Historic St. Dunstan’s
The First New Brunswick Catholic Cathedral

by J. L. Neville

Many men and women of an older generation scattered across Canada and even beyond its borders will, in spirit, join with members of Saint Dunstan’s Roman Catholic Congregation at Fredericton in celebrating the centenary of the erection of their Church.

Old St. Dunstan's Church
Old St. Dunstan’s Church

The Church was erected in 1842 under the direction of Rev. William

Dollard, afterwards the first Roman Catholic Bishop in New Brunswick. The contractor, a prominent builder of that day, was Michael McGlinchey, who also built the old St. Gertrude’s Church in Woodstock.

A large number of the older generation will recall Saint Dunstan’s Church as it was for the first fifty years after its consecration. They will see again in their memory the canopied ceiling with the golden stars, representing the Canopy of Heaven. They will also recall the old fashioned square pews with doors to protect pew owners from being disturbed in their vested rights by stragglers. Then there were the four old wood stoves, one in each corner, from which pipes radiated to a centre hole in the ceiling of the Church. The hole is still there. Along in the forties there were no evening services in the church and there was no need of lights except at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, and then every pew holder was supposed to bring candles which were kept lighted during the Church Service.

The Altar at St. Dunstan's
The Altar at St. Dunstan’s
Former Fredericton Catholics as well as the older ones at home will remember the altar before which they made their public prayers, and all will have a kindly memory for good old Father McDevitt, pastor for over fifty years, and for Father Casey and Msgr. Carney. None will there be who remember Father Dollard who built the Church, nor Father McSweeney who was the first pastor for ten years before Father Dollard’s time.

The First Pastor

The first pastor of Saint Dunstan’s Church was Rev. Father Michael McSweeney who came to the parish in 1827. He remained pastor until his death in 1836, and was succeeded by Rev. Father William Dollard. Father Dollard was consecrated Bishop of New Brunswick in 1843 with the See at Fredericton. He died in 1851. Then came Father J. C. McDevitt, who was pastor for over fifty years, dying in February 1897. Following Father McDevitt, Rev. Timothy Casey, who had formerly been a curate to Father McDevitt, came from Saint John and remained here until after the death of Bishop Sweeny in 1901 at Saint John, when he succeeded to the See. Dr. Casey had previously been made Co-adjutor Bishop. Then came Father F.L. Carney, later Monsignor Carney. He came to Fredericton from Debec and remained until last Fall, when he passed away, after about forty years of service in the parish. Rev. H.V. Dysart has since been acting as pastor with the assistance of Rev. D.S. Gillis. (Rev. Dr. C.T. Boyd has since been appointed to Fredericton).

Walked To Village

After the French inhabitants had been obliged to abandon what is now Fredericton in 1758, there was no church here for about seventy years, and in the meantime several English speaking Catholic families had arrived following the establishment of a government at Fredericton. These old Catholic families, very few of whom are still represented in Saint Dunstan’s Congregation, used to go from Fredericton to the French Village, Kingsclear, eleven miles to Mass on Sundays. The roads of those days were none too good and many of the people bravely walked that distance. As a representative on both sides of these old families, I often wonder how many of us descendants of these old pioneers would make the same sacrifice today. A very few of the descendants of these old families are to be found in the present St. Dunstan’s Congregation – about a dozen families.

Once a month the priest used to come from Kingsclear to say Mass for the English speaking inhabitants of Fredericton – mostly Irish. The priest was French and was unable to speak English and he brought a boy with him to interpret the announcements into English. Mass was celebrated in a house on the corner King and Northumberland Streets owned by the Donnelly family. The site is now occupied by a service station.

The names of the men and women who walked to the Village to Mass previous to 1827 and who at that date became the first members of Saint Dunstan’s parish include:

James Landy – Dr. Peter Landy – Lawrence Neville – Michael Brannen – Michael Brayson – John Brayson – Michael Landy – Michael McGrath – Michael McGlinchey – John Sweeney – Dennis O’Leary – John O’Connor – James Hayes (St. Mary’s) – Patrick McGrath – John McMahon – James Howell – Patrick McGarrigle – John Doyle – William Fanning – Patrick Cassidy – Daniel Higgins – David Cassidy – Thomas Connelly – William Holland – George Perks – Thomas Cavanagh – Anthony McMahon – Patrick Nowlin – Timothy Broderick – and Edward Elliott.

