How did it come to be that StFX University got its start in Arichat?
In 1760 Britain conquered New France and one of the consequences of this development was to precipitate the exodus of priests from the colony. To add insult to injury, the new regime forbade religious orders from recruiting replacements. This came at a time when the Catholic population of the Maritimes was burgeoning.
It was not until the 1790s that the Canadian priesthood began to recover, but even then, the clerical shortage continued unabated. In addition, the problem of this dearth of priests was exacerbated by charlatans posing as priests and taking advantage of the scarcity of bishops to administer proper supervision.
It became obvious that without an effective method of supplying reliable priests, the hold of the Catholic Church in the New World would be substantially weakened. It was clear that the solution was the establishment of regional facilities to prepare young men to take Holy Orders.
In Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island, well-intentioned attempts were made to improve educational opportunities, but these attempts either failed or were short-lived. In 1802 Father Edmund Burke proposed a seminary in Halifax, however, an insufficiency of qualified teachers proved to be an insurmountable obstacle. Later Burke planned a seminary in St. Margaret’s Parish, Arisaig but he died and his dream with him.
In 1831 Bishop Angus Bernard MacEachern of Prince Edward Island realized a sort of high school/junior college to prepare boys for seminary studies but a scarcity of funds led to the demise of this school. Coincidentally, a similar situation occurred at Arichat during the pastorship of Father John Chisholm. The busy seaport supported an academy from 1833 to 1841 when financial pressures forced Father Chisholm to take unusual measures to save his school. He secured a cargo of farm produce to sell in Newfoundland, but the ship was lost at sea as was Father Chisholm.
In 1851 Rev. Dr. Colin Francis MacKinnon D.D., Ph.D. was appointed second bishop of the Diocese of Arichat following the death of William Fraser, the first bishop. MacKinnon was dynamic and progressive; he recognized the urgent need for priests and thus the importance of providing educational opportunities to prepare young men for the priesthood. At that time clerical candidates had to travel to Quebec or Rome for training.
Almost immediately, MacKinnon set to reviving the academy concept developed by Father Chisholm. Economic conditions had improved and Arichat had become a bustling seaport with some 1,000 citizens and more registered ships than any other port in the province, with the exception of Halifax.
A distinguished, disused manor house owned by a leading resident named Clement Hubert was procured but financing the new institution proved to be a daunting challenge. Bishop MacKinnon secured the support of the French lay missionary society called the Association for the Propagation of the Faith.
Then, turning his attention to the provincial government, he corresponded with Joseph Howe, the provincial secretary, arguing successfully that the new school would fulfill the provisions of the School Act relating to academics just as the Arichat Academy had, and thus, was eligible for an annual 100-pound grant. And so, the first classes of St. Francis University began on July 20, 1853 at Arichat.