The Parish of Isle Madame

Pictured is the Bishop’s Palace (left) when Arichat was the seat of the local diocese, next to Notre Dame de l’Assomption church.

Arichat is the oldest parish in the Diocese of Antigonish. This is the second installment recounting its history.

In his diary, Bishop Plessis wrote that the people are either involved in a seafaring way of life or in building schooners for the maritime trade, and care little for tilling the soil. In fact, in the year previous, 60 schooners were built on the island.

In 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was endorsed by Great Britain and the United States thus establishing peace on the continent. Bishop Plessis then embarked on a voyage to complete the missions he had begun in 1812.

It took 19 days and on June 16, 1814, the bishop and his entourage made landfall at Arichat. The bishop was impressed by the condition of the people and the community. He observed that since his last visit, the people were generally better dressed, their homes were attractive, and they ate better food. This seemed to paint a picture of prosperity that was probably associated to the great deal of activity in the harbour. And this in turn was probably due to the fact that Arichat was centrally located for trade in the Gulf. Some of the ships carried coal from Sydney while others carried plaster from Antigonish.

In 1819, Father Gaulin was appointed to succeed Fr. Lejamtel at Arichat. Fr. Gaulin, however, was in financial difficulty; he owed Fr. Lejamtel 60 pounds which he had borrowed in 1815, and his passage to Arichat had cost him $50. In 1821, he wrote complaining that Arichat provided him with a bare subsistence. He did not blame his parishioners for they found themselves in similar financial positions to his and could spare little for the upkeep of the parish and its priest.

Besides Arichat, Fr. Gaulin was responsible for St. Peter’s, L’Ardoise, Grandique, L’escousse, and River Bourgeois comprising 160 families. The missionary would spend one week twice per year at each of the missions. This, stated Fr. Gaulin, was too little for the needs of the missions, yet too much for the neglected parish of Arichat where there were at that time 1,000 communicants.

By the time Fr. Gaulin left in 1822, the parish was beginning to experience some prosperity, and the number of families had increased significantly. Father Hyacinthe Hudon was the new pastor, and his missionary burden was somewhat lightened when Father Henry MacKeagney, became his assistant. Later Fr. MacKeagney took up residence at L’Ardoise and also assumed responsibility for the Indigenous of Cape Breton.

This reprieve, however, lasted only until 1825 when Fr. MacKeagney was posted to Sydney, and once again, L’Ardoise and its environs became the responsibility of Fr. Hudon. With his recall to Quebec, it fell to Father Potvin to carry the onerous burden of trying to attend to the spiritual needs of so many communicants in such a large area at a time when road conditions were extremely primitive.

Arichat was the oldest parish in the diocese and it was thought appropriate to construct a church there of stone and lime. The idea of this project was revived by Fr. Hudon’s successor, but it never proceeded past the discussion stage. Probably the impracticality of securing stone and lime was the main factor in the demise of this plan.