Antigonish Diocese Marks 175th Anniversary

The Diocese of Antigonish is marking its 175th anniversary this year although, so far, there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of publicity surrounding the celebration. However, a history of the diocese from its establishment in 1844 to 2018 has been posted on the diocesan website, including narration and videos covering the 175 years, and it gives a truly informative and interesting look back in time. Peter Ludlow, PhD deserves much credit for compiling what is definitely a well-researched and comprehensive look, not only at the religious development of the diocese, but also the many educational and social action activities that left a lasting legacy.

Despite all that has transpired over the years, including the recent closing of so many parishes across the diocese, the decline in church attendance, the lack of vocations to the priesthood, and other catastrophes, the worst of which was (and still is) the sexual abuse scandal, we must acknowledge that much was accomplished in those 175 years that deserves to be applauded, and in many cases, celebrated and cherished. I’m just going to highlight some of the history as outlined in the video presentation but I would recommend that you visit the online site.


Drumming provides a backdrop to the opening video (1844 – 1910) featuring the Mi’kmaq who had been visited by Jesuit missionaries as far back as the 1600s, and were baptized into the faith along with Grand Chief Membertou in 1610. Then came the Acadians, many of whom had returned following the Grande Dérangement (the Great Upheaval) in 1755; the Irish, mainly fishermen from Newfoundland; and the Scots, after 1770, from the Highlands and Islands of the Hebrides. As for the Mi’kmaq, while they had various gathering places for their spiritual celebrations, Potlotek (Chapel Island) in Cape Breton has, from 1750 to the present day, been the site of their annual Feast of St. Ann celebrations.

Sante’ Mawio’mi (Potlotek First Nation/Chapel Island Mission) in honour of St. Ann. photo: George Paul (via Diocese of Antigonish)

It was thanks to those whose adherence to the tenets of the Catholic faith inspired them to build churches, schools and hospitals, to give generously of their time, their finances and their talents that a new diocese designated by “the Roman Curia” was established in 1844 in Arichat. Our Lady of Assumption Church became the cathedral for the diocese and William Fraser, who had been a missionary to the Gaelic-speaking settlers, was appointed the first bishop. In 1853, the diocese’s second Bishop, Colin MacKinnon, established a seminary, St.Francis Xavier College (St. F. X.) in Arichat to provide “ a native-born, locally trained priesthood” for his people.

By 1890, the new diocese had a population of 78,000, spread over 58 parishes and 38 missions. Unfortunately for Arichat, the seat of the diocese, was transferred to Antigonish in 1886, where the new St. Ninian’s Cathedral had been completed by 1874. It was not a decision easily accepted by the people of Arichat, and for years after was a hotly debated topic among Catholics, especially in Cape Breton. St. F.X., of course, prospered and grew, as did the diocese. Education — preferably a Catholic-based one — was, in fact, a priority of most pastors. At least four congregations of religious were welcomed into the diocese: the Congregation of Notre Dame, Sisters of Charity, Les Filles de Jesus and the new diocesan order established in 1900, the Sisters of St. Martha (all of whom set up schools where reading, writing, arithmetic and religion were on the agenda). In 1903, the Filles de Jesus also opened a nursing home in Sydney, St. Anthony’s Home for seniors and infants.

By 1880, Cape Breton’s coal mines were attracting workers from Newfoundland, Great Britain and Eastern Europe. In 1900, more than 300 Italians arrived to work both in the mines and at the steel mill (which also attracted workers from Barbados). Many of the newcomers were Catholic, which led to the opening of churches in Bridgeport, Sydney Mines and New Victoria.


Fr. James Tompkins photo Wikimedia Commons:

The period from 1910 -1960 included two World Wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), which left a mark on the diocese’s population. The Antigonish Movement, whose work was carried out by The St. F.X. Extension Department (established in 1928 due to “prodding from the Scottish Catholic Society”), was begun with the emergence of “progressive clergymen” like Fr. James Tompkins, and Fr. Hugh MacPherson, Fr. Moses Coady and Fr. Thomas O’Reilly Boyle, all of whom worked to organize people “to take a serious look at local economic problems and stem the vast tide of outmigration.”

Meanwhile, new parishes had been created, including Mount Carmel in 1912 and St. Agnes in 1914 in New Waterford. And various so-called “ethnic parishes” were established in Whitney Pier, including St. Nicholas Italian Parish and St. Mary’s Polish Parish. The oldest church in Sydney, St. Patrick’s, became home to a Lebanese Marion Rite congregation with pastor Fr. Louis Soaib. Catholic Women’s League (CWL) Councils were founded in Antigonish and Sydney, and eventually most parishes in the diocese had formed their own councils that became very active, as their motto states, For God and Canada.

