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MacEACHERN, ANGUS BERNARD (until 1822 he signed MacEacharn), Roman Catholic priest and bishop, office holder, and jp; b. 8 Feb. 1759 in Kinlochmoidart, Scotland, son of Hugh Bàn MacEachern and Mary MacDonald; d. 22 April 1835 in Canavoy, P.E.I.
The youngest child in a Highland family of middling circumstances, Angus Bernard MacEachern showed an early inclination towards the church. He became a protégé of Bishop Hugh MacDonald, vicar apostolic of the Highland District of Scotland, and, when his family joined the colonizing expedition of John MacDonald* of Glenaladale to St John’s (Prince Edward) Island in 1772, 13-year-old Angus stayed behind to study for the priesthood in the secret Highland Catholic college at Buorblach (near Morar Station). In 1777 MacEachern entered the Royal Scots College at Valladolid, Spain. He was ordained there on 20 Aug. 1787. Returning to Scotland, he spent three years as a missionary in the Inner Hebrides; then, with the reluctant consent of his vicar apostolic, Bishop Alexander Macdonald, MacEachern emigrated to St John’s Island to join his family, in company with some 230 Scots settlers.
MacEachern arrived on the Island in August 1790, “a deserving young Clergyman full of zeal, and for abilities both natural and acquired, equal to the daily discharge of his respective functions,” according to Bishop Macdonald’s testimonial. At that point the colony had been five years without a resident priest, James MacDonald* having died in 1785. Granted faculties by Bishop Jean-François Hubert* of the diocese of Quebec, of which the Maritime district formed a part, and by James Jones*, superior of missions in the Maritime colonies, MacEachern assumed spiritual responsibility for the whole island. Almost immediately, his jurisdiction was enlarged to include Nova Scotia’s gulf shore and Cape Breton Island. In the absence of any other Gaelic-speaking priest, MacEachern perforce ministered to those regions’ Highland Catholic settlers from 1791 to 1793 and again from 1798 to 1802.
That beginning established the pattern for MacEachern’s whole missionary career. Needed everywhere at once, he would endlessly criss-cross his pioneer missions from his headquarters, first on Savage Harbour and then at St Andrews. Although tolerated, his religion was still officially proscribed. Communication was poor. Travel by land and sea was at best difficult, at worst nearly impossible. And MacEachern’s flock were numerous. On St John’s Island alone his mission included over 2,000 Roman Catholics by 1798. Fluency in Gaelic, English, and (eventually) French enabled him to tend effectively his mainly Scots, Irish, and Acadian parishioners; a durable constitution helped him to weather the attendant physical hardships.
Two disputes punctuated the even, if arduous, tenor of MacEachern’s early missionary labours. The first involved Glenaladale, the Island’s leading Catholic layman. Objecting to the location and extravagance of a proposed church at St Andrews, Glenaladale had his tenants boycott both the project and the parish. While the laird had his brother, Father Augustine (Austin) MacDonald, perform mass on his estate at Tracadie (lots 35 and 36), MacEachern maintained a tactful silence and pushed ahead with his church. His protests unavailing, Glenaladale gradually abandoned the boycott. With his death in 1810 the issue, and the challenge to MacEachern’s authority, disappeared.
The second incident emphasized the precariousness of the Catholic position in Prince Edward Island. In August 1813 the Island’s new lieutenant governor, Charles Douglass Smith*, had MacEachern informed that thenceforth all marriages performed without a government licence would be considered “null and void, and of no effect in law.” Adding insult to injury, Smith dismissed the colony’s two Catholic justices of the peace a short time later. MacEachern curbed his anger and simply ignored the government’s directive, advising his bishop, Joseph-Octave Plessis, that if necessary he would send his people to Nova Scotia to be married “sooner than submit to a penny paper of such obnoxious dye.” MacEachern’s personal remonstrance to John Frederick Holland*, who had considerable influence with Smith, and perhaps more important, Plessis’s quiet intervention with Governor-in-Chief Sir George Prevost*, resulted in the lieutenant governor’s eventually denying any knowledge of the order. In keeping his opposition private, MacEachern made a graceful retreat possible for Smith. By 1819 MacEachern could report to Plessis: “Govr. Smith is not the same man he was. He is kind to me. And I am resolved to give his Excellency no cause of offense.” He did not.
