CCHA, Historical Studies, 63 (1997), 81-100


A Cardinal for English Canada:

the Intrigues of Bishop John T. McNally,



Robert Nicholas BÉRARD


     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 notary2 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 Adélard 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.7 In a greater sense, however, they were evidence of McNally’s vision of the language and culture through which Catholicism would be transmitted to the Canadian West.8 McNally seldom brooked insubordination in his clergy, and in view of the resistance of the Oblate Archbishop Langevin in the matter of his appointment, the new Bishop may rightly have feared the continued pres­ence of a group of religious who were not accustomed to close supervision by a local ordinary. Indeed, the Oblates carried on, through the medium of anonymous pamphlets, a scurrilous campaign of abuse against their new Bishop, including an open letter which began, “Mgr, vous n’avez rien fait de bon comme Evêque Calgary...” and went on to call him “un Irlandais ambitieux, orgueilleux, mondain, un ignorant, un paresseux, un modern­iste...”9 It is not surprising that McNally hinted he might resign his episco­pate in the face of these attacks,10 but perhaps even less surprising to those who knew him that he did not act on the threat.

     Furthermore, McNally, like successive Apostolic Delegates to Canada,11 saw the potential for further growth of Catholicism in Canada generally, and the West in particular, being realized only through the medium of English, as the percentage of French-speaking Catholics fell steadily in the wake of growing immigration.12 Although francophones continued to form a significant part of the Catholic population in many Western dioceses, their ability to reproduce themselves or attract new French-speaking settlers paled by comparison with the influx of anglo­phones and European immigrants who grasped the importance of acquiring English in a British Dominion. While the aggressive attempts of McNally and other anglophone clergy to displace the French hierarchy in the West appeared to many contemporaries and historians as persecution, they may also be seen as an attempt to free the Church from the dead hand of the past. Archbishop Alfred A. Sinnott of Winnipeg was not an unbiased observer, but he framed the problem clearly in writing of the funeral in Regina of Archbishop Olivier-Elzéar Mathieu in 1929: “It was pitiable to see French being forced on the people. The Cardinal [Rouleau] preaching in French to a congregation, of whom not 50, outside of priests and religious, could understand a word of what he was saying.”13 Eventually, with the assistance of friends at Rome and at the Apostolic Delegation, McNally did secure the expulsion of the Oblates from his diocese, winning thereby the admiration of many English-speaking Catholics and the bitter opposition of French-­speaking Catholics both within the West and in Quebec and Ontario.14 It was an opposition which dogged his dreams of advancement for the rest of his ecclesiastical career.

     Diocesan priests who spoke critically (in any language) or acted insub­ordinately were quick to experience the Bishop’s wrath, and when he perceived that a religious order operating within his diocese was not fully cooperative with his direction of the diocese he was unrelenting in his attempts to remove them. In Halifax, for example, McNally’s first years as Archbishop were devoted in large part to the removal of the Irish Christian Brothers from their administration of Saint Mary’s University and their expulsion from the diocese.15 Later, during the Second World War, when he sensed disloyalty from the Resurrectionist Fathers with whom he had contracted to administer the parishes in Bermuda, then part of the Halifax Archdiocese, he swiftly removed them as he had the Oblates in Calgary some thirty years before.16

     One aspect of the highly political McNally’s efforts to promote the fortunes of English-speaking Catholics, was his desire to persuade the Holy See to name an English-speaking Canadian to the College of Cardinals. A number of Canadian bishops had been recipients of the red hat, but all had been drawn from the Church in Quebec. To McNally, and many other English-speaking Catholics, the primacy and honour accorded to the French-speaking clergy by this fact failed to recognize the growth and development of Catholicism in English Canada and also hobbled anglo­phone Catholics in their attempts both to proselytize immigrants and to improve their civic status in the Protestant and fundamentally anti-Catholic communities that made up most of Canada outside Quebec.17

     The dream of an English-Canadian Cardinal had long been held by another activist in the continuing struggle for ascendancy in the Canadian Church. In particular, the idea of an English-Canadian Cardinal-Archbishop for the See of Ottawa forms an almost permanent sub-text in the correspond­ence between McNally and his ally, Rev. J.J. O’Gorman, of Blessed Sacra­ment Parish in Ottawa, one of the most extreme opponents of the French­Canadian ascendancy in the national capital.18 While McNally was still in Calgary, the two were planning his triumphal return from the West. In O’Gorman's view, McNally’s actions in Alberta were “the outstanding demonstration of how a whole ecclesiastical province can be rid of the poisonous nationalism which was eating into the entrails of its Catholi­cism.”19

     When McNally did move east, it was neither to Ottawa nor to the English metropolis of Toronto, but to the see of Hamilton. There he had less direct contact with French-Canadians within his diocese, but he continued to involve himself in the battles between English and French-speaking Cath­olics in Ottawa and other parts of Ontario. For example, it appears that he played an important role in assisting Bishop Patrick T. Ryan of Pembroke and the English-speaking Grey Nuns of Ottawa in their separation from their predominantly francophone order, and also in their dispute with the Ottawa Separate School Board.20 In September 1926, Sister St. Agatha, SGM, who had been dismissed in a one-sentence letter from her position with the Sepa­rate School Board that she had held for forty-three years, wrote Bishop McNally to thank him for his interest in the Sisters’ case “and for your influ­ence in our behalf in Rome and elsewhere.”21

     More significant for McNally in Hamilton than French-English conflict was the problem that Irish and immigrant Catholics formed a growing part of the total population of the industrial city but faced suspicion, hostility, and discrimination from the city’s Loyalist and Protestant establishment. There McNally sought by several means to raise the profile and status of the Catholic community. He fostered the development of parishes for the Italian and Polish immigrants, and played a leading role in the struggle for educa­tional justice against the Ontario Government in the matter of tax support for the Separate School System. Not the least of his accomplishments was the construction of the imposing and graceful Cathedral of Christ the King, opened in 1933 as a visible symbol of the power and dignity of the Catholic community.