But not all developments were happy: in 1930, the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie was opened “and many of the diocese’s young Mi’kmaq children were sent there, just as many “Mi’kmaq Catholics were “pressured to leave their homes” to relocate to Shubenacadie or Eskasoni (where Holy Family Parish was established as the first full Mi’kmaq parish in the diocese).

The establishment of Xavier Junior College in the former Lyceum building in Sydney was proposed in 1951 and when completed, (with Dr. Malcolm MacLellan as president) made it possible for local students to complete two years toward a degree they would finish at St. F.X, in Antigonish. As well, the Coady International Institute became a reality in 1959, established to apply the “principles of the Antigonish Movement” around the world.

On to the years from 1960-2013. William Power became the sixth bishop of the diocese in 1960 and promoted the Young Christian Workers Movement, with which he had been involved in his native Montreal. (The movement did take hold in Cape Breton, led by the late Fr. Reg Currie.) In 1961, a group of diocesan priests volunteered to minister to Catholics in Latin America. They included Frs. Joseph Muise, Vernon Fougere, Bernie MacAdam, Pius Hawley, Findlay MacLellan, John MacDougall, Tom MacNeil, Norman MacPhee and Fr. Arthur MacKinnon, a Scarboro Foreign Missions priest, who was killed while working in the Dominican Republic.

Bernard Bloomfield (Montreal), Bishop William Power, Lt. Governor Richard Oland and Dr. M.A. MacLellan, governors of St. Francis Xavier University. source: Beaton Institute Archives

The most significant happening of this period was Vatican Council ll which was called by Pope John XXIII, ran from 1962-1965 and brought about dramatic changes that affected parishes and dioceses all over the Catholic world. Laypeople became more involved in the Liturgy as readers and Eucharistic Ministers. Others became Religious Education teachers. Latin gave way to the vernacular and the celebrant faced the people. (All such changes were, and to this day remain, a source of division to many who failed to accept changes they viewed as “radical” and damaging to the faith.) Most, however, welcomed them.

The work of the Extension Department continued, involving such well-known clergy as Frs. George Topshee, Bill Roach, John Capstick and Andy Hogan, who became the first Catholic priest elected to the Canadian parliament when he was voted in as an NDP MP in 1974.


The videos in the online Diocesan history prompted a memory of the photo below, of a notable member of the Congregation of Notre-Dame who made an indelible impact on the preservation of local history and culture throughout the years. Mother St. Margaret of Scotland taught Gaelic to many local children in Sydney during a period of resurgent interest in the language. It was while full-time librarian at Xavier Junior College in the mid-1950s that Sr. Margaret (Beaton) began collecting archival material about the history of Cape Breton. The archive came to be known as Cape Bretoniana, and by the time it was moved in 1970 to what was the old Logue building on George St. in Sydney, it was a true repository of Cape Breton history. In 1975, after Sr. Margaret’s tragic death, the collection was renamed the Beaton Institute Archives in her honor. A small but mighty woman! The Institute eventually moved to UCCB (now CBU). Dr. Robert (Bob) Morgan took over duties as director of the Beaton Institute in 1976, and built on the conservation work she had begun, transforming the archives into an important research center for island history.

In 2003, Bishop Raymond Lahey became the eighth Bishop and, as such, faced the worst development in the history of the diocese as “Catholics came forward to tell of their harrowing experiences as victims of sexual abuse by some members of the local clergy.” The bishop himself was arrested in 2009 and was charged with possessing child pornography. As Jennifer Hatt, communications officer for the Antigonish Diocese writes, 2009 “was shattering for our diocese. We were rife with anger and grief, financially perilous and without a shepherd.”

Sister Margaret Beaton teaching a Gaelic class, ca. 1965. (Source: Beaton Institute Archives)

Bishop Brian Dunn replaced Bishop Lahey in January of 2010 — a daunting appointment, I would imagine. Parishes were closing, parishioners were disillusioned and no doubt the new bishop approached his position with some trepidation, and a lot on his episcopal plate. He held a Diocesan Renewal Congress in October 2013 which saw about 300 delegates who met in Membertou for four days. A five-year plan for the future of the diocese was put together as a result of the congress. Today, the diocese comprises seven counties, seven deaneries and 99 parishes and missions.

As a part of the 175th anniversary, a spiritual conference, hosted by St. Ann’s, Membertou and St. Marguerite Bourgeoys and celebrating Mi’kmaq spirituality, will take place at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre on Saturday, May 25th from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. All are welcome.

Meanwhile, thanks must be expressed to the faithful clergy who have served the diocese, especially over these past few years, as they did their best to deal with the anger and hurt engendered by the abuse crisis. It hasn’t been an easy road, but they have carried on and have earned respect, admiration and gratitude for their efforts as the diocese looks to regain and retain the confidence of its people.



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.