The extent of MacEachern’s missionary labours underscored the chronic shortage of priests which plagued the Maritime district of the diocese of Quebec. But despite his frequent appeals to his bishop for clergy, little assistance could be tendered. Still hampered by disruptions which the British conquest had precipitated [see Jean-Olivier Briand*], the church in Quebec struggled to match a declining supply of clergy to a rising population. Uncertain status under British rule only compounded successive bishops’ difficulties. Preoccupations at the core encouraged neglect of the extremities, and in seeking clerical reinforcements, missionaries in the outlying districts were left largely to their own devices.
In MacEachern’s case, the resources were meagre. He found a measure of relief in 1799, when two French emigré priests, Jacques-Ladislas-Joseph de Calonne and Amable Pichard*, came to Prince Edward Island. But what bishops of Quebec did occasionally give, they also took away. Both priests were transferred off the Island following Bishop Pierre Denaut*’s pastoral visit in 1803, and by 1808 MacEachern was again the sole Catholic missionary in the colony. A second pastoral visit, this in 1812 by Denaut’s successor, Plessis, catalysed a long-standing scheme to provide a more permanent solution to the manpower problem. At Plessis’s direction, the first two in a whole series of Catholic youths were dispatched to Lower Canada in the fall of 1812 to study for the priesthood at the seminaries there. For the short term, Plessis assigned Jean-Louis Beaubien to assist MacEachern on the Island.
By that time, however, the continuing want of clergy and the transparent inadequacy of administrative arrangements in the sprawling diocese of Quebec had convinced MacEachern of the need for its dismemberment. Beyond that, he appeared to share with other Celtic clergy in the see a sense of alienation from the Canadian hierarchy. When his associate, Edmund Burke*, vicar general of Nova Scotia, successfully petitioned Rome in 1816 for the erection of Nova Scotia into a vicariate apostolic responsible directly to the Holy See instead of to Quebec, he probably acted with MacEachern’s foreknowledge and approval. More certainly, MacEachern took an active interest in the parallel campaign in 1817 of Alexander McDonell*, vicar general of Kingston, to carve two more vicariates out of the diocese of Quebec: one in Upper Canada, and another comprising New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Cape Breton, with MacEachern its proposed vicar apostolic. For his part, Plessis preferred reorganization of the Quebec see into an ecclesiastical province with the creation of new suffragan dioceses.
MacEachern was in Upper Canada consulting with McDonell about future arrangements when word of the Holy See’s decision was received early in 1819. Wary of offending the British government, which had endorsed McDonell’s plan but might well discountenance that of Plessis, Rome compromised. Instead of independent vicariates, or even suffragan dioceses, the Holy See appointed vicars general with episcopal character, subject still to the bishop of Quebec. In his brief, dated 12 Jan. 1819, MacEachern was named titular bishop of Rosen, responsible for New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the Îles de la Madeleine. By the time of his consecration at the church of Saint-Roch, Quebec, on 17 June 1821, Cape Breton, too, had been added to his charge.
MacEachern was clearly disappointed. To him, his elevation merely meant increased responsibility without enhanced authority. He made no protest initially, but as his problems multiplied during the 1820s, the ageing prelate’s patience began to wear thin. Much to his chagrin, MacEachern received none of the emoluments usually attached to episcopal office. Nor was he accorded any financial compensation for the arduous pastoral visitations which now became necessary; “altho’ money is as plenty with them [the archbishops of Quebec] as figs or apricots in Rome, I never received one shilling from the Diocese for my travelling expenses,” he wrote to a friend in 1828. Too distant for close supervision, recalcitrant priests defied his authority or appealed over his head to Quebec. Summarizing his position in a letter to Archbishop Bernard-Claude Panet of Quebec in 1829, MacEachern would rail at “responsibility without authority, time lost to my flock, expenses without remuneration, a decision without effect.”