     As Bishop of Hamilton, McNally never lost sight of his desire to see a red hat on the head of an English-speaking prelate, preferably his own. Given the history of Church-State relations in Canada, it was almost inevi­table that securing such an appointment would involve both ecclesiastical and domestic partisan politics.22 The accession to the Canadian Prime Ministership in 1930 of the Bishop’s old friend from Calgary, R.B. Bennett, created an opportunity for the involvement of the Government of Canada in McNally’s efforts.

     McNally’s friendship with R.B. Bennett in Calgary was based both on mutual regard and mutual advantage. The two men were highly intelligent, self-made, ambitious, and shared the ideal of a strong, British-oriented and

English-dominated Canada. McNally would have no difficulty in agreeing with Bennett’s concern that the increasingly diverse population of the country, came “without knowledge of our history, with little regard for our traditions, caring nothing for our glorious past, and asking us for a national ideal ... by which they may be led.”23 Nor would he doubt that the history, traditions, and glorious past were rooted in Britain and that the national ideal was linked to the Empire.

     When McNally was in Hamilton and Bennett in Ottawa, the two men maintained a steady correspondence and sought out opportunities to meet whenever business allowed. In declining an invitation to come to Ottawa in 1930, McNally reminded his friend that “I am following your speeches with keen satisfaction. You are performing your hard and up-hill task in a way to merit the fullest confidence of your people”; he signed the letter, “as ever, your friend, devoted and aff-ate.”24 While most Canadian Catholics were adherents of the Liberal Party, McNally always thought it important to ensure that the Church had good friends in all major parties, and Bennett, whose Protestantism and imperial patriotism were never in doubt, saw the value in maintaining good relations with the Catholic community.25

     The Bishop’s residence was a major conduit for requests for patronage, requests which would benefit the Catholic community. Regularly Arch­bishop McNally, no doubt like his counterparts across the country, was approached by seekers of office, high and low, to use his influence with the secular and ecclesiastical powers.26 One of the indications in Bennett’s correspondence that the Prime Minister might have been drawn into matters of ecclesiastical preferment in the Catholic Church appears in a letter of 1930 to him from one Father Albert Rouleau of Calgary. The greatest concern, he wrote to Bennett, of the Church in Canada “at present is the appointment of the successor of the late Msgr. Mathieu to the See of Regina.” He put himself forward, as “a Westerner in a Western Diocese who is an english [sic] speaking Conservative with a good French name to pacify the concerns of Church & State in Regina,” and suggesting that it would take only a “word at the Delegation with my Cousin Cardinal Rouleau (who may die anytime) & Bishop McNally.”27

     It is not clear whether Bishop McNally really wished to advance the career of Father Rouleau, but he did indeed seek to use his friendship with Bennett to forward his favourites in both secular and ecclesiastical posts. In June 1931, writing from Vatican City on one of his many visits to the Holy See, McNally commented on the death of Cardinal Rouleau and the illness of the Archbishop of Saint-Boniface. He also noted that the Diocese of London, where Bishop Fallon had done so much to damage the relations between English-speaking and French-speaking Catholics, remained vacant. As he expected “that no radical change is contemplated for the administration there,” McNally suggested that if Bennett “could have our Western friend's name [McNally's successor at Calgary, Bishop John T. Kidd] put forward through diplomatic channels, I think he might have a chance of being considered seriously for that see.” The advancement of this mutual friend, he continues, would be for “the greater good of Canada, as well as religion,” and adding that Archbishop Sinnott of Winnipeg has also written strongly in his favour, he asks again, “I wish you could in some way take a hand in putting his name forward.”28

     In return for these considerations, McNally and other bishops did use their offices to confer on politicians the approval of the Catholic commu­nity, to support or at least dampen criticism of government policy directions, and to coordinate their own considerable patronage machines with those of the secular arm.29 Furthermore, the Canadian Catholic Church was a major economic force in many communities and part of a powerful international organization. In December, 1931 Bishop McNally wrote Bennett asking to be put in touch with Canadian flour manufacturers. On one of his many travels to Rome, it appears, he had made contact with on Signor Carmine Caiola, the head of the Vatican Commissary. This contact led Signor Caiola to seek McNally’s assistance in negotiations for the purchase of Canadian flour. McNally believed that a business relationship with the Vatican Commissary was not only valuable in itself, but offered great potential for economic opportunities beyond the walls of the Vatican.30

     Even more significant was McNally’s bold venture of building a major cathedral in Hamilton in the midst of the Depression. It would be foolish, of course, to imagine that his motivation was primarily to fuel an economic recovery in Canada. Bishop McNally’s building projects, from the Cathe­dral of Christ the King in Hamilton to the new Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, were planned in equal part to raise the status and dignity of the Roman Catholic community, and to enhance the Bishop’s own image as an ecclesiastical leader. The Cathedral in Hamilton was constructed on a former dump-site, most likely because, although the land came cheap, its high elevation overlooking a valley would enhance its gothic splendour. Bishop McNally and other Catholics could not have been unaware of the irony of transformation of the property by the Catholic community; and many people are aware of McNally’s decision to include in the Cathedral’s stained glass a panel of himself presenting the gift of the Cathedral to the Holy Father.31

