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. CNS photo/Canadian Catholic News

Trust aims for $1 million to restore home of Ontario’s first bishop

  • March 8, 2017

OTTAWA – After saving the house of Ontario’s first bishop from the wrecking ball, a small private trust is now racing against the clock to raise funds to restore the heritage building and resurrect the memory of Bishop Alexander Macdonell.

The Glengarry Fencibles Trust must 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, president of the trust’s seven-member board.

If the Trust is successful, the heritage building in the small town of St. Raphael’s, Ont., — about 100 km southeast of Ottawa — will become an interpretative centre to recount the multi-faceted contribution to Canadian history by Macdonnell, the first bishop in English-speaking Canada.

His story begins in Scotland, where he was born in 1762. When Great Britain and France went to war in 1794, Macdonnell, by then a priest, contributed to the establishment of the first Catholic regiment in the British army. As chaplain of the newly formed Glengarry Fencible Infantry that fought in the Napoleonic Wars, his duties included caring for the wounded.

When Macdonnell came to Canada in 1804 to serve the Gaelic-speaking settlers in Glengarry County, Ont., the Diocese of Quebec was the sole Catholic diocese in British North America. He quickly set about creating schools and parishes.

After his stone house was built in 1808, he oversaw construction across the street of the massive St. Raphael’s Church 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.

The War of 1812, between Britain’s Canadian colonies and the United States, prompted Macdonnell to raise another Glengarry Fencibles regiment. Though in his 50s, the priest was with the regiment when it skirmished with the Americans.

Known as “the Big Bishop,” McDonnell was 6-foot-4 and “very charismatic,” Baxter said.

He was named the first bishop of Ontario in 1819 and became Ordinary of the second diocese in Canada with the erection of the Diocese of Kingston in 1826. In 1819, he founded the town of Alexandria, which is named after him, as are many streets in towns across Ontario.

The bishop was named to the Legislative Council of Upper Canada in 1831 and died in 1840. He was declared a National Historic Person of Canada in 1924.

The Glengarry Fencibles Trust bought the bishop’s house in 2016 from the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall. It had faced neglect over the previous 20 years.

“They couldn’t afford to restore the building,” Baxter said.

Two years ago, it was slated for demolition, but the Trust was able to prevent it.

The Trust recently raised $100,000 and received a matching grant from Parks Canada that paid for a new roof.

The original 1808 building had two symmetrical wings added in 1924 to house Iona Academy, a renowned girls’ boarding school. The school’s refectory and chapel will be restored and rented out for community receptions, concerts and lectures, Baxter said. There will also be a tea room and gift shop.

Baxter, a high school English teacher, has a personal connection to the Bishops’ House. Her mother and her sisters boarded at Iona Academy, and she attended the school in the 1960s.

“I had one year in the stone building before that building was closed as a school,” she said.

“I have a sense of how beautiful it was.”

Baxter, whose maiden name is MacDonald, can trace her family’s roots in Glengarry County back to 1802, two years before Macdonnell arrived.

The Trust is approaching charitable foundations and philanthropic organizations for funds.

More information about the building and Bishop Macdonnell can be found at, where donations can be made electronically. Donations by cheque can be mailed to the Glengarry Fencibles Trust, 4147 Military Rd. P.O. Box 230, Green Valley, Ont., K0C 1L0.

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