The Moses of the north

The story of the founding of St Mary’s Cathedral, Kingston, Canada, by a clan of Highlanders after eviction, war, and emigration.

Scots abroad

St Mary’s Cathedral, Kingston once oversaw a diocese comprising of the whole of Upper Canada west of the Ottawa River.

Founded by a priest and his regiment from the Highlands after losing their home and fighting a war, the cathedral would later give birth to some of Canada’s most important dioceses – including Toronto and Ottawa.

It remains one of the many scions of Scots abroad.

The failed rebellion

The story begins with Clan Macdonell of Glengarry, who had remained faithful to both the Catholic religion and the Stuart cause. When the Old Pretender summoned the clans in 1715, Alasdair Dubh of Glengarry rallied the men of Clanranald at the battle of Sheriffmuir.

Both sides would claim victory, but the Hanoverian Argyll had stopped the advance of Erskine’s forces. The ill-fated cause was unravelling.

The Highland Clearances in the aftermath of the rebellions forced most of the Macdonells of Glengarry into exile.


Alexander Macdonell was an outlaw. He was from the day he went to the underground mi- nor seminary in Buorblach. He later went to the Scots Colleges in Paris and Valladolid and would be ordained in the latter.

He returned to Scotland, though in 1792 his clan was evicted from their land which was then turned into sheepwalks. Seeing their need, he led them to Glasgow and secured their employment. Rural Catholic Gaels in a Protestant city that spoke Scots.

They remained there for a time until the revolution in France destroyed Glaswegian exports and deprived them of their livelihood. The militias were expanding in response, but the men of Glengarry were barred as long as they remained Catholic.

Fr Macdonell found a bold solution: he offered to form them into the British Army’s first Catholic regiment. With the pressing threat in Europe, the government was in no place to decline.

Though contrary to the law, Fr Macdonell was made chaplain to the Glengarry Fencible Regiment, raised in 1794.

Threatened by the French, the regiment was dispatched to defend Guernsey in 1795.


France had other cards to play. In 1798, the United Irishmen led by Theobald Wolfe Tone launched a rebellion seeking independence for their homeland, and the panicked British government sent the men of Glengarry to combat it.

Writing in 1905, Bernard Kelly in his work The Fate of Glengarry said the regiment won ‘golden opinions by their humane behaviour towards the vanquished, which was in striking contrast’ to other parts of the military.

“Father Macdonell, who accompanied the regiment in all their enterprises, was instrumental in fostering this spirit of conciliation,” he wrote.

“He often said Mass himself in these humble places of devotion, and invited the inhabitants to leave their hiding places and resume once more their wonted occupations, assuring them of the king’s protection, if they behaved quietly and peaceably.”

Kelly remarks that the population ‘could scarcely believe their eyes’ at the Catholic regiment speaking their language ‘and among them a soggarth, a priest, assuring them of immunity.’

After the defeat of the rebellion, Fr Macdonell would be called to London in business of the regiment as well as being commissioned by the bishops of Ireland to ‘make known their sentiments’ on the proposed union of Great Britain and Ireland.

To the new world

The Fencibles would be disbanded in Glasgow in 1802, and the men of Glengarry were again without work. For the next two years, Fr Macdonell negotiated with the government for he and his people to emigrate to Canada.

He succeeded, and in 1803 and 1804 brought large numbers of Catholic highlanders to Glengarry, Upper Candada.

In 1817, Upper Canada was made a vicarate apostolic separate from the See of Quebec. Two years later, Fr Macdonell was ap- pointed Vicar Apostolic and he became the first bishop of Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1826.

As bishop he spent £13,000 of his private funds to pay for the education of priests and open a seminary and a college. To recognise his service, he was gifted an episcopal ring by King George IV.

He died in 1840 in Dumfries of pneumonia while on travel. An unlikely yet central figure in the history of the Church in Canada, his body was brought back to St Mary’s, Kingston, the cathedral he had planned as the heart of his new home.

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