     During the years of the construction of Christ the King, McNally often sought to involve Bennett in obtaining exemptions from duty for the Italian marble and German stained glass which he needed to realize his dream of using only the finest materials available. “Your goodness in promising an exemption for these will surely be rewarded by Christ our King, in Whose honor the Basilica is being erected. And in doing this your motive is valid as well, for the project, an excessively bold one under present conditions, gives work for nearly two years to a large number of men, involving as it does the construction of a large Cathedral, two large houses, and a school.”32

     One of the houses mentioned by the Bishop would be “a house far too luxurious for me,” but he added that “my occupation of it will not be of long duration.” As he was just sixty when the work on the Cathedral began – and it was on McNally’s personal instruction that work was to begin in the month of his sixtieth birthday33 – it is doubtful that he believed that death, retirement, or taking up a monastic life would limit his tenure in Hamilton. More likely Bishop McNally believed that he would be moving to a larger, more significant See, rewarded for his firm and visionary leadership, made visible in his magnificent Cathedral.

     Certainly the idea that Bishop McNally could become the leading English-speaking Catholic prelate in Canada, perhaps even a Cardinal, had been discussed among his friends and supporters for some time. As long before as 1922, Rev. J.J. O’Gorman had written on behalf of the embattled Irish-Catholics of the capital: “Would, O God, that you were a Cardinal in Curia to put all this [the re-organization of the archdiocese] through”; at the very least, O’Gorman was working and praying for McNally to be called from Calgary to the episcopacy in Ottawa, as he would “rejuvenate the Catholic Church in Canada and purge her of neo-Gallicanism.”34 The Vatican was less certain that such a purge was needed, and Bishop McNally was appointed to succeed Bishop Dowling, another strong pro-English figure, in Hamilton.

     It is not completely clear if the idea for a major initiative toward securing an English-speaking Cardinal originated with Bishop McNally, with Prime Minister Bennett, or with others who were in touch with them both. The letters in the Bennett Papers suggest that the initial proposal came from Bennett in a communication to McNally in late 1931 or early 1932. In a reply to Bennett on 30 January 1932, Bishop McNally refers to the idea: “I do not think that a more opportune time ever existed in the history of this country for the realization of your proposal. The place is vacant, and the present supreme authority is not a stickler for tradition.”35

     Neither is it clear what led Bennett to make this suggestion or to make it when he did. The Prime Minister, said by both contemporaries and biog­raphers to have few, if any, friends, regarded McNally as a friend.36 He also genuinely admired McNally’s Canadian patriotism and had done so since their days in Calgary, when the Bishop, in contrast to many of the French­Canadian clergy, had taken a strong stand in support of the war effort from 1914 to 1918. In reference to McNally’s relationship with Bennett, the Mayor of Calgary, Dr M.C. Costello recalled that:


... [in] 1905 Mr. Bennett was decidedly anti-Catholic. He ... opposed vigorously, the Autonomy Bill which gave us our rights as Catholics. [Now Mr. Bennett is] an earnest friend of the Catholic cause. He sees in Catholicism the most potent bulwark against the spirit of socialism brought here by the European immigrants, and besides, he has ... met Catholics who are English-speaking and in sympathy with Canadian ideals....


Costello, himself a Catholic, shared the belief that the “only hope” for Roman Catholics was “to have our Church in sympathy and cooperation with the general life of the country.” Such an outcome was most likely with English-speaking leadership in the Canadian Church for “[with] a French clergy and French episcopate there was always the fear and dread that some foreign potentate could swing the Catholic element.” McNally’s firmness in establishing his authority in Calgary, however, helped allay those fears, and “Now, on the contrary,” Costello concluded, “even Mr. Bennett says that the greatest Canadian statesman is the present bishop of Calgary...”37 Bennett also shared McNally’s passion for excellence in education, particularly as they shared a common definition of such excellence. McNally was deter­mined that Catholic schools should never be regarded as academically infe­rior to the public schools. He committed substantial resources to education, and involved himself personally in shaping the curriculum of the schools in his diocese.38 He frequently shared with Bennett his pride in the success of the students in the Catholic schools,39 and Bennett expressed his admiration for the Bishop’s efforts.40

     No doubt the Prime Minister wished to see McNally in the red hat, but the Bishop proposed an alternative plan, perhaps from a genuine wish to retain his influence behind the scenes, or because of loyalty to an old and trusted friend, or more perversely, to add the appearance of humility to his more recognizable virtues. McNally wrote to Bennett that he was flattered by the Prime Minister’s suggestion but that choosing him would be “ridicu­lous,” adding, “You know better than most my shortcomings and my lack of value in so many ways.” Instead the Bishop suggested that the name of his fellow Islander, Alfred A. Sinnott, Archbishop of Winnipeg, be put forward. The person appointed “should know his ‘ambiente’, as they say in Italy, that is he should be thoroughly conversant with the facts and the people with whom he would have to deal.” As for Archbishop Sinnott, “He has the ability, the position, the merit, the knowledge, the tact, the attractive­ness, in short, all things necessary ... and he has five or six years advantage in age over your candidate.” Thus, while initially declining to advance his own cause, Bishop McNally endorsed Bennett’s plan – “I agree with you that such a move would mean much to this country.” – and urged that he proceed with Sinnott’s name as quickly as possible, as early as April or May of 1932.41

