Sacred Heart Parish History

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Note* The history of the parish up until 1960 was taken from the booklet "Sacred Heart Parish, Johnstown, Nova Scotia, Centenary Anniversary, 1860 - 1960". Other information concerning Fr. MacLean was taken from Highland community on the Bras d'Or by Peter MacKenzie Campbell.

It was in the first decade of the nineteenth century when the first settlers came to Red Islands and Irish Cove. However, it was many years before the first parish church was built. Before the parish there was a succession of priests who traveled through to hear confessions, but these priests had all the surrounding missions to look after as well. There, too, was the problem of the Scot settlers, for in the area of Red Islands, as in many other Cape Breton settlements, most of the people were Scots. The problem in this case was that none of the priests could speak or even comprehend the Gaelic language (which was the native tongue of the settlers).

One of the aforementioned priests was Father Francois Lejamtel. At the time when the Scottish settlers came he was the only resident priest on Cape Breton Island, and was the French pastor of Arichat. Fr. Lejamtel knew very little English and absolutely no Gaelic, making it difficult for all. Fr. Lejamtel served from 1792 until 1819. 

The next priest to serve the missions of Cape Breton was Father Angus B. MacEachearn. Fr MacEachern came to, what was then known as St. Johnís Island, now Prince Edward Island, in 1790. In 1819 was made general to the Bishop of Quebec for all the missions in what are known today as the Maritime Provinces, except mainland Nova Scotia. Fr MacEachern remained until 1829 where he was named Bishop of Charlottetown.

The  first priest who had regular charge over Red Islands was Father Alexander MacDonald. Fr. MacDonald became second pastor of Arisaig, Nova Scotia, in the summer of 1802, and made missionary visits to the Gaelic-speaking and English-speaking Catholics of Cape Breton and eastern mainland N.S. until his sudden death in Halifax, on April 15,1816. Father Alexander MacDonell, who had served under Fr. MacDonald since 1811, became first pastor of Judique early in 1818, and served Cape Breton for many years. Fr. MacDonell died on September 19,1841.

It was in 1815 that Bishop Plessis realized the plight of the Scots: there were one hundred families settled on Christmas Island and more in the surrounding areas, yet none were administered the sacraments because none of the pastors could speak Gaelic. Even though Bishop Plessis acknowledged this it would take him nearly three more years before he could find anyone to serve the  neglected members of his vast flock.

It was Father William Dollard who finally came to the aide of the Highlanders. In November 1817, Fr. Dollard arrived in Arichat to assist Fr. Lejamtel and to continue his training.  Fr. Dollard fell ill in September 1822 and was forced to move to New Brunswick, once again leaving the Highlanders without a priest.

Father William Fraser was next to serve, but only remained until December 31, 1823. The care of Red Islands was passed on to Fr. Henry McKeagney, of the new LíArdoise parish. But Fr. McKeagney hadnít sufficient knowledge of the Gaelic language so their care was again given to  the Bras díOr Lake Mission.

The third pastor of the Bras díOr Lake Missions was a third William, Father William B. MacLeod. Fr. MacLeod was the first native born priest of Nova Scotia. He was ordained after the English conquest. He was given charge of the Native missions, Red Islands, the East Arm, and the Narrows on April 25,1824. Fr. MacLeod came to Cape Breton in June of 1824, and began to gather young men in Grand Narrows for "The College" which he set up in East Bay. This was the first effort to provide higher education within the territory. It was also in 1824 that Fr. MacLeod built Red Islands first chapel. It stood on the site where Macleod's Brook empties into the Bras díOr Lake (this land was acquired again by the church several generations later). Up to this time neighbours could still point out the grave site of Thomas Hayes,  one of the pioneer settlers. The chapel was dedicated in honour of St. Margaret of Scotland and was so named.

In September, 1830, Father Michel McKeagney, cousin to Fr. Henry, succeeded Fr. MacLeod (whose health was failing). Fr Michel was then succeeded by Father Neil MacLeod, who had been one of the first students at "The College". He was also the first pastor at East Bay, made a separate parish from Red Islands. Fr. Neil remained there for the rest of his life and succeeded Fr. William MacLeod as Vicar General. In 1887 he was made a Domestic Prelate, the first priest of the diocese to receive any such papal honour. Fr. Neil MacLeod died in East Bay on November 16, 1891.

Father John MacDougall was our first resident pastor. He was son to Hugh MacDougall of Moidart, Scotland, and to Mary Gillis of Morar. Fr MacDougall was born in Arisaig, Scotland, in 1825 (tombstone reads 1823) and was raised at Rear Long Point in St. Andrews Parish, Judique (the oldest parish of Catholic Highlanders on Cape Breton Island). He studied in Judique schools, Arichat Academy, and St. Francis Xavier College (he was the tenth graduate of St. F. X.). Fr. MacDougall was ordained on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 1860, by Bishop MacKinnon. Four weeks later he became first pastor of Red Islands, and also  served Barra Head.