Meanwhile, MacEachern became haunted by the necessity of ensuring a succession of clergy. Rising population continued to outstrip the supply of clergy without any promise of relief from Quebec. When, for example, Prince Edward Island’s first native-born priest, Bernard Donald Macdonald*, was ordained in 1822, the colony’s only Canadian priest was promptly allowed to return to Quebec. Thus, on Macdonald’s return to the Island, MacEachern was forced to employ him among the Island Acadians, stirring resentment among the Scots Catholics who had paid for his education. Despite such setbacks, MacEachern had three native-born priests at work on the Island by 1830, and was able to restrict his own mission to the eastern third of the colony.
As his frustration with existing arrangements mounted, MacEachern’s relationship with his diocesan superiors grew more strained. By 1825 he had come openly to interpret Quebec’s historic neglect as more wilful indifference than a lack of resources. Already MacEachern had commissioned Alexander McDonell to plead his case for independence when the latter embarked for London and Rome in 1824 to seek Upper Canada’s separation from the diocese of Quebec. McDonell met with partial success. The diocese of Kingston was erected, with himself as bishop, in 1826; but MacEachern’s status remained unchanged. Despite London’s ready agreement to his independence, Rome remained unconvinced.
Over the next four years MacEachern pursued a dual strategy. To Plessis’s successor, Panet, and Panet’s coadjutor, Joseph Signay*, he repeatedly stressed Quebec’s present and traditional neglect, and the inadequacy of the current administrative structure. At the same time, he fought to convince the Holy See of the need for independence. Rome’s objections were really those of Quebec. Though content to let the Maritime region shift for itself in obtaining clergy, the Quebec hierarchy remained anxious to retain ecclesiastical control over it. In answer to Quebec’s objections that he lacked sufficient resources either to ensure a succession of clergy or to maintain himself with proper episcopal dignity, MacEachern periodically assessed his personal means, and those of his prospective diocesans, and brimmed with outward confidence that the governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia would bolster the £50 per annum pension which the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly had settled on him in 1825.
Another essential component in MacEachern’s campaign for independence became his three-decade old effort to establish a classical college for the preparation of prospective seminarians. Since 1794, when his Island Scots parishioners had purchased him a 200-acre farm at St Andrews to help support such an institution, MacEachern had contemplated a local college to foster a native clergy. But over the years lack of authority, or teachers, or funds had always conspired to defeat his plans. His efforts in concert with those of McDonell in Upper Canada and Burke in Nova Scotia had brought a regional seminary within reach in 1819, but Burke’s death the following year killed the project. After 1825 MacEachern revived the idea in cooperation with William Fraser*, Burke’s eventual successor as vicar apostolic of Nova Scotia. By theoretically providing for a succession of clergy, the college would remove one key objection to independent diocesan status. But the school’s continued deferral left MacEachern in an uncomfortable dilemma: needing the college to establish his credibility as a candidate for independence, yet needing episcopal authority to command the funds to establish the college.
Paralleling the elusive college’s ecclesiastical significance was its political symbolism. The campaign on Prince Edward Island for Catholic emancipation began in earnest in 1825 with a petition to the assembly. An extensive debate in the local press followed in 1826, and a second, abortive petition in 1827. Through its additional function of educating Roman Catholic laymen, MacEachern seems to have intended the prospective college to demonstrate the Catholic population’s resources, culture, and education – in short, its fitness for civil emancipation. With that in mind perhaps, he petitioned the Island legislature in the spring of 1829 for a grant in aid of a classical college. Intent on establishing its own non-denominational school, the assembly politely refused. In the end, both emancipation and independence would be achieved before MacEachern’s college took form.
“The want of clergy in these countries is distressing, deplorable, and shameful in the extreme ! ! !” MacEachern wrote to his archbishop in May 1829. “And dreadful to reflect without any apparent chance of relief for years to come or ever from Canada. The thought is enough to distract a saint.” Unknown to MacEachern, his deliverance was at hand. Responding at length to his persistence, the Holy See created the diocese of Charlottetown on 11 Aug. 1829, comprising Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and the Îles de la Madeleine. The 70-year-old MacEachern was named its bishop elect. There seemed, however, no end to delay and uncertainty. MacEachern’s papal brief was lost en route from Rome, and a second arrived only on 14 Sept. 1830. Two months later, on 11 November, MacEachern took formal possession of his see in an elaborate ceremony at Charlottetown.