     McNally may have known that Sinnott would not be enthusiastic about pursuing the Cardinal’s hat for himself. Within the month, Bennett had contacted Archbishop Sinnott and reported to McNally that he had been “considerably perturbed ever since I had a conversation with our friend in Winnipeg.”42 Sinnott seems to have been willing to involve himself in the enterprise but thought that McNally’s should be the name proposed. It was finally agreed between McNally and Bennett that Archbishop Sinnott would be asked to go to London and Rome to meet with British and Vatican offi­cials and communicate the wish of the Prime Minister of Canada that an English-speaking Canadian be raised to the dignity of the Cardinalate. There was precedent for such involvement of secular authorities in the affairs of the Canadian Church. Indeed, as Robert Choquette has noted, Sinnott’s initial appointment to the See of Winnipeg was effected through the intercession of the Canadian Governor-General and the British Ambas­sador to the Vatican.43

     An added complication was the fact that Archbishop Sinnott did not feel that he could bear the cost of this venture. Writing to Bennett in early April 1932, McNally enclosed a letter relating to “the issue now uppermost with us,” outlining Sinnott’s concerns. In the letter Sinnott says that he was “stunned” by the Prime Minister’s request that he represent him in Europe, but he agreed to carry out the mission if he could find the money to do so. “If any thing is to be done,” he wrote, “I realize the necessity of someone going around with the proper credentials and documents. That even would hardly move me, were it not to show my love for a friend who has been everything that a friend can be..”44

     Bishop McNally pointed out to the Prime Minister that, while Sinnott was not comfortable in seeking assistance from the government or the Prime Minister personally, he truly was in need of it. At the same time, McNally, who planned to accompany Sinnott on the mission, thought it unseemly for him personally (or the Diocese of Hamilton) to underwrite the trip as it might be “perilously near the sin of simony.”45

     This was truly a delicate matter. On the one hand, McNally believed that sending Sinnott was “the ideal method for the protection of the prime mover of this question and that protection is the paramount phase of it in my estimation.” Acting himself would both be improper and could potentially embarrass his friend, the Prime Minister. McNally knew the serious conse­quences for all of the principals that might follow any public exposure of the scheme, and stated, “I should rather see it go no further than ... jeopardize the name we so highly revere.” On the other hand, McNally wished to be close at hand and assist Sinnott in his endeavour, perhaps renew his own contacts with friends at Rome. “For my truly unworthy self,” he wrote, “this is the only stumbling block in the whole manoeuvre. How am I to take part in this business without eliminating the personal element? And yet how prosecute it to the conclusion without admitting that element? The only way out is that I hope the agent may in the end turn out to be the principal.” McNally offered to meet Bennett “anywhere or anytime” in order “to discuss and perfect the undertaking,” and informed the Prime Minister that he and Sinnott planned to sail for London on the Amsterdam on 26 April 1932.46

     The actual details of the enterprise are difficult to reconstruct from the McNally-Bennett correspondence. The Prime Minister, whose generosity was well known,47 did underwrite the voyage. From aboard ship, McNally wrote to thank the Prime Minister for his efforts: “I hope I may bring a bigger man back with me even now, but if nothing comes of our efforts, both he and I will ever treasure your marvellous kindness and loyalty to us.”48

     The special objects of Sinnott’s mission were the British Foreign Secre­tary, Sir John Simon, in London, and a former Apostolic Delegate to Canada, by then Secretary of the Holy Office, Cardinal Donato Sbarretti.49 He was to deliver three confidential letters, one to Simon and two to Sbar­retti, from Bennett, each dated 23 April 1932, and attempt to respond to any specific questions they might have.

     The first, to Simon and marked “confidential” and “not for the Archives of the Foreign Office” sets forward the case for an English-speaking Cardinal. Since Confederation, Canada’s three Cardinals had all been Arch­bishops of Quebec. Furthermore, because of the size of the French-Catholic population in relation to that of English-speaking Catholics, it had become common to identify, unjustifiably, the terms “Roman Catholic” and “French Canadian.” In view of the “evidence of a separation of the French from the other elements of our population,” a circumstance not “conducive to either unity or harmony,” this identification could only undermine the important role of the Church in Canada as an “influence for the preservation of law and order and regard for constituted authority.” It was vital, therefore, “that the head of the Hierarchy should exercise his great influence for the promotion of a united Canada in the largest and truest sense of the term,” and to this end, “it is highly desirable that when a Canadian Cardinal is appointed, ... he should ... be selected from our English-speaking Catholic population.” Bennett then offers his suggestions as to the right men to be considered for the appointment:


In point of fact, there are at least two English-speaking prelates in every sense qual­ified for the appointment. One of them is the bearer of this letter. The other is the Most Reverend John T. MacNally [sic], D.D., Bishop of Hamilton, Ontario. Arch­bishop Sinnott believes, as I do, that in point of intellectual power, administrative capacity and broad and comprehensive knowledge of the responsibilities of his Church for the development of Canadian unity, Bishop MacNally possesses quali­fications of the highest order. Archbishop Sinnott will explain to you the strength of his convictions in that regard. I share them to the full. As he was for many years Secretary to the Apostolic Delegate in Canada, he possesses a singular knowledge of the whole situation, and his opinions are worthy of every consideration. He is highly thought of in Rome, and might well be the choice of the Holy Father.


Bennett concludes by asking Simon to indicate to his Chargé d’Affaires at the Vatican that the appointment of Archbishop Sinnott or Bishop McNally to the Cardinalate “would be most acceptable in Canada.”50

     Bennett’s first letter to Cardinal Sbarretti covers much of the same ground. He notes that Sbarretti is the only former Apostolic Delegate to Canada at Rome and, perhaps in allusion to his role in the anglicization of the Church in the West, calls him “the most understanding dignitary that ever filled that delicate office.” The Prime Minister sought to impress upon the Cardinal that his plan will strengthen the Church in Canada and that a strong Catholic Church in Canada is essential to the order and unity of the country.


