"The gifts [Jesus] gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ."
Ephesians 4: 11-12


Diocesan History
(Dr. Peter Ludlow)

The Diocese of Antigonish comprises the mainland Nova Scotia counties of Pictou, Antigonish, and Guysborough as well as Cape Breton Island. Our history can be traced back to May 1611, when two Jesuit missionaries to Acadia, Fr Pierre Biard and Fr Ennemond Massé, en route to Port Royal, disembarked briefly at Canso and offered Mass, thus strengthening the beleaguered pioneers “with that bread which never fails to nourish and console.”

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Catholics residing in Nova Scotia were subject to the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese of Quebec. In 1659, Bishop François de Laval, the first Vicar Apostolic of New France, dispatched a few French-speaking missionaries to labour among the Mi’kmaq and Acadians that resided in the colony. In those early years, there were Capuchins at St. Peter’s and Jesuits at Guysborough. At Fortress Louisbourg, clergymen like Fr Jean de Capistran Chevreau ministered to soldiers and settlers, while the famous Fr Pierre Maillard worked among the Mi’kmaq.

By 1800 Irish and Scottish émigrés were settling in the region in large numbers (the first Scottish parish was organized at Arisaig on the coast of the Northumberland Strait in 1791) and the Catholic population increased. In the summers of 1812 and 1815, Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis of Quebec visited the fledgling settlements from Cheticamp to Pictou and noted the promising (if rudimentary) state of the churches. Due to the increasing population of the colony, and the need for more Gaelic-speaking clergy, in 1817 Rome created the Vicariate Apostolic of Nova Scotia (Cape Breton Island remained a part of the Diocese of Quebec until 1829) under the care of Bishop Edmund Burke of Halifax.

Although the Mi’kmaq and Acadian communities relied on French-speaking missionaries from Quebec, the settlement of Irish and Scottish Catholics necessitated the recruitment of clergy from the British Isles. In the autumn of 1822, for example, the rugged Gaelic-speaking Fr William Fraser (1779-1851), a native of Glen Cannich, Scotland, arrived to minister to the scattered Highland flock around the Bras d’Or missions of Cape Breton. In 1827, Fraser’s talents were recognized by the Curia and he was consecrated as the Vicar Apostolic of Nova Scotia, a post the Highlander served diligently for the following fifteen years.

In February 1842, the Vicariate of Nova Scotia was changed to a diocese. Rome appointed Fraser as the first Bishop of Halifax, and also proclaimed Bishop William Walsh of Dublin as his coadjutor. Yet, the arrival of Bishop Walsh (and Fraser’s refusal to leave the village of Antigonish for Halifax) furthered the persistent tensions that existed between the Scots of eastern Nova Scotia and the Irish of Halifax. Due to this “restless spirit,” on 15 July 1844 the Diocese of Halifax was partitioned; Halifax for the Irish and Arichat for the Scots.

As its title indicates, the ecclesiastical seat of the new diocese was located at the small (but important) fishing community of Arichat. Administering the See from Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral, which was erected in 1837, Bishop Fraser’s successor, Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon (1819-1879), organized a small seminary, St. Francis Xavier College (St. F.X.), to train native boys for the priesthood (and other professions). This capacity to generate native-born clergy was a critical factor for the welfare of the diocese. He also recruited the Congregation de Notre Dame (CND) to open a convent school in that coastal village in 1856.

Although Arichat remained the seat of the diocese until 1886, by 1874 it was clear that a move to the mainland town of Antigonish was imminent. Due partly to a fear that the Diocese of Halifax sought to annex the mainland counties, St. F.X. had been relocated to Antigonish town in 1855 and in 1874 construction on the imposing St. Ninian’s Cathedral was complete. In 1886, Bishop John Cameron (1827-1910) moved the seat of the diocese to the new Romanesque sanctuary, and the diocese’s name was officially changed from Arichat to Antigonish.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the progress of the Antigonish was aided by dedicated congregations of women-religious. In 1883 the CND opened Mount St. Bernard, an important convent school, and by 1894 the institution was affiliated with St. F.X. and in 1897 the first female graduates of the diocesan college received their diplomas. Also in 1883, Bishop Cameron recruited the Halifax-based Sisters of Charity to staff convent schools at Pictou and North Sydney (others schools soon followed), and by the early nineteenth-century the Filles de Jesus were teaching in Arichat and Cheticamp. In 1900 the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Martha was organized to provide domestic labour at St. F.X, yet by the Great War the congregation was ministering in hospitals and orphanages, and had branched out to Toronto and Prince Edward Island (and later Alberta).

