The Irish and their Pastors

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER II (11) start of chapter

The spiritual provision for the Catholic population of the island, now estimated at 40,000—French, Scotch, and Irish—is steadily on the increase. There are 42 churches and 18 priests, besides three convents of nuns, having the care of academies and schools, in which the children are carefully instructed in their faith.

Two buildings in Charlottetown attest more eloquently than words the history and progress of the Catholic Church in the colony. The one, now used as a school, denotes, by certain lines on its roof, that it had been more than once enlarged while used as the only church for Catholic worship in the capital—in fact, the cathedral. The other is the existing cathedral, a handsome and imposing structure, furnished with a valuable organ, and capable of accommodating the Catholics of the town, in number about 2,500, who, with but a few exceptions, are Irish, or their descendants of the first generation.

To the French, of whom some were the Acadians who had been so ruthlessly banished from their home in Nova Scotia, was the gift of the faith due in Prince Edward Island. Then came the Highland Scotch, strong in their fidelity to the religion of their gallant forefathers; and lastly the Irish, who brought their numbers and their zeal to swell the ranks of the Church and add to its importance and influence in the colony. The first missionary was Dr. McEachern, a Scotch priest, educated at Valadolid in Spain, who came to the island after the first Highland immigration. His was an extensive sheep-fold, and many aweary journey he had to make in looking after his widely-scattered flock. New Brunswick and Cape Breton were included within his jurisdiction, and frequently the faithful from Nova Scotia crossed the sea to seek religious consolation at his hands.

This first Bishop of Charlottetown was a man of energy and resources; for without any aid, save that which the zeal and piety of a small and much discouraged community supplied, he established a school, in which he educated two priests, who formed the nucleus of the future ecclesiastical establishment of the island, which gave eighteen priests and two bishops to the church. It having accomplished its great work, the Seminary of St. Andrews was closed; and in its place there is now an admirable institution, St. Dunstan's College, which was erected by Dr. McDonald, who devoted all his means to that praiseworthy object. This college is supplied with every modern requirement and appliance, and is under the able presidency of the Rev. Angus McDonald, a man well qualified for his important task, and whose title of 'Father Angus' is as affectionately pronounced by the most Irish of the Irish as if it were 'Father Larry' or 'Father Pat.' The Irish love their own priests; but let the priest of any nationality—English, Scotch, French, Belgian, or American—only exhibit sympathy with them, or treat them with kindness and affection, and at once he is as thoroughly 'their priest' as if he had been born on the banks of the Boyne or the Shannon. 'Father Dan' McDonald, the Vicar-General, is a striking instance of the attachment borne by an Irish congregation to a good and kindly priest; and I now the more dwell on this thorough fusion of priest and people in love and sympathy, because of having witnessed with pain and sorrow the injurious results, alike to my countrymen and to the Church, of forcing upon almost exclusively Irish congregations clergymen who, from their imperfect knowledge of the English tongue, could not for a long time make themselves understood by those over whom it was essential they should acquire a beneficial influence. This was glaringly the case in one Western diocese of the United States, where its existence was deplored to me by good men deeply devoted to their faith. But sympathy soon renders the most imperfect English intelligible to the affectionate Irish heart, and binds the priest to the congregation in those sacred relations which constitute the strength of the Church, and secure the safety of the flock.

A fact of which I heard, and an incident which I witnessed, will afford an idea of the vitality of the Catholic Church in Prince Edward Island, and exhibit the affectionate respect in which Irishmen in that distant colony hold those religious ladies who devote their lives to the education of the young.

At Tignish, where the Catholic element is very strong, and the Irish are in the proportion of one-third to the French, there is a beautiful church, of stone and brick, which would do credit to any city in the world; and this church was erected, at a cost of 12,000l., in the space of fourteen months! This church, as the bishop stated with just pride, 'was the spontaneous and voluntary offering of the people.' This was not the only effort recently made by the high-spirited citizens of Tignish; for in 1865 a spacious convent, 75 feet in length by 40 in depth, and three stories high, the material of brick, was erected in the same place.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America