is connected with the reinstatement in October of Phillips Callbeck*, Thomas Wright*, and others, who had been suspended earlier in the year.
Desbrisay’s ministry was complicated by his relationship through blood or marriage with many in his cure of souls. For example, he encountered both pastoral and familial difficulties when in the early 1780s Chief Justice Peter Stewart accused his wife, Mrs Desbrisay’s stepmother, of having been “compromised” by Governor Patterson and expelled her from his bed and board.
From 1780 to 1801 Desbrisay made his home at Covehead, a rural retreat on the Island’s north shore, saying that he considered Charlottetown “a wicked place” and himself “more retired and happy in the country.” He came to town on weekends to conduct divine service and devoted the remainder of his time to his family and the cultivation of his garden, in the manner of an English squire-parson. Services were held in private residences or more commonly in a house which also functioned as the Cross Keys Tavern. When the bishop of Nova Scotia, Charles Inglis*, visited in 1789, he showed his disapproval of having worship conducted in “so very improper a place” by holding service in the house of former governor Patterson. He also upbraided the churchwardens and vestry for their failure to build a church; they in turn laid the blame on Patterson for his requisition of the moneys the crown had provided. However, Inglis was pleased with Desbrisay, whom he described as a “decent, sensible young man.”
Following construction in 1800–1 of a church in Charlottetown, Desbrisay took up residence in town, where he remained until his death in 1823. He was reported to be “a man of liberal sentiments and of a benevolent disposition” who “faithfully reproved the prevailing sins in the highest as well as the lowest, even when his doing so gave great offence in high quarters, and among his own relatives.” His theological position and understanding of his pastoral duties were said to be influenced by the Calvinist doctrines of his Scottish Presbyterian neighbours. If so, it was an influence reinforced by his own family history, for the Desbrisays were originally French Huguenots. In any case, he was irenic in his relationships with those whose religious loyalties differed from his own, particularly the Presbyterians, who shared the use of the church building. But the respect in which he was held was a minor factor in the fortunes of his church in the colony: the established church’s identification with the absentee land proprietors, the Charlottetown élite, and the crown (which was expected to supply all its needs without effort on the part of its adherents), together with his own lack of enterprise in ministering to the religious needs of settlers in rural areas, meant a slow start for the Church of England in the colony. It did not begin to show signs of vigorous life until the 1840s.
Diocesan Church Soc. of P.E.I. Arch. (Charlottetown), Peter MacGowan, diary; Notes on the hist. of the Anglican Church in P. E. I., comp. T. R. Millman and Edgar MacNutt. PAPEI, RG 5, minutes, 1782, 1787. P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation (Charlottetown), DesBrisay family notes. St Paul’s Anglican Church (Charlottetown), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials for the parish of Charlotte. Prince Edward Island Register, 12 Oct. 1824. “Completion of the correspondence and journals of the Right Reverend Charles and John Inglis, first and third bishops of Nova Scotia,” PAC Report, 1913, 227–83. Frank MacKinnon, The government of Prince Edward Island (Toronto, 1951). T. R. Millman and A. R. Kelley, Atlantic Canada to 1900; a history of the Anglican Church (Toronto, 1983). George Patterson, Memoir of the Rev. James MacGregor, D.D. . . . (Philadelphia, 1859). Percy Pope, “The Church of England in Prince Edward Island,” Past and present of Prince Edward Island . . . , ed. D. A. MacKinnon and A. B. Warburton (Charlottetown, ), 244–77. Two hundred and fifty years young: our diocesan story, 1710–1960 (Halifax, 1960). Warburton, Hist. of P.E.I.