Catholic Church in Nova Scotia

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER I (11) start of chapter

My visits to the Catholic schools, which, as is the rule throughout America, are conducted by members of religious communities, were attended with much interest, and left upon my mind the deepest impression, not so much of the excellence of the teaching, for of that I had no doubt whatever, but of the substantial prosperity of the town, and the solid comfort enjoyed by the least wealthy portion of its inhabitants—its working population. I went through the schools conducted by the Christian Brothers, whose system of teaching and discipline is in all respects identical with that so well known in those cities of the old country which are blessed by their presence; my desire being merely to see the children, how they looked, and in what manner they were clad. Nor was my surprise less great than agreeable at the spectacle which I beheld. It was heightened by the force of contrast; as but a few days before I left Ireland I had, with others, accompanied certain distinguished Englishmen to the schools of the Christian Brothers of my own city, and the remembrance of what I there witnessed was strong and vivid. There—in Cork—there was much to gratify, much even to astonish, but there was also too much to sadden and depress. The boys bright, quick, intelligent, exhibiting in every department extraordinary proficiency, to such a degree indeed as to excite the openly-expressed amazement of the strangers; but too many of them exhibited the unmistakable evidence of intense poverty, not only in their scanty raiment but in their pale and anxious faces. What a contrast to this—in this one respect only—was presented by the schools of the Brothers in Halifax! Not a single sign or indication of poverty, not a trace of want, not a tattered coat or trowsers, not a rent, not a patch—on the contrary, every boy, whatever his age, neatly and comfortably clad, and having the appearance of robust health. Indeed such was their appearance that, had I not been repeatedly assured they were the children of working men, I should have taken them as belonging to the middle class. Bright, intelligent, bold-eyed, happy-looking boys, the right stuff for the future citizens of a free country and a progressive community.

In the schools conducted by the Sisters of Charity there was the same air of comfort and neatness in the dress of the female children; and even where a special school might happen to be overcrowded, there was an absence of that oppressive odour too common in free schools frequented by the children of the working-classes, which is mainly attributable to the poverty of their clothing. There was nothing here but comfort and decency of dress; good proofs of the conduct and condition of the class thus favourably represented.

The Catholics of Nova Scotia are estimated at 115,000, being thus divided—30,000 French, 45,000 Scotch, and 40,000 Irish. In Halifax the Catholics form one half of the population, and are almost wholly Irish.

Without going back farther than the commencement of the present century, an incident of pregnant significance will enable the reader to contrast the position of the Catholic Church of that day with the position it now enjoys. The house still occupied by Archbishop Connolly and the clergy who officiate in the cathedral, was built by the Rev. Dr. Burke, or Father Burke, as he was familiarly called. Dr. Burke was a profound scholar, and eminent for his scientific attainments. Following the natural impulse of a learned and zealous priest, he determined to establish a school for the education of the Catholic youth of that day. The Penal Laws were still unrepealed; and though, from the growing enlightenment of the age, this infamous code had fallen into disuse, it still afforded a ready weapon to the caprice or hostility of the bigot. Having been informed of the intention of Dr. Burke to establish a school, and thus, through the most effective means, elevate the condition of his co-religionists, the then Governor of the province threatened to put the law in force against the priest if he persevered in his attempt. In this conjuncture aid came from an unexpected quarter. The leading Protestants of the town exhibited their opposition to the illiberal policy of the Governor in the most effective manner, by sending their own children to a school which they had the wisdom to appreciate and the moral courage to support. The Governor, whatever the perversity of his bigotry, dared not enter into conflict with the influential allies of the Catholic priest; and so Dr. Burke and the cause of education triumphed. Young officers frequented the academy, to learn mathematics and the science of fortification from its accomplished principal. Strangely enough, the Government, whose representatives sought to crush the school and the teacher, afterwards marked its appreciation of the services of Dr. Burke—who, owing to his influence with the Indians, prevented them from joining the French in the war then raging—by conferring on him a pension of 300l. a year. It need scarcely be added, that this money was applied to the advancement of religion and enlightenment in a young and struggling mission.

The progress of the Catholic Church in Nova Scotia was slow, and not over-hopeful, for the first quarter of the present century. In the year 1816 there were about 1,500 Catholics in Halifax, and save in a few towns, where small congregations existed, the faithful were scattered over the province, the greater number hidden in the wilds and fastnesses of an almost unexplored country, and far away from the ministrations or influence of a priest. The Irish carried their faith with them into the forest; and though many of them for years never heard the once familiar voice of their pastor, they cherished in their hearts that strong attachment to the religion of their fathers which is one of the most marked characteristics of their race. As an illustration of this steadfastness in the faith, it may be mentioned that the present Archbishop, when a missionary priest, on one occasion baptised eight children of an Irish family in the midst of the woods.