All Canadians realize the importance of the great office of Cardinal in this country, for he who holds it is the ranking member of the episcopate. As the Roman Catholic Church exercises a tremendous influence towards the equilibrium of human elements, he who is the outward and visible leader of in a country wields, or at least represents in large measure, that influence. Now, there never was a time in our country’s history when the need for that stabilizing influence was greater, since economic conditions conspire to make society prey to the ever-increasing aggres­siveness of radical and subversive elements.


        Appealing to what Roberto Perin has called “the Vatican’s Anglo-­Saxon perspective,”51 Bennett criticizes a French-Canadian “element” which:


strives increasingly to identify itself with the Roman Catholic Church, to the mani­fest exclusion of the multitudes outside of their ranks who serve that Church as faithful children, with the result that those outside the Church, and especially those who hold towards them a somewhat distrustful attitude..., are inclined also to iden­tify the Catholic Church with them, and to place it under the same ban of suspicion and distrust as something alien to our country and its highest interests. ... Hence the Roman Catholic Church in Canada is almost universally looked upon as a French Church, and on that account its influence is weakened and circumscribed. As a non­-Catholic, this might not concern Bennett but for its effect on the Canadian polity: I greatly desire to see our people united, ... and I am convinced that the great Roman Catholic Church, which embraces all nations within her motherly bosom, can well be the most potent factor in that unification. ... With the ... Church having as its outstanding leader one having sympathy with, and holding the confidence of, the country at large, the influence she could exert in the present economic crisis would be vastly increased, and would redound to her advantage, as well as to the pacifica­tion and welfare of the country. It is now the turn of the growing English-speaking Catholic population to have its importance recognized. Surely after these good people have for three times in succession been privileged to count as their own the ranking prelates of the Church in Canada, our catholic population in general may hope, without prejudice, and for the greater good not only of their Church but of the country, that the choice of the fourth holder of that preeminence may be chosen from another part of this great country, and from outside of this so-called separate element within the Canadian nation.52


        The Catholic Church for Bennett, at least as represented in the leader­ship of Bishop McNally and the other English-speaking Catholic authorities he knew, was a bulwark against radicalism, a strong supporter of constituted authority, and a means to integrate Canada's immigrant population into British North American culture. As a Protestant, he was very wary of the potential dangers of the direct involvement of the clergy in politics, both because he feared the general weakening of the churches’ authority as they became tainted with partisan politics and because such political adven­turism on the part of Protestant churches could lead priests in Quebec to take a more active political role, which “could be very disastrous to our Protes­tant brethren in that Province.”53

     Having made the case for an “English-speaking prelate,” Bennett, in his second letter to Sbarretti, goes on to endorse the “two most outstanding prel­ates in the Canadian hierarchy,” Sinnott and McNally. It is Sinnott that he praises first, but McNally to whom he accords a longer and more enthusi­astic encomium. He acknowledges Sinnott’s good work as Archbishop of Winnipeg and notes that he has won “the affectionate good will and admi­ration of all classes of our people.” He says that Sinnott would bring “diplo­matic qualities of the highest order” and asserts that “as a conciliator he ... is ... without a peer in the Canadian hierarchy.”

     “Bishop McNally possesses also, to my certain and personal knowl­edge, such outstanding qualities as would fit him to realize to the fullest the great possibilities for good that attach to the exalted office of a Canadian Cardinal.” Recalling his work as Bishop of Calgary, Bennett says that “he was the founder of the most flourishing diocese in Western Canada,” where he managed “the building up of the most efficient system of Catholic public education.” More importantly, he “commanded to a singular degree the esteem and regard of the entire population without regard to class or creed.” Since his translation to Hamilton, Bennett notes, Bishop McNally main­tained his “progressive zeal for religion and education,” building schools which “have reached a standard of excellence ranking second to none in the whole of Canada,” and constructing “the most beautiful Cathedral in our Dominion.” It was Bennett’s view that “No man could more acceptably than he bear the great dignity we long to see given broader and more comprehen­sive influence in this country, which, though new in years, gives mighty promise amongst the nations of the earth.” Prime Minister Bennett closes by asking Cardinal Sbarretti to put his case to Pope Pius.54

     We know that Bennett’s arguments were unsuccessful, at least in the short run. Archbishop Sinnott met with the Foreign Secretary on 9 May 1932, but the meeting did not leave him optimistic. Simon impressed him “as being cold, distant, and reserved. He characterized the communication as ‘interesting’ and added that he would consider it.” Simon suggested that the only action which would have any value would have to be taken in his role as Foreign Secretary and, as such, would have to be weighed carefully. “Personally, I feel that he will be very loathe to take action, unless some pressure be brought to bear on him.”55

     On 10 June 1932, Sir John Simon informed Bennett that his chargé d’affaires, Mr. George Ogilvie-Forbes, had pointed out the extreme delicacy of the Prime Minister’s intervention. “It appears that the present Pope, more than any of his recent predecessors, reserves to himself very strictly the consideration of matters of this sort. He is not amenable to suggestions or advice, even from Cardinals, and I understand in cases where any of the latter have ventured to make suggestions, their advice has been ill-received, and the effect has been, if anything, precisely the opposite of what was intended.” That said, Ogilvie-Forbes “will take a suitable opportunity of mentioning it to the Cardinal Secretary of State, though he points out that the latter has not very much influence with the present Pope in such matters.”56

     A similar response appears to have been given Archbishop Sinnott by Cardinal Sbarretti. Writing to Bennett from Paris, Bishop McNally admits that their efforts resulted in “nothing tangible.” Rather, "The man in R. would do nothing, saying it would do more harm than good, and he at once destroyed the communication.” As for Pius, McNally writes, “We talked of the topic in general to the head man, with what effect there is no means of knowing.”57

