Cardinal for English Canada: The Intrigues of Bishop John T. McNally, 1930-1937

By Berard, Robert Nicholas | Historical Studies, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Cardinal for English Canada: The Intrigues of Bishop John T. McNally, 1930-1937


Berard, Robert Nicholas, Historical Studies


Two major themes in the historiography of Canadian Catholicism have been the rivalry between French-Canadian and English-Canadian Catholics for ascendancy in the Church, and the struggle to define the relationship between Church and State in Canada. (1) At the heart of many of the controversies that defined the national rivalry within the Canadian Church was Archbishop John T. McNally, and one aspect of the larger struggle for recognition and ultimately ascendancy in the Church for English-speaking Canadians was McNally's attempt to secure the appointment of an English-Canadian Cardinal.

John Thomas McNally was born in Hope River, Prince Edward Island on 24 June 1871, and later moved to the town of Summerside. Graduating first in his high school class in 1886, he was granted a teaching licence, but chose instead to take up a scholarship at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. Upon his college graduation, he went to the University of Ottawa, and completed his B.A. and Licentiate of Philosophy in 1892. At Ottawa McNally recognized his priestly vocation and was sent by that diocese to the Canadian College at Rome, where he took his doctoral degree in theology.

After his ordination at Rome in 1896, McNally returned to Ottawa as a curate of St. Patrick's Church. In 1900, ill health and suggestions that he seek a more moderate climate led to his transfer to the Diocese of Portland, Oregon, where he served as secretary to Archbishop Alexander Christie, formerly bishop of Vancouver Island. There he became familiar with the Church in the West and, in his role as secretary, extended the contacts he had begun to form during his years in Rome. In 1903 McNally went to Rome for further studies, before returning to the Ottawa area as pastor at Old Chelsea, Quebec in 1905 and at Almonte, Ontario in 1911. He also acquired a familiarity with the leadership of both the English and French wings of the Canadian Catholic Church through his service as notary (2) to the first Plenary Council of Canada's Catholic Bishops in 1909.

In 1913 McNally was appointed the first Bishop of Calgary, serving until his appointment to the see of Hamilton, Ontario in 1924. After a controversial episcopacy in Hamilton, which included the intrigues described in this paper, McNally returned to the Maritimes in 1937 as Archbishop of Halifax, an office which he held until his death in 1952. (3)

Ambitious, if not megalomaniac, aggressive, if not pugnacious, McNally found himself in each of his episcopal appointments in conflict with the French-speaking clergy under his authority. He had essentially come of age as a priest in the poisoned atmosphere of French-English rivalry in Ottawa. (4) Through his experiences at Rome, where he had acquired many friends, including the future Pope Pius XII, and Ottawa, McNally became familiar with manoeuvre and machination and increasingly adept at it. These skills and contacts, along with undoubted energy, industry, and organizational talent, brought the young priest to the attention of those Canadian clergy seeking to extend the influence of English-speaking Catholicism, as well as to Roman authorities.

Despite the vigorous opposition of the powerful Archbishop Adelard Langevin, O.M.I., of Saint-Boniface, (5) McNally's appointment to Calgary made him the first anglophone bishop in the Northwest of Canada. He began his episcopacy with a bitter fight with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, initially and ostensibly over control of St. Mary's Church, which the new Bishop wanted to take as his Cathedral, and the property of Sacred Heart Church, which he wished to transfer to a foundation of English-speaking Ursuline sisters, whom he had invited to the diocese to staff its Separate Schools. Both churches had been in the care of the Oblates, who were reluctant to give them up. (6)

In one sense, the issues related to the authority of the ordinary versus the autonomy of religious orders within a diocese.

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