It is believed that Fr. MacDougall was responsible for the construction of Red Islands second parish church. This church stood in the same, or near by the same, location as the present church, and was dedicated to St. James. It is not known what happened to St. Margaretís Chapel: we do know that the property was later registered to Angus MacLeod. There is also no record of when the second parish church was built; but it was 1865 when Fr. MacDougall had the present parish church for Barra Head, Immaculate Conception, built. Fr MacDougall died at Red Islands on March 5, 1891. To Honour the memory of the first pastor, Fr. MacDougall, the parish and the post office district near the church were later given the present name "Johnstown" early in 1903.

The second pastor was one Father Roderick MacInnis. Born at West Lake Ainslie, July 10, 1863, he was the son of Charles MacInnis and Mary MacPherson (of Big Pond ). He studied at St. F. X. and at the Grand Seminary of Montreal, and was ordained in the seminary chapel on January 26, 1890. It was five months later, on June 24, 1890, that he took charge of Red Islands. His first record, a Baptismal Register, made July 2, 1890, is the oldest existing record of that parish.

Father MacInnis began the erection of the present church early in 1891. The cornerstone (at the right of the main entrance) bears in Latin the inscription "In honour of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, 1891". As builder, Fr. MacInnis commissioned Big Hector MacKinnon, of Loch Lomond, and the completed church was opened for divine service on, Sunday, August 26, 1894. The main altar was purchased in Quebec and installed with the original furnishings. The side altars however, are dated 1895 and are the work of a local artisan, the late Alexander MacDonald of Rear Irish Cove. On September 18, 1895 Fr. MacInnis transferred from Johnstown (formerly Red Islands) to Reserve Mines,  where he served eleven years. He died, July 8, 1920.

The third pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, was Father Neil MacDonald whose records extend from September 26, 1895, to July 18, 1898. Born at East Bay on April 5, 1867, he was a son of John MacDonald and Mary Gillis. He was educated at Sydney Academy, St. F. X. University and the Grand Seminary of Montreal and was ordained in St. Ninianís Cathedral, Antigonish, by Bishop John Cameron on August 6, 1893.Fr. Neil served as pastor of Port Felix for two years before coming to Johnstown, and had charge here until July 25, 1898, when he was transferred to Arisaig.

The fourth pastor of Johnstown was Father William A. MacPherson. The first entry he inscribed in the Baptismal Register is dated August 1, 1898, and he served the parish for twenty-two and a half years. Son of Duncan MacPherson and Mary MacPherson, he was born at Moydart (now Macaraís Brook) in the parish of Arisaig, N.S., on June 4, 1849. He studied at St. F. X. and the Grand Seminary of Quebec and was ordained in Quebec by Bishop Percico on June 29, 1874. His first appointment was that of assistant to his grand-uncle, Father William B. MacLeod (mentioned above as having built the first chapel at Red Islands in 1824). Father MacPherson built the Glebe House at Johnstown in 1905 (it later burnt down in 1965) and the Glebe at Big Pond in the same year. In October of that year he was relieved of the care of Big Pond, when that mission was made into a separate parish with Father Duncan P. MacDonald as first resident pastor. Not only was the territory of Father Williamís jurisdiction diminished in size, but there was also a great dwindling of the Catholic population within that restricted territory due to the great exodus of Nova Scotians to the Eastern States and to the Canadian West. One native of the parish asserts that in a few years it lost one-third of its families.

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Father William A. MacPherson died of a paralytic stroke at Johnstown on February 16, 1921, and was buried in his native parish of Arisaig.  Father John MacDougall, the founder of the original parish of Red Islands, and Father Ronald MacLean, were the only other pastors who died there.

After Father MacPhersonís death Bishop Morrison felt that it would be too great a burden on the people of Sacred Heart Parish to support a pastor, and he therefore added Johnstown to the charge of Father Ronald L. MacDonald, pastor of St. Peterís. This makeshift arrangement lasted only one year and a half, for it was manifestly less then satisfactory both to Father MacDonald and to his new parishioners, the most distant of whom lived about 26 miles away from the priestís house in St. Peters. The Johnstown people humbly petitioned for another priest who would live among them and they promised that they would redouble their efforts to maintain him in their parish. In answer to their plea Bishop Morrison appointed Father Lauchlin J. MacDonald as the fifth resident pastor of Johnstown.

Son of Donald MacDonald and Flora MacDonald, Lauchlin John MacDonald was born at Lower South River in Pomquet parish, and was brought up at Baileyís Brook in Lismore mission. He attended St. F. X. and the Grand Seminary of Quebec, and he was ordained in Quebec by Cardinal Louis Nazaire Begin on May 21, 1916. Father L. J. was assistant at North Sydney for more than two years and pastor of St. Margaretís Village (Cape North) for nearly four years before coming to Johnstown, where his first Baptismal record is dated September 4, 1922. On October 12, 1930 Father Lauchlin MacDonald was transferred to Judique.

