Macdonell, Alexander (1762-1840) (DNB00)

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MACDONELL, ALEXANDER (1762–1840), first Roman catholic bishop of Upper Canada, was born on 17 July 1762 in Glen Urquhart, on the borders of Loch Ness, Inverness-shire. The Macdonells of Glengarry had remained Roman catholics, and their sons were invariably educated at foreign catholic colleges, especially at Douay (Shaw, History of Moray). Alexander was sent first to Paris, and thence to the Scots College at Valladolid, where he was ordained priest on 16 Feb. 1787. On his return to Scotland he was stationed as missionary priest in the Braes of Lochaber, where he remained four or five years. The system of converting small farms into sheep-walks about this time threw many highland peasants out of employment, but Macdonell's efforts secured for the greater part of the Macdonell clan occupation in the factories of Glasgow. A general failure of cotton manufacturers, caused by the war, led to their dismissal, and in 1794, at a meeting convened at Fort Augustus, Macdonell induced them to offer their services as soldiers to the king under the command of young Alexander Ranaldson Macdonell [q. v.], the head of the clan. Their offer was accepted, and they were formed into the 1st Glengarry fencibles, the first catholic regiment since the Reformation. Macdonell was illegally gazetted as chaplain. From 1795 to 1798 the regiment was stationed at Guernsey to guard against French invasion, and in 1798 it was ordered to Ireland, where it distinguished itself by its humanity. In 1801 it was disbanded, but Macdonell succeeded, after some difficulty, in obtaining for its men a grant of 160,000 acres of land in Canada, subsequently called Glengarry County. The government wished the men to settle in Trinidad, not thinking it possible permanently to retain Upper Canada; but Father Macdonell objected to the climate of Trinidad, and after considerable opposition from the Scottish landlords, who wished to discourage emigration, the Glengarries were safely established in Canada under the direction of their chaplain, upon whom fell the whole work of organising the colony. Macdonell devoted himself enthusiastically to missionary work and building churches, forty-eight of which were erected in Upper Canada during his lifetime. When the war with the United States broke out, Macdonell again raised a regiment of Glengarry fencibles, and their services contributed much towards the preservation of Upper Canada. Macdonell was formally thanked by the prince regent, and received an annual pension of 600l.

At the time of Macdonell's arrival there was only one Roman catholic bishop, viz. of Quebec, in the British dominions of North America. In 1817 Upper Canada was erected into an apostolical vicariate, and on 12 Jan. 1819 Macdonell was nominated bishop of Resina, in partibus infidelium, and vicar apostolic; he was consecrated on 31 Dec. 1820 in the church of the Ursuline Convent, Quebec. It was soon found necessary to change the vicariate into a regular see, and on 18 Jan. 1826 Macdonell was made bishop of Regiopolis (or Kingston). In 1839, with a view to collecting funds for a seminary to be called Regiopolis College, he visited England; in Ireland he was taken ill, and after crossing to Dumfries he died on 14 Jan. 1840. He was buried in the crypt of St. Margaret's Convent chapel, Edinburgh, but his remains were subsequently removed to Canada and interred in Kingston Cathedral 26 Sept. 1861. There is a tablet to his memory in St. Raphael's, Alexandria, erected 18 June 1843, by the Highland Society of Canada, which Macdonell had founded.

A large painting by Sir Martin Archer Shee, P.R.A., now in the possession of his grand-nephew, Mr. Alexander Macdonell of Alexandria, has been engraved. In the ‘Reminiscences,’ by W. J. Macdonell, Toronto, 1888, 8vo, a woodcut is given from a small oil-painting by an unknown artist in St. Joseph's Convent, Toronto, and another engraving is in the ‘Catholic Directory’ for 1841, by G. A. Periam. The best likeness is said to be a wax medallion struck about 1833, of which examples are still extant.

[Reminiscences, by W. J. Macdonell, Toronto, 1888; Catholic Directory, 1841, pp. 70–6; Catholic Magazine, iv. 102, 181; Appleton's Cyclopædia of American Biography.]

A. F. P.