Historic home of Ontario's first Catholic bishop stands to be demolished
By Deborah Gyapong
Photo caption: The Glengarry Fencibles Trust hopes to raise $1 million by the end of March to qualify for matching funds from Parks Canada to restore the house of Ontario's first bishop, Bishop Alexander Macdonnell. The two symmetrical wings, added later, used to house the Iona Academy, a boarding school for girls.
A small private trust that saved the house of Ontario’s first Catholic bishop from demolition now has a chance to restore the heritage building and make the bishop more widely known.
But there’s a time limit.
The Glengarry Fencibles Trust has to raise $1 million before the end of March to qualify for a matching grant from Parks Canada.
“This whole proposition of raising a million dollars is a little daunting in the time frame we have,” said Brenda Baxter, the president of the trust’s seven-member board.
If the trust is successful, the heritage building will be turned into an interpretative centre that will tell of Bishop Alexander Macdonnell’s multi-faceted contribution to Canadian history.
Bishop Macdonnell’s story begins in his native Scotland, where he was born in 1762. When war broke out between Great Britain and France in 1794, Father Macdonnell played a role in the establishment of the first Catholic regiment in the British army. He became chaplain of the newly formed Glengarry Fencible Infantry that went on to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. When members of the regiment were injured, he personally attended to their wounds.
Father Macdonnell came to Canada in 1804 to serve St. Raphael’s parish in Glengarry County, Ont., and minister to the Gaelic-speaking settlers in the area northeast of Cornwall. He quickly set about creating schools and parishes.
The War of 1812 between Canada and the United States prompted Father Macdonnell to raise another Glengarry Fencibles regiment.
Though already in his 50s by this time, the priest stayed with the regiment when it engaged in some skirmishes with the Americans. His association with the Glengarry Fencibles in Scotland and Canada inspired the name of the Glengarry Fencibles Trust, Baxter said.
His stone house was built in 1808, and across the street he had the massive St. Raphael’s Church built from 1815-1821. The church caught fire in 1970, but its stone exterior has been preserved as a national historic site that is already attracting visitors, Baxter said.
Named the first bishop of Ontario in 1819, Macdonnell became ordinary of the second diocese in Canada with the erection of the Diocese of Kingston in 1826. Until then, the Diocese of Quebec had served the whole country.
The bishop was named to the Legislative Council of Upper Canada in 1831. Eighty-four years after his death in 1840, the Canadian government named him a National Historic Person of Canada.
The restored Bishops’ House will be a complement to the ruins of St. Raphael’s Church that is already attracting visitors, she said. The properties have been designated a national historical site.