The Fredericton parish was the first under the Quebec Diocese and on one occasion Bishop Plessis of Quebec visited Fredericton (previous to 1825) coming here by towboat from Saint John. This parish later came under the English-speaking Diocese of Charlottetown, PEI. The Cathedral Church in that City was as it is today, called after Saint Dunstan, former Archbishop of Canterbury; and as a compliment to that Church the new parish of Fredericton also selected Saint Dunstan as its patron Saint.

It is a strange change of conditions that while up to 1827 Fredericton parish was a mission of the Kingsclear Church, in later years until the early 80’s Kingsclear became a mission of Fredericton. The earliest history of Saint Dunstan’s parish starts in the year 1827, when Father Michael McSweeney came to the little town of Fredericton as first resident priest. His congregation was small and little is known about the erection of the first church except that it stood a few yards west of the present convent on Brunswick St. But while Father McSweeney’s town congregation was small in numbers, his mission was large in area, embracing Queens, Sunbury, York and part of Northumberland near where Boiestown now stands. Early names on the Baptism and Marriage records include the people in these sections such as McGivneys, Crottys and Malones on the Nashwaak; the Barrys, Duffys, Owens, Canneys and Killeens down river; and the Hurleys and Crowleys and others up river around Cork Settlement; the Shortill and Nealis families still on the Royal Road; and to the McGrands (ancestors of Hon. Dr. McGrand) on the Keswick. Indeed down through the years and down until the early eighties Bishop Dollard and later Father McDevitt continued to minister to these far-flung districts, and Saint Dunstan’s was the parish church for Kingsclear, Prince William, Douglas, Bright, Stanley, St. Mary’s, Maugerville and Great Lake area and also Fredericton Junction. The Priest would start out a certain periods and baptize all the children who had been born in previous months, and also married the waiting couples. Also in the nineties these places began to be carved up into separate parishes, and today St. Dunstan’s has no missions, but the City congregation has greatly increased in recent years.

St. Dunstan’s – The Church

After Bishop Dollard had been here for five years he decided to build the present St. Dunstan’s and it was completed just one hundred years ago. The church, the interior of which has been described in the opening of this article, was considered an elaborate edifice a century ago. It was renovated to some extent during the regime of Bishop Casey, who was here at the turn of the present century [20th century]. The present pews replaced the old fashioned style and acetylene gas was installed for lighting purposes. The old fashioned pews are still to be seen in the gallery of the church, with the doors removed. When the present church was opened one row of seats in the gallery was reserved forever for men of the imperial regiments. This was done by an agreement with the Imperial Government in England which gave the Church a grant of Money for that purpose.

The fact that years make changes in a church membership as well as in a community is shown by the names of many who were at the dedication services one hundred years ago. The following, at the first service, have descendants still attending St. Dunstan’s church today:

John and Patrick McSorley – Patrick and Thomas Doran – Lawrence Neville – Mark Neville – Patrick Barry – Patrick Monaghan – Patrick Dolan – James Landy – Patrick Cain – Patrick Dever – David Higgins – John Driscoll – John McCann – Charles McCarthy – James Hayes – William Doherty – Thomas Quigly – Patrick McGinn – Michael Neville – Michael Doohan.

Other names include those who were once prominent in Church and city affairs but whose descendants are living in other cities and towns in Canada and the United States. These families are now extinct in Fredericton, but are remembered by many older residents. These include:

Perks – Essington – Sweeney – Broderick – Peters – Breen – Nealis – Scully – Hennessy – Lenihan – Gaffeney – McGorty – McGrath – Bradley – McDonald – McGonagle – and Brayson.

When the present church was completed, the bills made out by contractor McGlinchey were made out in the name of the Wardens of Saint Dunstan’s Church, which would indicate that the warden system of church government existed in Saint Dunstan’s Church in 1842. Another interesting item that appears in the church accounts about this time is that the average Sunday collections were about sixteen shillings – a little over four dollars – and the Christmas collection was five pounds – less than $25.00.

St. Dunstan’s – The Cathedral

In 1843 Rev. Father Dollard who had been pastor of Saint Dunstan’s since 1836 was appointed first Bishop of New Brunswick with his see at Fredericton, St. Dunstan’s becoming a cathedral. Bishop Dollard was consecrated at St. Dunstan’s Church on June 11, 1843 by Bishop Turgeon of Quebec. Amongst the treasures of note given to the new Bishop by his friends was a very valuable oil painting of the Crucifixion, said to be worth between $15,000 and $20,000, a gift from Rome. This painting still hangs over the main altar in the Church and is much admired by tourists and art critics. From France came to the then new cathedral a valuable set of silver candlesticks and crucifix. All these years they have been in the Church, as is still the Episcopal chair used by the first Bishop.

