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Trust needs to raise $1 million to restore heritage house in Ontario

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News


The Glengarry Fencibles Trust hopes to raise $1 million by the end of March to qualify for matching funds from Parks Canada to restore the house of Ontario’s first bishop, Bishop Alexander Macdonnell.

OTTAWA (CCN) — After saving the house of Ontario’s first bishop from the wrecking ball, a small private trust is now racing against the clock to raise funds to restore the heritage building and resurrect the memory of Bishop Alexander Macdonell.

The Glengarry Fencibles Trust must raise $1 million before the end of March to qualify for a matching grant from Parks Canada.

“This whole proposition of raising a million dollars is a little daunting in the time frame we have,” said Brenda Baxter, president of the trust’s seven-member board.

If the trust is successful, the heritage building in the small town of St. Raphael’s, Ont. — about 95 kilometres southeast of Ottawa — will become an interpretative centre to recount the multifaceted contribution to Canadian history by the first bishop in English-speaking Canada.

When Great Britain and France went to war in 1794, then-Father Macdonell, a Scot, contributed to the establishment of the first Catholic regiment in the British army. As chaplain of the newly formed Glengarry Fencible Infantry that fought in the Napoleonic Wars, his duties included caring for the wounded.

When Macdonell came to Canada in 1804 to serve the Gaelic-speaking settlers in Glengarry County, Ont., the Diocese of Quebec was the sole Catholic diocese in the country. The priest quickly set about creating schools and parishes.

After his stone house was built in 1808, he oversaw construction across the street of the massive St. Raphael’s Church. The church caught fire in 1970, but its stone exterior has been preserved as a national historic site that is already attracting visitors, Baxter said.

The War of 1812 between Britain’s Canadian colonies and the United States prompted Macdonell to raise another Glengarry Fencibles regiment. Though in his 50s, the priest was with the regiment when it skirmished with the Americans.

Known as “the Big Bishop,” Macdonell was 6 feet 4 and “very charismatic,” Baxter said.

He was named the first bishop of Ontario in 1819 and became ordinary of the second diocese in Canada in 1826, when the Diocese of Kingston was established. In 1819, he founded the town of Alexandria, which is named after him, as are many streets in towns across Ontario.

The bishop was named to the Legislative Council of Upper Canada in 1831 and died in 1840. He was declared a National Historic Person of Canada in 1924.

The Glengarry Fencibles Trust bought the bishop’s house in 2016 from the Diocese of Alexandria-Cornwall. The trust recently raised $100,000 and received a matching grant from Parks Canada to pay for a new roof.

The trust is approaching charitable foundations and philanthropic organizations for funds. More information about the building and Bishop Macdonell can be found at

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