The father had not seen a priest more than twice in twenty years; and what rendered his fidelity the more remarkable was the fact that he had married a Baptist, who did not regard with much favour the creed of her Catholic husband. This was as late as 1842, when there were but five priests in Halifax, and fourteen or fifteen in the entire diocese. The necessary intermarriage of Irish Catholics with members of various Protestant sects caused many of the former to lose the faith. No chapel, no priest, no mass, no administration of sacraments; nor, from the special circumstances of a country in which education had only ceased to be penal, were the Irish emigrants of the early part of this century remarkable for their literary acquirements—hence what could be more natural than that, while the parent clung passionately to the faith for which, perhaps, he had suffered at home, his children, whom he might not be able to instruct or control, should adopt the religion of their Protestant relatives? Such, at any rate, has been the case in numerous instances; and though these instances are fewer than they have been represented to be, they are sufficiently numerous to exhibit many a strange contrast between the old Catholic patronymic and the modern creed. The same circumstances produced the same result in many parts of America.

In 1820 there were but few priests in the province. The first Bishop of Halifax was consecrated in Rome in 1816, and died in 1820. A little wooden church, dignified by the lofty name of St. Peter's, was his cathedral. On its site a building more suited to the increasing wants and growing importance of the Catholic body was erected in course of time; until eventually that church, which was regarded as a splendid structure by those who first knelt before its altar, gave place to the existing cathedral, which is one of the finest edifices of the kind in America, but which is to be further extended and beautified by the addition of a magnificent facade of white marble from the celebrated quarries of West Chester, in the State of New York. The wooden 'cathedral' of the first quarter of a century was a fitting type of the Catholic Church of that day: the grand stone structure, some 180 feet in length, and with accommodation for 3,000 worshippers, fittingly represents its position at this day. Where a mere log hut was the only temple of the faith in Halifax, four churches are now insufficient for their congregations; and a new building, of the pointed Gothic order, was roofed in previous to the winter of 1866. Where there were but 20 priests in 1820, there are over 70 in the present year. These have the spiritual care of 115,000 Catholics, for whom, or by whom, more than 100 churches have been built. In 1842 the province was erected into a See, and in 1845 it was divided into two Sees, the Western and Eastern. The Western was elevated to the dignity of an archbishopric in 1852.

Bishop Walsh was created the first archbishop; and on the death of that prelate, in 1859, Dr. Connolly, then Bishop of New Brunswick, which is still within the ecclesiastical province, was transferred to Halifax. Since 1830, when first the Catholic element of Nova Scotia may be said to have acquired anything like the appearance of strength, more than 150,000l. has been expended in buildings for religious and educational purposes. Of this amount, by far the largest proportion has been raised by voluntary contribution, under the auspices and through the influence of the second archbishop; a man who, besides possessing a good intellect, considerable power as a writer and speaker, and strong common sense—a valuable quality in one who has at all times to place himself in the front—is endowed with indomitable energy and perseverance. Like his predecessor, Archbishop Connolly is one of the many prelates whom Ireland has given to the American Church. Besides the four churches and that which has been just completed, there are in Halifax three convents—two of the Order of Charity, and one of the Sacred Heart—with a House of the Christian Brothers, whose new schools form one of the most conspicuous of the architectural ornaments of the city. Nor is Halifax without a Society of St. Vincent, which finds the fitting time for its benevolent operations in the depth of the hard winter, when business is usually dull, employment consequently not so general as in the milder seasons of the year, and the feeble, the sick, and the improvident feel its rigour most keenly.

There are likewise more purely religious associations, whose object is to stimulate to the constant practice of piety, and protect the young and inexperienced from the dangers incidental to their period of life. Thus the machinery of the Church is so improved by increased means of usefulness as to be, if not fully equal to the spiritual requirements of the faithful, a complete protection against those contingencies to which loss of faith on the part of individuals or families may be fairly attributable. There is no longer an instance —at least in Nova Scotia—of a Catholic who has been for years without having seen a priest; but there is still hard work for the missionary priest in a territory so widely extended, and whose population is so thinly scattered over a vast space.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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