The son of Highland Catholic immigrants, Francis John McDonald entered St Andrew’s College in 1832 at the age of 16. The college, located in St Andrews, had been opened the previous November by Angus Bernard MacEachern*, first bishop of Charlottetown, in order to educate Roman Catholics from the region for careers in the priesthood and in lay professions. McDonald attended the little college for four years before proceeding to the Collège de Saint-Hyacinthe in Lower Canada, where he took one year of Philosophy; he then entered the Grand Séminaire de Québec to pursue his theological studies. When he was ordained on 28 June 1840 by Bishop Pierre-Flavien Turgeon*, he became the first student of St Andrew’s College to be raised to the priesthood. After his ordination he worked for three months in the parish of Saint-Roch before going back to Prince Edward Island.
On his return to the Island, Father Francis was appointed by Bishop Bernard Donald Macdonald* to the pastoral charge of Launching, with missions extending from Rollo Bay to Murray Harbour along the eastern coast. His appointment lightened the missionary burdens carried by Father John McDonald*, who had previously been responsible for virtually the whole of Kings County.
Father Francis’s missionary career was quickly overtaken by controversy. In 1843 a fierce dispute centring on the Island’s contentious land question broke out between Father John and a group of his parishioners. When an appalled Bishop Macdonald attempted to recall the embattled priest from the parish in order to avoid further embarrassment, Father John defied his superior. Bishop Macdonald was forced to suspend his faculties in order to pry him loose from the parish. In the midst of the dispute, the bishop temporarily enlarged Father Francis’s missionary responsibilities to supply Father John’s troubled mission charge. Before leaving the parish in November 1844, Father John bitterly accused the bishop and several of his clergy, including Father Francis, of fomenting strife in his pastoral charge to abet his removal.
After this difficult beginning, Father Francis quietly settled into the onerous routine of the missionary priest, criss-crossing his semi-colonized charge to perform his priestly duties. Belying the contentious role in which he early found himself, McDonald seems to have been a mild-mannered, unassuming individual. Despite his seniority, he was never appointed vicar general by any of his episcopal superiors and was apparently never considered for promotion. And yet he seems to have been an effective, dependable pastor, much loved by his parishioners.
Evidence suggests that at first McDonald made his home at Launching, but by 1852 he appears to have taken up residence in the county capital of Georgetown. In that year he supervised the construction of an addition to the church there. In 1860, over the objections of some parishioners, he replaced the pioneer chapel at Launching with a larger church in a more central location on the banks of the Grand (Boughton) River at St Georges. The size of his missionary district gradually shrank as the number of Catholic clergy in the colony rose, until by 1864 his mission charge had been reduced to Georgetown, Sturgeon, and St Georges. In 1875 he moved permanently to St Georges, where as old age overtook him he was joined by a succession of assistants during the 1880s.
In 1890 McDonald celebrated the golden jubilee of his ordination. Two years later he was succeeded as pastor by one of his former protégés, Joseph C. McLean. McDonald lived on at St Georges in retirement, growing gradually more feeble, and passed his diamond jubilee less than two weeks before his death. His eulogist observed, “The life and labors of Father Francis have been intimately bound up with the growth and progress of religion during the last sixty years in the eastern portion of the Island.” And in a rural Catholic society that relied greatly on its religious leaders, he was remembered as an advocate of many local improvements.
In the course of his long pastoral career, all of it spent in one district, McDonald became part of his people’s folklore, particularly in the parish of St Georges. Oral traditions about his miraculous healing powers persist into the present generation, and for many years clay from his grave was felt to have curative effects. The strongest tradition associated with his life is the special celebration of St Joseph’s Day each year in St Georges in thanksgiving for a miraculous favour granted in response to McDonald’s prayer. So enduring is his memory that framed photograph portraits of him still hang in many parlours throughout his former parish.
[The author wishes to express his gratitude to Marguerite MacDonald of Newport, P.E.I., and Liz Morrison of Launching Place, P.E.I., who granted interviews in the summer of 1988. g.e.macd.]
Arch. of the Diocese of Charlottetown, B. D. Macdonald papers; St George’s (St George’s, P.E.I.), reg. of burials, 1900 (mfm. at PAPEI). Charlottetown Herald, 18 July 1900. Examiner (Charlottetown), 13 July 1900. Montreal Daily Star, 21 July 1900. P.E.I. directory, 1864: 124. J. C. Macmillan, The history of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island from 1835 till 1891 (Quebec, 1913), 34.