About eighty years ago the silver candlesticks and crucifix were stolen from the church and were missing for months. They were later found by a small boy playing on the hillside near College Hill, and returned to Father McDevitt, the then pastor. The Crucifix which is now in Saint Dunstan’s Presbytery shows marks of an attempt having been made to break it up.

During Bishop Dollard’s stay in Fredericton the congregation was considerably increased in numbers by the arrival here of numbers of Irish Immigrant families, victims of the Irish Famine of 1848. These immigrants settled in Fredericton and the surrounding districts and most of them by their honesty and industry made good in the new land. Many of their descendants are respected citizens and members of Saint Dunstan’s church at the present time.

Moved To Saint John

It is interesting to learn the way the seat of Church government was moved from Fredericton to Saint John. The late Monsignor Carney is responsible for the statement that after Bishop Dollard had completed Saint Dunstan’s church he got into financial difficulties. The Saint John people sent a delegation to the Bishop making the proposition that if he would move the see from Fredericton to Saint John, the Catholics of Saint John would pay off the debt on Saint Dunstan’s church. This the good Bishop decided to take it upon himself to do. As Fredericton was the official see designated by Rome there was for a time a question as to which was legally the see. But later this was straightened out when the province was divided into two dioceses, one see being established at Saint John and the other at Chatham.

After Bishop Dollard had moved to Saint John he still had a warm spot in his heart for Fredericton and visited this City frequently. On one of these visits, on Aug.29, 1851, he died here and his body was interred under the high altar in a vault where it still rests. A marble tablet was erected at that time in the church in memory of the first Catholic Bishop of New Brunswick. An incident in connection with the appointment of Bishop Dollard will seem strange reading at the present day. The Bishop made application to the legislature for incorporation as a corporate body, as is usual, for legal reasons. The bill, which would pass the House today in a few minutes, was debated for two days by the old Legislative Council, which finally passed it with the proviso that it was to be understood that the “House did not confer any spiritual powers on the new Bishop”.

Bishop Dollard was a very humble man who lived while he was a priest in a three room low house which up to the time when the writer was a boy, stood in the rear of the present Saint Dunstan’s Convent and was used in later years as a woodshed. Once, when he was invited on a special visit to Government House, he had been working in the garden, and so unmindful was he of himself that he forgot to wash his hands until he got to the head of King Street, when he called at a Catholic home, Mr. Landy’s, explained the situation and got fixed up in a presentation way. As the records of Saint Dunstan’s Church show, the first Bishop was a very excellent penman and his books are kept in a most methodical way. They are worth going over. Bishop Dollard was an Irishman, having been born in [Bath Krain], Ireland, Nov. 29th 1789. He was ordained in Quebec in 1817, and after being stationed at Aruchat and Labrador, he came to the Miramichi in 1822, where he served eleven years. From 1833 to 1836 he was at Charlottetown, and he came to Fredericton in 1836, where he was parish priest and Bishop until 1843. From 1836 until his consecration as Bishop in 1843, he served as Vicar General to the Bishop of Charlottetown.

St. Dunstan’s – Father McDevitt & the Hermitage

Father McDevitt

To Father McDevitt and to the congregation which supported him in his work, from the time he came to the parish in 1851 until he died in 1895, is due most of the parish property which Saint Dunstan’s has today. In his day were erected the priest’s house and the convent; and in 1876 the present Saint Dunstan’s Hall on Regent Street; and the building now occupied by the Knights of Columbus was purchased. Another property acquired at this time was the Hermitage.

The Hermitage

This beautiful property situated on the river bank above town was formerly the estate of Hon. Thomas Bailey, who was Surveyor-General under the Imperial in the old days before responsible government. Bailey led the social life in keeping in those old days when there was an aristocratic background in the present Capital. After Bailey and others of the old regime had returned to England and the “common people” began to rule, Father McDevitt bought the property. For a few years he conducted a theological seminary at the Hermitage in the old stone mansion, and he also resided there for a time. And there are old people in the parish today whose parents were married, and in some cases, christened, at the Hermitage. The old house later fell into decay and was finally torn down. The stone now forms the foundation for the present Saint Anthony’s Church at Devon. The grounds were for years kept in good condition, and many people far from Fredericton today can look back to happy picnic days at the old Hermitage. One part of the grounds was converted to a cemetery about sixty years ago. Previous to that date, the cemetery was on Regent Street on a plot of land which had been deeded to the congregation about 1840 by two Catholics, for cemetery purposes only. In 1910 Saint Dunstan’s School was erected on this cemetery. The remains of the first priest were removed from this cemetery to the Hermitage, as were also those of some of the other people buried there. Other remains still lie under the rear part of the present school grounds. The first settlers of the parish who died previous to 1840 were taken from this city to Kingsclear and buried near the St. Anne’s Church at that place.