Independence proved not to be the panacea MacEachern had hoped. Indeed, experience partly justified Quebec’s objections to the see’s creation. Additional government pensions did not materialize. And, ironically, one of MacEachern’s first acts as bishop of Charlottetown was to gain assurance that the Quebec whose neglect he had so criticized would continue to supply Canadian clergy to the Acadians of New Brunswick. A stable succession of clergy, in fact, continued to be MacEachern’s greatest concern. By 1830 the feeble trickle of missionaries from the similarly priest-poor Highland vicariate of Scotland had virtually dried up. Likewise, the tedious and expensive process of educating local boys at Lower Canadian seminaries had proved of limited success. In 1826 MacEachern had obtained two free places at the college of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in Rome, yet the long-term benefits would hardly begin to meet the diocese’s manpower needs. A more immediately important step was taken on 30 Nov. 1831 when MacEachern and Bishop Fraser finally opened their regional college, at St Andrews in MacEachern’s residence. Little more than a preparatory school, however, it provided no immediate answer to the pressing need for clergy.
Instead, as during the 1820s, MacEachern was forced to rely primarily on Irish ecclesiastics who, by various means, found their way into the Maritime region. Some, like William Dollard*, future bishop of New Brunswick, proved very reliable. Many others did not, and MacEachern’s greatest episcopal headache continued to be enforcing ecclesiastical discipline.
MacEachern encountered his worst problems in New Brunswick. When his New Brunswick clergy and laity failed to support the St Andrew’s College project, he established a second school at Gedaic (near Shediac). But the new college quickly foundered in a sea of mismanagement and non-support. The heart of disaffection in New Brunswick was, perhaps, Saint John, which had a history of disobedience to episcopal authority. MacEachern spent the winter of 1831 there investigating reports of irregular conduct on the part of its pastor, John Carroll, former administrator of the vicariate of Nova Scotia. The affair took on ugly ethnic overtones as Carroll roused the Irish congregation against their Scots bishop. Even on MacEachern’s departure, after he had paid the debts owed Carroll by his parish and suspended his faculties, peace was not fully restored. Carroll eventually departed, but MacEachern had to content himself with, at best, sullen obedience from the Saint John laity.
No other major incident marred the remainder of MacEachern’s brief episcopate. In 1833 he signed St Andrew’s College over to a board of trustees (with himself as president). The following year he vacated his quarters there and moved into a new residence at Canavoy. Conscious of failing health, MacEachern took preliminary steps towards having a coadjutor named in the spring of 1835, favouring, as his personal choice, Bernard Donald Macdonald. Before further action could be taken on the matter, MacEachern was felled by a paralytic stroke in the midst of his Easter visit to the missions of Kings County, P.E.I. He died a few days later.
Angus Bernard MacEachern became one of the dominant figures on the Island during the early British colonial period. Sheer longevity – his career spanned five decades – only partly explains his stature. Another key was his own personality. A man of wit and good sense, he possessed shrewdness without cunning, dignity without pretension, and patience without passivity. To his people he was priest and doctor, teacher, lawyer, arbitrator, judge. Indulgent of, even as he was frustrated by, their reluctance to tithe themselves for his educational and ecclesiastical projects, MacEachern set an example that did much to reinforce a reliance on clerical leadership. His Canadian superiors deplored his unconcern for formality and ceremony, but that quality evidently appealed to his flock. “Father MacEachern is adored by his people,” Father Jones reported to Bishop Hubert in 1792, shortly after MacEachern’s arrival. During his pastoral visit 20 years later, Bishop Plessis recorded much the same sentiments: “The Scots and Acadians were equally pleased with his watchful care and attentiveness to duty . . . [he] is able to command universal respect.” To his cherished Scots and the obedient Acadians, MacEachern returned that affection. Of the fractious, independent Irish he was less fond, and his complaints about the irregular Irish clergy with whom he was afflicted sparked accusations of prejudice. Nevertheless, MacEachern’s open appeals to Irish bishops for clergy suggest that his objections were based less on nationality than on unhappy experience. In general, where MacEachern was best known his authority was most respected. His limited missionary contact with New Brunswick, for example, contributed to his continuing difficulties there.