Each parish has a unique story, and through organizations like the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Mutual Benefit Society, the League of the Cross and the Catholic Women’s League (to name a few), each congregation worked diligently to strengthen the community. As the people comprised the Church, the fortunes of the diocese were closely linked to the local economy. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most Catholics in eastern Nova Scotia laboured in agriculture or the fishery, but by the 1890s Sydney, Cape Breton, had been transformed into one of Canada’s most important industrial centers. By 1909, thousands of Catholics moved into colliery towns like Glace Bay to work in the coal mines and steel mills alongside their brethren from Newfoundland, Britain, Italy, and Eastern Europe. Within a short time, new parishes like St. Mary’s (Polish) and St. Nicholas (Italian) in Whitney Pier further embodied the multi-cultural composition of Antigonish’s Catholic body.

Throughout the twentieth-century, the diocese was concerned about the decline of agriculture in the countryside, the challenges of the fishery, the rampant outmigration, and the grim realities for miners in the colliery towns. Through the vision of priests like Fr “Little Doc” Hugh MacPherson, Fr James J. Tompkins and Fr John Hugh MacDonald, by 1920 the diocese began focusing on Catholic social action. In 1922 a “People’s School” was begun at St. F.X. (another soon followed at Glace Bay) and by 1929 the college had organized an Extension Department to educate and organize Catholics in the region. In 1943 the diocese and St. F.X. organized a radio station, CJFX, to broadcast its Extension message throughout the Maritime Provinces. Through the work of individuals with “fire and vision” like Msgr. Moses M. Coady, Fr Michael Gillis, A.B. MacDonald, and Sisters Marie Michael MacKinnon and Irene Doyle, the “Antigonish Movement” became one of the most important social programs in Canada and a proponent of “a Middle Way.”

Although a relatively small diocese, Antigonish has made important contributions to the Canadian Church. Per one leading historian, the diocese helped to construct a “pan-Canadian network” within the Church in Anglophone Canada, which served as a conduit for future waves of Catholic emigrants, ideas, and leadership.” By the 1950s, ten Antigonish clergymen had been called to serve as bishops in other Canadian dioceses, young women were labouring in numerous Canadian congregations, and young men were ministering in China and South America as missionaries. In 1959 the Coady International Institute was organized at St. F.X. to carry the principles of Antigonish Movement around the world and transfer the experience of the “Antigonish Movement” to foreign scholars.

Today the Catholics of Antigonish continue to build upon their history through a restitution of trust and hope. Since Vatican II, the diocese has responded to the Church’s call for a renewal of religious life among the clergy, women-religious and the laity. As the people of Antigonish move forward, we remain proud of our fascinating history and the many peoples that make-up our community.  





Want to know more of our history?
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Our Archives may be of help.

The Archives of the Diocese of Antigonish is located in our Chancery Office. Our Archives are not open to the public, but our staff can respond to inquiries and conduct brief searches on your behalf. 
Contact our Chancery Office for details:

168 Hawthorne St., PO Box 1330
Antigonish, NS B2G 2L7
ph (902) 863-3335


Diocesan Pastoral Centre:

200 Churchill Drive, Suite 103, 
Membertou, NS

 PO Box 100
Sydney, NS B1P 6G9
ph (902) 539-6188
toll-free 1 (800) 656-5311


Bishops of the Diocese:

Right Rev. William Fraser, D.D., consecrated Bishop of Tanes and Vicar-Apostolic of Nova Scotia in 1827; appointed  first Bishop of Arichat 
September 21, 1844; died October 4, 1851
Right Rev. Colin Francis MacKinnon, D.D., consecrated February 27, 1852; resigned and appointed Titular-Archbishop of Amida July 17, 1877; died September 26, 1879
Right Rev. John Cameron, D.D., consecrated Bishop of Titopolis and Coadjutor-Bishop of Arichat May 22, 1870 and succeeded as Bishop of Arichat, July 17, 1877. The Episcopal See was transferred to Antigonish August 23, 1886 and thus Bishop Cameron became the Bishop of Antigonish; died April 6, 1910
Most Rev. James Morrison, D.D., consecrated Bishop of Antigonish September 4, 1912; appointed Archbishop February 26, 1944; died April 13, 1950
Most Rev. John R. MacDonald, D.D.,  appointed Titular Bishop of Ancusa and Coadjutor-Bishop of Antigonish with right of succession March 3, 1945; succeeded to the See April 13, 1950; died
December 18, 1959
Most Rev. William Edward Power, D.D., appointed Bishop of Antigonish May 12, 1960; consecrated July 20, 1960; installed August 10, 1960; resigned December 12, 1986; died November 29, 2003 
Most Rev. Colin Campbell, D.D.,  appointed Bishop of Antigonish December 12, 1986; ordained March 19, 1987; resigned October 26, 2002; died January 2012 
Most Rev. Raymond John Lahey, D.D.,  appointed Bishop of Antigonish, June 12, 2003; resigned Sept. 26, 2009

Current Bishop:
Most Rev. Brian Joseph Dunn, D.D., appointed Bishop of Antigonish, November 21, 2009