     Two views as to the reasons for the failure of Sinnott’s mission are suggested in the correspondence on this matter. Writing in March 1933, McNally claims that Sinnott “was in no small degree responsible for the denouement himself. He did not know his ground when he brought up that question where he did. That was resented strongly, I am quite sure, and caused a volta face in the opposite direction.”58

     Sir John Simon, passing on the views of his chargé d' ‘affaires, leaves the impression that Bishop McNally himself might have been indirectly respon­sible for the coolness with which the proposal was received. It was the view of Ogilvie-Forbes:

that the Canadian Roman Catholics of English speech enjoy a more influential posi­tion at the Vatican than the French Catholics. The Bishop of Hamilton in particular, who spends a great deal of time at the Vatican, has much influence with the Secre­tariat of State and is also very close to the Pope. Indeed, the fact that His Holiness has on occasion consulted the Bishop of Hamilton has, I gather, caused some anxiety and consternation among the French Canadian ecclesiastics who have not the same influence, and who fear that they may not receive such favourable treat­ment as the English speaking Canadians in the matter of ecclesiastical preferment. I understand that the Pope is aware of this situation and that it is perhaps not impos­sible that he would be inclined to appoint a Cardinal of French language to compen­sate the French Canadian ecclesiastics for real or imagined grievances.59


        It is not clear that these concerns determined the Pope’s course of action. The credibility of Ogilvie-Forbes’s observations must be measured against his statement that “it appears that the Pope is ... not likely to create any fresh Cardinals in the immediate future,”60 when, in fact, in only months the elevation to the Sacred College of Archbishop Rodrique Villeneuve was announced.

     McNally admitted his disappointment to Bennett, but concluded “it is past now, and were better forgotten”;61 and he concentrated his efforts on the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the King. A measure of the friend­ship of the two men was not only Bennett’s contribution of $1000 to the cost of building the Cathedral, but his appearance at its dedication over the objections of Ontario’s Orangemen.62 Bishop McNally also immersed himself in an attempt to rouse the bishops of Ontario into taking a leading role in the fight for equitable distribution of school taxes rather than leaving the battle to M.J. Quinn – whom he derided as “acting as a superbishop in Ontario”63 – and the Catholic Taxpayers Association. He also launched a controversial attempt to simplify the name of his diocese, a measure which created a storm of protest, particularly from the Anglicans, who resented, as some still do, the effrontery of Papists in calling themselves Catholics without adjectives.64 Unfortunately for the Bishop, his aggressive stance on the latter two issues may have cost him a lesser prize.

     In 1934 the death of Archbishop McNeil of Toronto left a critical vacancy in the leadership of the Church in Ontario and English Canada generally. In October 1934 the Bishop of London, Thomas J. Kidd, wrote to Prime Minister Bennett seeking his assistance in advancing the nomination of Bishop McNally for the Toronto see. “In point of intellectual power, I think he has no peer in Canada. His firmness in administration may not have made him particularly popular, but what he may lack in popularity he possesses in tact, intellectual strength, and firmness.” McNally’s appoint­ment, he suggested, “would not only be beneficial to the Archdiocese of Toronto, but would also result in great advantages to Canada as a whole, because, with his experience, ability, and tact he would be able to prevent the differences that now exist from becoming so acute as to result in public agitation.”65

     For his part, McNally again implored Bennett to involve himself on behalf of Archbishop Sinnott or, presumably, himself. McNally now under­stood that his influence at Rome was less than he had previously imagined in 1932. Perhaps aware also that the controversies in which he had become involved, with both Orangemen and allies in the Catholic Taxpayers’ Asso­ciation, would hurt his chances, McNally knew that he needed to call on the Prime Minister again. He was convinced, he wrote, that “nothing but such influence as you may command will have any effect in changing the course” of events, “and that influence will need to be energetically asserted.” He called on that influence, he said, because of “the paramount importance of the office to be filled, and of the work it can accomplish, if placed in the right hands.”66

     Again the Prime Minister wrote to Sir John Simon, who forwarded his letter to Sir Charles Wingfield, Minister to the Holy See. Wingfield, in turn, wrote and spoke to Cardinal Sbarretti, but Simon reminded Bennett that his intervention “requires delicate handling if no suspicions or susceptibilities are to be aroused.”67

     Once more, Bennett’s efforts failed. Archbishop James McGuigan of Regina, was named to the see, at forty, the youngest Archbishop of a major diocese in the world. McGuigan was a Prince Edward Islander like McNally and Sinnott, but one whom both men considered unsuitable for the see of Toronto. Both Sinnott and McNally knew McGuigan’s history as a depres­sive. When he was appointed Archbishop of Regina, Sinnott wrote, “For a time he was the nearest thing to a lunatic that you ever saw. I was worried that he was going to lose his mind, and there was a very real danger. Toronto, with its colossal debt and other difficulties, is much worse than Regina ever was. Will he stand it?”68 Indeed, McGuigan did go to Rome to try to get out of the appointment,69 but was persuaded to accept it. McNally was disappointed both for Sinnott and himself. He agreed to preach the sermon for what he called “the rather triumphal entry into Toronto of its new Archbishop,”7070 but he confided to Bennett that he would have been happy “to miss it altogether.”71

     In the following year Prime Minister Bennett was soundly defeated at the polls and never again would be able to provide official support to his friend McNally that he had done. In 1937, McNally was named Archbishop of Halifax, a position he accepted, in part, it is said, in the hope that the age of the diocese might enhance the likelihood of his elevation to the Sacred College.72 In one of his last letters to be found in Bennett’s papers, he writes “You are – very properly – not at all enthusiastic over my change of diocese.” He cannot go into details in a letter, but claims “the conditions made it practically impossible for me to refuse.” Those conditions may be suggested by McNally’s comment:


Had I been there [Halifax] five years ago I feel sure your exaggeratedly kind efforts on my behalf would have been successful. As to your later project [the Archdiocese of Toronto], I do not believe it ever reached the ears of the exalted person it was intended to influence. He has certainly been always well disposed towards me.73


     In Halifax, McNally found himself based in an historic centre of Irish-Canadian Catholicism but one which included a significant Acadian Catholic minority. His relations with that minority proved difficult, particularly with respect to a controversy within the Archdiocese over significant post-war expenditures on the rebuilding of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax while little or no attention was given to the francophone Collège Sainte-Anne. This incident was a focus of the Acadian discontent that contributed to the ultimate separation, almost immediately upon McNally’s death, of the Acadian areas from the diocese of Halifax and the erection of the Diocese of Yarmouth in 1953. Again, it would be too easy to exaggerate McNally’s past differences with French-­Canadian clergy in his battles in Halifax. His close ally in the Archbishop’s attempt to retain Bermuda as part of the Archdiocese of Halifax was a young Acadian priest, J. Nil Thériault, for whom McNally secured elevation as the youngest Monsignor and Domestic Prelate in the Canadian Church.74

     English Canada did eventually get its Cardinal, but it was not John T. McNally. In late 1945 Archbishop McGuigan was informed of his appoint­ment to the Cardinalate. It is not difficult to imagine Archbishop McNally as an elderly Moses, watching at the margin while his fellow Islander and irlandais entered the Promised Land.

     One can only speculate about the failure of Bishop McNally’s efforts to attain the leading role in the Church in English Canada. Men with friends in high places often have as many enemies in the same precincts. McNally’s references to Archbishop Ildebrando Antoniutti, the Apostolic Delegate to Canada and Newfoundland at the end of his career, are uniformly acid.75 McNally had earned over the years the enmity of French-Canadian clergy in different parts of Canada, antagonized the leadership of the Catholic Taxpayers Association in Ontario, battled with the Irish Christian Brothers over the control of Saint Mary’s University in Halifax and with the Congre­gation of the Resurrection over their work in Bermuda.

     There is no indication whether the intervention and support of Prime Minister Bennett helped or hurt McNally’s chances, or was a thing indif­ferent. Nor is it clear whether the general arguments put forward in favour of recognizing English-speaking Catholics in Canada played any part in the eventual appointment of Cardinal McGuigan. The story does form, however, an interesting footnote in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada and an important chapter in the intertwined biographies of two contentious and controversial, but historically neglected leaders whose contributions to the shaping of Canada in the twentieth century have been inadequately appreciated.

1See, for example, Robert Choquette, Language and Religion: a History of English­French Conflict in Ontario (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1975); Raymond Huel, “Gestae Dei Per Francos:the French Canadian Experience in Western Canada,” in Benjamin G. Smillie, ed., Visions of the New Jerusalem (Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1983), pp. 39-53; Roberto Penn, Rome in Canada: the Vatican and Canadian Affairs in the Late Victorian Age (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990); and Terrence Murphy and Gerald Stortz, eds., Creed and Culture: the Place of English-Speaking Catholics in Canadian Society, 1750-1930 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993).

2The role of the notary entailed a careful review, authentication, and certification of all documents prepared for and by the Plenary Council.

3See Robert Nicholas Bérard, “Archbishop John T. McNally and Roman Catholic Education in Canada,” Vitae Scholasticae 8, 2 (1988), pp. 255-74.

4See Choquette, Language and Religion, pp. 9-43, 59-68, 109-16.

5Raymond Huel, “The Irish-French Conflict in Catholic Episcopal Nominations: the Western Sees and the Struggle for Domination within the Church,” Canadian Catholic Historical Association Study Sessions (1975) p. 57.

6Archives of the Archdiocese of Halifax (AAH), McNally Papers, vol. 4, ff. 411, 435­-529.

7Ibid. Throughout his ecclesiastical career, McNally was leery of religious orders operating independently of episcopal authority. In Calgary, one of the reasons that McNally may have abandoned plans for the establishment of a Benedictine College was the spectre of another powerful, independent religious order. See N.R. Anderson, “The Benedictine College in Calgary, 1912-1914: a Review,” unpublished mss., Archives of the Diocese of Calgary (ADC), 1980.

8Huel, “The Irish-French Conflict,” pp. 69-70.

9AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 3, f. 310.

10See Huel, “The Irish-French Conflict,” p. 58.

11See Perin, Rome in Canada, pp. 226-7.

12Manoly Lupul, The Roman Catholic Church and the North-West School Question: A Study in Church-State Relations in Western Canada, 1875-1905 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), pp. 7, 8, 156.

13A.A. Sinnott to McNally, 2 November 1929. AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1491.

14Robert Choquette, “John Thomas McNally et l’érection du diocèse de Calgary,” Revue de l’Université d’Ottawa 45, 4 (1975), p. 414.

15Bérard, “Archbishop J.T. McNally,” pp. 269-70.

16Robert Nicholas Bérard, “The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax and the Colony of Bermuda,” Collections of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 42 (1986), pp. 126-7.

17Despite the fact that nearly half of Canada’s population was Catholic, English­ Canadian Catholics, especially in Ontario, continued to exhibit what Roberto Perin has called “a mentality of a besieged minority.” See Perin, Rome in Canada, p. 220.