St. Dunstan’s Library

On his death in 1897 Father McDevitt left his splendid library as a nucleus for the present St. Dunstan’s Parish and Public Library, which is one of the best libraries in the Province and is open to people of all denominations.

Father McDevitt was noted for his charity, especially towards widows and orphans. For some years he conducted an Orphan’s Home on the building opposite the Hermitage, and bore a large share of the expense himself, assisted by small monthly conrtributions from the parishoners. He also had an arrangement with the late John Morrison, a public spirited Protestant citizen, whereby Mr. Morrison gave wood from Morrison’s Mill free to the poor; and Father McDevitt went personally to the Mill with his team of horses and delivered the wood to the poor. The writer remembers seeing, as a boy, Father Mac on top of the load hauling wood.

Father Timothy Casey, who succeeded Father McDevitt, remodelled the church by installing the present heating system and also the present pews. While stationed in Fredericton he was appointed coadjutor Bishop to the late Bishop Sweeny of Saint John, and on the latter’s death removed to that City as Bishop of the Diocese. About 1912 he was transferred to Vancouver as Archbishop. He passed away at Vancouver several years ago.

When Bishop Casey went to Saint John, Rev. Father Carney, later Monsignor Carney, replaced him at Saint Dunstan’s and continued as pastor until his death last fall [Oct 1942]. Monsignor Carney filled a large place in the affections of his congregation and received many honors from the Church being appointed successively Dean, Vicar-General, and Domestic Prelate; and he was for a time, after the death of Bishop LeBlanc, Administrator of the Diocese. During the time, Msgr. Carney was pastor Saint Dunstan’s School was built in 1910. The school had been conducted previously in the Saint Dunstan’s Hall on Regent Street, and in earlier years the basement of this building was used as a Sunday School. An older generation will remember when the school was conducted in the building on Regent Street now known as the Knights of Columbus building. The principals during all these years were in turn Daniel O’C. McGinnis, Dr. LeMutt, Jeremiah Meagher, Francis M. Owens, later of Saint John, and J.A. Hughes of this city. Albert McLenahan is the present principal.

Within the last century a large number of curates have assisted the different pastors, some remaining only for a few months. A record of service seems to be that of Rev. Dr. J.H. Milligan, now Chancellor of the Diocese at Saint John. Rev. Dr. Milligan was in all thirteen years as curate under Msgr. Carney. Dr. Milligan was very much beloved by the congregation and was popular with the citizens generally. He was an energetic worker and an eloquent preacher. Other popular curates stationed here in recent years who are still in the diocese are Rev. Albert MacDonald, now at Saint John, Rev. Michael Johnston of Albert County, Rev. Charles Carroll of Milltown, and Very Rev. Dean McLaughlin of Debec was also here for a time. All these clergymen did excellent work at Saint Dunstsan’s Church, and their services are still appreciated by Saint Dunstan’s congregation. Rev. H.V. Dysart had been acting pastor since the death of Msgr. Carney, and had as his assistant Rev. D.S. Gillis.

For many years, St. Dunstan’s had the name of having an outstanding choir. Many still speak of Miss Ada Dowling, now of Vancouver, as a most efficient organist; and the choir conducted in the nineties by Prof. W.F. Stockley of the University of New Brunswick, now of Ireland, was famous and contained some of Fredericton’s leading voices as well as those from outside points who were students in Fredericton. Other choir leaders since that time were Miss Frances O’Connor, Miss Catherine Lynch, now of Montreal, Mrs. W.E. Farrell, and Mrs. Hugh O’Neill of this city. Leo F. Cain has also at various times been choir leader.

The New Freeman
Nov. 1942
Copy at Provincial Archives in MC300 MS19/83

Link: St. Dunstan’s Web site at http://www.stdunstansparish.ca/index.html