Father MacDonald was succeeded in the charge of Johnstown and Big Pond by Father George J. MacLean, who was born at Purl Brook, in St. Josephís Parish, Antigonish County. The was the son of Donald MacLean and Mary Ann Kennedy. After attending West River Consolidated School, St. F. X. High School and St. F. X. University, he went to the Provincial Normal College at Truro and obtained a Superior First Class Teachers License. He studied theology at St. Augustineís Seminary, Toronto, and was ordained in St. Ninianís Cathedral, Antigonish, by Bishop Morrison on May 30th, 1926. On October 12, 1930, Fr. MacLean became the sixth resident pastor at Johnstown.

It was Father MacLean who built the Johnstown Parish Hall, the lower story of which he later converted into classrooms for his new consolidated school, the Johnstown Academy. On October 4, 1944, Father MacLean obtained the services of Father Stanislaus P. MacDonald as his assistant, and in that capacity the latter went to reside at Big Pond on November 11 of the same year. On January 11, 1949, by appointment of Archbishop Morrison, Father MacLean left Johnstown and took charge of the parish of Bridgeport. He was pastor of Johnstown for eighteen years and three months.

The seventh pastor of Sacred Heart Parish was Father Michael J. MacSween. Son of Hugh Malcolm MacSween and Mary Jessie Nicholson, he was born at North Sydney. He graduated from St. F. X. in 1933. After serving on the staff of St. F. X. for one year, he entered Holy Heart Seminary, Halifax and was ordained in that city by Bishop John T. McNally on June 19, 1938. Father MacSween took charge as pastor of Johnstown on January 11, 1949, and on the same day Big Pond was re-established as a separate parish, with Father S. P. MacDonald as resident pastor. Father MacSween was transferred to Louisbourg on April 19, 1950.

On June 7, 1950, Father Daniel E. MacDonald came to Johnstown as its eight resident pastor. Son of Daniel W. MacDonald and Jennie Thomas, he was born in St. Anneís Parish, Glace Bay, and received his early education in St. Anneís School and High School. He graduated from St. F. X. in 1938, studied theology for five years in Holy Heart Seminary, Halifax, and was ordained in the seminary chapel by Archbishop J.T. McNally on March 28, 1943.

Among the events of Father Dan. E. MacDonaldís pastorate were the erection of a large addition to the Johnstown Academy and the opening of a mission church at Stirling, Richmond County. The Stirling venture was necessitated by the beginning of hard-rock mining there some time before. On August 12, 1951, Fr. MacDonald began to offer Mass at Sterling on Sunday mornings and he kept up this schedule throughout the rest of his pastorate. The Stirling mission reached its greatest population in 1954, and on May 20 of that year Bishop MacDonald sent to Johnstown as assistant Father Bernard R. MacDonald, native of Upper Grand Mira. He was the  son of Dougald MacDonald and Sarah Jane Currie, and was ordained on June 3, 1950. He was at Johnstown until December 1, 1955.

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On February 14, 1956, Sacred Heart parish experienced another change of pastors: Father MacDonald was transferred to Iona and Father Frederick A. Morley became the ninth pastor of Johnstown. Father Morley was born in St. Anneís Parish, Glace Bay, son of Joseph Hugh Morley and Agnes Curry. He graduated from St. F. X. in 1944 and then Holy Heart Seminary, Halifax. He was ordained in St. Ninianís Cathedral, Antigonish, on May 23, 1948.

In addition to his parochial ministrations Father Morley kept up weekly the Sunday visits to the Stirling mission chapel.  The mission had reached its peak by the end of 1954 when its Catholic population numbered 265 souls. A year later there were only 210, and by the end of 1956 these had dwindled to 16. Father Morley offered the last Mass at Stirling in October, 1957.

Improvements to the Johnstown Parish property between 1956-1960 include the provision of a new cemetery and a life size crucifix which was blessed on August 3, 1960. The first burial in the new cemetery took place on June 23, 1957. A new road was built encircling the church to facilitate the parking of vehicles during services.

In 1961 Fr. Morley was transferred to St. Peter's Parish, Tracadie, and Msgr. Ronald MacLean, who had just retired as senior chaplain of the Royal Canadian Navy, was placed in Johnstown. In 1962 Msgr. MacLean arranged with artisans in Mexico City for the assembling of a beautiful mosaic bearing a true resemblance to the Miraculous Image of Our Lady. (For more on this story see Shrine).

It was  at the same time that the Shrine was being installed at Johnstown that a new school building was being built across from the Johnstown Academy, this school was to remain open until the 1985 school year. 

A few years before Msgr. MacLean's retirement, in 1971,  the parish suffered a severe loss in the complete destruction of the glebe-house by fire.

In 1971 Fr. John H. MacGregor, parish priest in Big Pond, was asked to also act as parish priest in Johnstown.

We also have a photo gallery of Sacred Heart Parish Priests from Father John MacDougall to Fr. Joe Gillis. This gallery is located in Johnstown Parish Hall.

Parish Priests from 1971 to Present:

Fr. John H. MacGregor
Eleventh Pastor
1971-1984

Fr. James Mombourquette
Twelfth Pastor
1985-1987

Fr. Daniel Doucet
Thirteenth Pastor
1987-1996

Fr. Bedford Doucette
Fourteenth Pastor
1996-1999

Fr. Joseph Gillis
Fifteenth Pastor
1999-Present