The Antigonish skyline has long featured the towers of St. Ninian’s Cathedral, left, and St. Francis Xavier University. The Nova Scotia diocese is marking its 175th anniversary. Photo from Wikipedia

Diocese of Antigonish celebrates 175 years

  • September 22, 2019

HALIFAX -- The town of Antigonish and its majestic St. Ninian’s Cathedral has long cast a significant shadow over much of northeastern Nova Scotia.

Growing up in western Cape Breton in the 1960s and ’70s, we were separated from Antigonish on the mainland by 125 kilometres of road and the 10 million tons of rock that formed a 1.4-km causeway across the Strait of Canso. Yet, Antigonish was never too far from mind.

Before leaving school, we tuned in to CJFX radio in Antigonish for our news, sports and weather. Our local church was part of the Antigonish diocese and the bishop made his way from Antigonish for special occasions like confirmation.

Most of us had family members, friends and acquaintances who graduated high school and moved to Antigonish to attend St. Francis Xavier University. Antigonish, back then, was sort of a big deal.

The Diocese of Antigonish, encompassing seven of the province’s 18 counties, including all four Cape Breton Island municipalities, is marking its 175th year of existence. 

Both the diocese and St. F.X. University were founded at the town of Arichat in Richmond County at the southern-most part of Cape Breton Island before being moved 100 kms to Antigonish in 1886. Some bitterness pertaining to that relocation lingered among the older citizens of the community I grew up in. 

Born and raised in Antigonish, diocesen spokesman Fr. Donald MacGillivray says relocation of the diocesan seat was not a point of acrimony while he served 25 of his 35 years as a priest in Cape Breton County.

“That is not to say I never heard it, but that I did not hear of it that much,” he said. “Also, I think the ordinary parishioner is more interested in their local parish. Further, it happened a long time ago.”

Peter Ludlow, an Antigonish native and adjunct professor of Catholic studies at St. F.X., traces the diocesan history back to 1611, when two Jesuit missionaries to Acadia en route to Port Royal disembarked briefly and offered Mass at what is now the community of Canso. Catholics living in Nova Scotia, then primarily Mi’kmaq and Acadians, came under the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese of Quebec throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Ludlow writes on the diocese website. 

After Scottish and Irish emigrants began settling in Nova Scotia, in February 1842 the Vicariate of Nova Scotia was changed to a diocese. Rome appointed a first bishop of Halifax but tensions persisted between the Scots of eastern Nova Scotia and the Irish of Halifax. Consequently, in July 1844 the Diocese of Halifax was partitioned, Halifax for the Irish and the small fishing community of Arichat for the Scots.

In 1837, Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon of Arichat organized a small seminary there, St. Francis Xavier College, to train boys for the priesthood. By 1874, Ludlow writes it had become clear that a move to the mainland town of Antigonish was imminent, due partly to a fear that the Halifax diocese sought to annex the mainland counties.

 St. F.X. had been relocated to the town of Antigonish in 1855 and by 1874 the imposing St. Ninian’s Cathedral was completed. In 1886, Bishop John Cameron moved the seat of the diocese to the new Romanesque sanctuary, and the diocese’s name was officially changed from Arichat to Antigonish.

Ludlow writes that the small diocese has made important contributions to the Canadian Church, including helping to construct a pan-Canadian network within the Church in anglophone Canada that served as a conduit for future waves of Catholic emigrants, ideas and leadership.

MacGillivray said 175 years is a long time for any North American institution, but it’s a relatively short time in the 2,000-year history of the Church.

“I think of the continuity of faith as it was passed from one generation to the next,” he said of the milestone anniversary. 

“I think about how it fed and continues to feed those who were and continue to be part of the Church. I think about the gift of faith that has been bestowed upon me and my responsibility to live it and treasure it and pass it on to the next generation. I think about the challenge of living the faith in this time, but I am also reminded that there were many challenges that have been faced over the past 175 years, over the past 2,000 years.”

The diocese faced a faith-challenging crisis a decade ago, when Bishop Raymond Lahey stepped down weeks before charges against him for possessing child pornography became public. He eventually pleaded guilty to the charges. 

Lahey’s resignation came just weeks after he announced a $15-million settlement between the diocese and dozens of victims who had been sexually abused as children by diocesan priests.

Now, Lahey’s successor, Bishop Brian Dunn has been appointed coadjutor archbishop-elect for Nova Scotia’s only other diocese. Dunn will take over the Halifax-Yarmouth archdiocese in the fall of 2020 on the occasion of Archbishop Anthony Mancini’s 75th birthday and his retirement. 

A dwindling number of practising Catholics to support the province’s churches and parishes and the shuffling leadership in the two existing dioceses has led to some speculation that Nova Scotia will at some point in the future revert to a single diocese, as it had been two centuries ago.

MacGillivray agrees that’s likely to happen.

“I do not think that it is imminent, as the Diocese of Antigonish is still quite viable, despite the challenges we have had to endure,” he said. “This is what I hold: there will always be faith and we will need to organize ourselves in communities, in churches.  These churches might be huge buildings or small ones. The people who want to meet might have to do it in one another’s homes.  

“The practice of the faith is what is important, Christians gathering is what is important. Buildings, the organization of dioceses are only a means to an end.”

(Campbell is a reporter at the Halifax Chronicle Herald)

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