Arichat is the oldest parish in the Diocese of Antigonish. This is the first installment recounting its history.
Fathers Bailly and Bourq were the first missionaries to attend to the spiritual needs of the Arichat parish. They arrived, in 1771 and 1774 respectively, and were followed in 1786 by Rev. Dr. William Phelan D.D., Ph. D. who in turn was followed by the first resident priest, Father Francis Lejamtel in 1792.
It was Rev. Lejamtel who procured 21 acres of land on which to establish the parish headquarters. When Bishop Denaut arrived in 1803, he gave instructions for the building of a residence for the curé and a belfry for the church. Presumably this was Arichat’s first chapel which had been erected near the shore.
In 1804 Fr. Lejamtel wrote to the bishop of his frustration in trying to get the cooperation of the parishioners to carry out the bishop’s orders. Bishop Denaut replied quickly with a pastoral letter to the people of Arichat. It was a sharp reprimand threatening to recall their priest if his instructions were not soon carried out. He also appealed to the traditional devotion of Acadians for their religion.
The scolding must have had an effect for in May of 1805 Fr. Lejamtel reported that work on parish buildings was ongoing and families had pledged three pounds each towards this work.
Father and Doctor William Phelan was the first missionary regularly resident at Arichat. He was an Irishman who came to Nova Scotia and ultimately to Arichat because of a “redundancy of Clergymen” in his homeland. He arrived in Arichat in June of 1786 and found that the people, although they had not had the benefit of a permanent priest, were nonetheless quite strong in their morals.
Fr. Phelan’s first priority was to complete a chapel which the parishioners had built but lacked the necessary canonical paraphernalia such as an altar stone.
In short order Fr. Phelan drastically modified his opinion of his congregation, referring to them as “extremely rude and ignorant.” However, Father Jones of Halifax took exception to this characterization and in a letter to Bishop D’Esglis wrote “the Roman Catholic Congregation there is composed of French and Indians, who are accustomed to rule and order.”
In 1786, while Fr. Phelan was away, a wandering Dominican named Le Dru insinuated himself at Arichat. This did not sit well with Fr. Phelan who considered him a charlatan. He complained to Fr. Jones at Halifax who in turn reported it to Bishop D’Esglis. Le Dru responded to the allegations maintaining his innocence and his legitimacy as a minister of God. Le Dru effectively vanished from the area and little more is known of his fate.
On May 18, 1787 Fr. Phelan wrote to Bishop D’Esglis stating that he had visited all parts of his district and calculated that there were some 200 Catholic families; two-thirds of whom were French Acadian with the remainder being Scottish and Irish.
The following is taken from the diary of Bishop Plessis circa 1812. “Although Isle Madame is preponderantly Acadian, the English have named it Richmond Island. The people, however, refer to the eastern part of the island as Grand Narichaque and the western side as Little Narichaque.”