The same charm and amiability that endeared MacEachern to his parishioners helped to foster the generally excellent relations with civil authorities which MacEachern exploited to win numerous small concessions for Roman Catholics. The Island government’s respect was reflected in his pension “for meritorious service” in 1825, and the annuity awarded St Andrew’s College beginning in 1834; its confidence, in his appointment as road commissioner in 1825 and justice of the peace in 1829. Although he did not lead the Maritime campaign for civil emancipation, MacEachern’s stature undoubtedly smoothed its eventual passage on Prince Edward Island in April 1830. Growing up and labouring in an environment where exercise of his religion was dependent on official indulgence helped shape MacEachern’s firm allegiance to the crown. By the same token, something more than respect for his personality lay behind officialdom’s benevolence. “A succession of clergy, well attached to Gov. t,” he reminded a British official in a letter of November 1827, “would train up their hearers as peaceable and useful subjects.” Good relations served the interests of both parties.
With the Protestant population, too, MacEachern enjoyed generally cordial relations. He was personally popular with non-Catholics and he was careful not to arouse latent religious animosities; until ordered by his bishop in 1813, he even declined to wear clerical dress. As a result of his tact, Protestants did not perceive MacEachern as a threat. Reflecting this fact, Protestant laymen not only donated land for Catholic chapels, but also pledged money towards MacEachern’s Catholic college. Against the background of a general relaxation of anti-Catholic sentiment during the period, MacEachern’s efforts helped maintain relative religious harmony in his time.
MacEachern’s missionary labours touched the whole Maritime region. And to it – excluding Nova Scotia – his most important contribution was, perhaps, ecclesiastical independence. His six-year episcopate was too short, however, to consolidate his achievement. Just as MacEachern always remained a missionary, so his diocese continued a missionary diocese. His greatest impact was on Prince Edward Island. During his 45-year pastorate there, the Roman Catholic population climbed from some 200 families, attending two places of worship, to roughly 15,000 people worshipping in eighteen churches or chapels. When he came to the colony, Roman Catholicism was an officially proscribed religion; at his death, virtually all disabilities had been removed. In ways both tangible and intangible, Angus Bernard MacEachern firmly established Roman Catholicism in Prince Edward Island. By the time of his death, he had already achieved heroic stature among his people; within years, he had passed into Island folklore.
AAQ, 310 CN, I (mfm. at Charlottetown Public Library). Arch. of Scots College (Pontifical) (Rome), Vicars Apostolic, corr. of A. B. MacEachern and William Fraser to Paul MacPherson and Angus MacDonald (transcripts at Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown). Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown, Box 1, item 1 ([A. B. Burke], “Notes on Bishop MacEachern” and “The Right Reverend Æneas B. MacEachern”); box 2; box 7. PAPEI, RG 16, land registry records, conveyance reg., liber 3: ff.47, 57; liber 32: f.452; liber 39: f.302. Supreme Court of P.E.I. (Charlottetown), Estates Division, liber 3: f.71 (will of Angus Bernard MacEachern) (mfm. at PAPEI). J.-O. Plessis, “Journal de deux voyages apostoliques dans le golfe Saint-Laurent et les provinces d’en bas, en 1811 et 1812 . . . ,” Le Foyer canadien (Québec), 3 (1865): 73–280. Prince Edward Island Register, 27 Oct. 1825; 21 Feb.–6 June 1826; 3 April 1827; 17, 24 March, 30 June 1829. Royal Gazette (Charlottetown), 20 Dec. 1831; 22–29 Jan. 1833; 22 April 1834; 28 April 1835. F. W. P. Bolger, “The first bishop,” The Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island, 1720–1979, ed. M. F. Hennessey (Charlottetown, 1979), 22–57. Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S. G. E. MacDonald, “‘And Christ dwelt in the heart of his house’: a history of St. Dunstan’s University, 1855–1955”
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Cite This Article
G. Edward MacDonald, “MacEACHERN, ANGUS BERNARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 8, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/maceachern_angus_bernard_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||G. Edward MacDonald|
|Title of Article:||MacEACHERN, ANGUS BERNARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||June 8, 2023|