18J.J. O’Gorman to McNally, 22 April 1922, AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1325.

19J.J. O’Gorman to McNally, [fragment, n.d.], AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1055.

20Bishop P.T. Ryan to McNally, 22 October 1921, AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1040.

21Sister St Agatha to McNally, 3 September 1926, AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1047.

22See Perin, Rome in Canada, passim; see also F.J. McEvoy, “Religion and Politics: Canadian Government Relations with the Vatican,” Canadian Catholic Historical Association Historical Studies 51 (1984), pp. 121-44.

23Cited in Peter B. Waite, The Loner: Three Sketches of the Personal Life and Ideas of R.B. Bennett, 1870-1947 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), pp. 43-4.

24McNally to R.B. Bennett, 1 February 1930, Harriet Irving Library (HIL), University of New Brunswick, Bennett Papers, Box 949, ff. 0600369-70.

25George C. Nowlan to Bennett, 21 May 1936, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 394, ff. 521170­72. Nowlan, writing to express concern about the perception of Nova Scotia Premier Harrington as anti-Catholic, notes that Bennett has “always been singularly fortunate in your relations with the Church...” See also, Bérard, “Bishop John T. McNally,” pp. 265-66.

26See AAH, McNally Ps., Box 8, ff. 1260-62; which includes letter from an aspirant to a Saskatchewan Senate seat, letters from Senator Charles Murphy outlining his views on the matter, and a further letter (28 February 1931) from a Rev. James Reardon of Minneapolis seeking Bishop McNally’s help in securing the episcopacy of the Diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota.

27Rev. Albert Rouleau to Bennett, 17 February 1930, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 381277-78.

28McNally to Bennett, 31 June 1931, HIL Bennett, Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600371-72.

29See Perin, Rome in Canada, especially pp. 95-126. See also, R.A. MacLean, Bishop John Cameron: Piety and Politics (Antigonish: Casket Printing & Publishing, 1991).

30McNally to Bennett, 30 December 1931, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600373-74.

31Bérard, “Archbishop J.T. McNally,” p. 272.

32McNally to Bennett, 30 January 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600376-79.

33McNally to Bennett, 15 January 1931, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600371-72

34J.J. O’Gorman to McNally, 22 April 1922, AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1325.

35McNally to Bennett, 30 January 1932. HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600376-79.

36Waite, The Loner, pp. 88-9; see also Michael Bliss, Right Honourable Men: the Descent of Canadian Politics from Macdonald to Mulroney (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 108.

37A.B. MacDonald to McNally, n.d., AAH, McNally Ps., vol. 5, f. 635.

38J.M. Bennett to McNally, 17 January 1931, AAH McNally Ps., vol. 8, f. 1258.

39McNally to Bennett, 30 January 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600371-72.

40Bennett to McNally, 24 February 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600380; Bennett suggested that had McNally remained in the West, “the educational record of the Separate Schools would have been better than it now is.”

41McNally to Bennett, 30 January 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600376-79.

42Bennett to McNally, 24 February 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600380.

43Choquette, “John Thomas McNally,” p. 415.

44A.A. Sinnott to McNally, 31 March 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600383.

45McNally to Bennett, 18 March/9 April 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 060038182.


47Waite, The Loner, p. 99; see also Bliss, Right Honourable Men, p. 117.

48McNally to Bennett, 26 April 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600386-87.

49See Perin, Rome in Canada, p. 91.

50Bennett to Viscount John Simon, 23 April 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381277-78.

51Perin, Rome in Canada, p. 227.

52Bennett to Cardinal Donato Sbarretti, 23 April 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381301-09.

53Bennett to Rev. T. Albert Moore, 15 February 1936, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0550019-20.

54Bennett to Sbarretti, 23 April 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381301-09.

55A.A. Sinnott to Bennett, 9 May 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 958, ff. 0606659-60.

56Simon to Bennett, 10 June 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381282-84.

57McNally to Bennett, 14 June 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600388-91.

58McNally to Bennett, 24 March 1933, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600411-12.

59Simon to Bennett, 10 June 1932, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381282-84.


61McNally to Bennett, 24 March 1933, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600411-12.

62J.L. Leddy to Bennett, 2 January 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 983, ff. 0621850.

63McNally to Bennett, 15 February 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600443-44.

64McNally to Bennett, 17 June 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600435-36.

65[Bishop Thomas J. Kidd] to [Bennett], 11 October 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381298-300.

66McNally to Bennett, 15 September 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600949-50.

67Simon to Bennett, 23 October 1934, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 617, ff. 0381310-11.

68Sinnott to McNally, 12 January 1935, AAH, McNally Ps., Vol. 8, f. 1506.

69McNally to Bennett, 31 January 1935, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600456-57.

70McNally to Bennett, 3 April 1935, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600470-71.

71McNally to Bennett, 2 March 1935, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600460-61.

72Bérard, “Archbishop John T. McNally,” p. 267.

73McNally to Bennett, 27 February 1937, HIL, Bennett Ps., Box 949, ff. 0600482-83.

74See Robert Nicholas Bérard, “Processes of Colonial Control: the Bermuda School Question” in J.A. Mangan, ed., Making Imperial Mentalities: Socialisation and British Imperialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 184-202.

75McNally generally resented Antoniutti’s efforts “à domestiquer l’épiscopat” – see Jean Hamelin, Histoire du catholicisme québécois: Le XXe siècle, Tome 2 de 1940 à nos jours (Montréal: Boréal Express, 1984), p. 21. He was also aware of Antoniutti’s desire to separate Bermuda and southwestern Nova Scotia from his Halifax archdiocese – see Bérard, “The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Halifax,” p. 127.