St. Michael’s Basilica Catholic Church, an impressive gothic structure, sits prominently overlooking Miramichi. This church, the third of its kind in the area, has roots extending back over 150 years and has played a significant role in shaping local health care and education.
The area’s religious history begins in the early 18th century with the arrival of missionaries from Quebec who ministered to the Micmacs and early settlers. By the late 1790s, there was a significant enough Roman Catholic population, primarily of Irish descent, to establish a church and burial ground at Nelson in the Miramichi region.
Father William Dollard was appointed as Missionary to the Miramichi Valley in 1823 by Bishop Plessis of Quebec City. He initially set up his mission in Bartibogue, moving to St. Patrick’s in Nelson three years later. In 1833, Father Michael Egan, from Thomastown Co. Kilkenny, Ireland, succeeded him and founded a new mission in Chatham, which would bear the name of his patron, Saint Michael, the Archangel.
Chatham’s Catholic population soon justified the purchase of land for a church, leading to the opening of the first St. Michael’s Church for public worship on March 17th, 1839.
Father John Shanahan, from Little Falls, N.Y., became Chatham’s first resident pastor in 1843. He made his first entry in the baptismal records on Christmas Eve that year, marking a shift from missionary entries. During his tenure, Bishop Dollard made his first visit to Chatham to confirm 254 people.
Father John Sweeney succeeded Father Shanahan in 1845. Born in Ireland, Father Sweeney had moved to Saint John as a child and was ordained by Bishop Dollard in 1844. He built the first parish rectory for St. Michael’s in 1846, which now serves as a museum and genealogical center. From this rectory, he gave the last rites to about 100 dying Irish immigrants at Middle Island in 1847. Father Sweeney left the parish in 1849, and Father Richard Veriker returned to St. Michael’s.
After Father John Sweeney’s episcopal consecration as the third Bishop of New Brunswick on April 30th, 1860, the Diocese of Chatham was established to serve the Catholics of the northern part of the province, with St. Michael’s as its seat.
Father James Rogers was consecrated as the first Bishop of Chatham on August 15th, 1860, in Charlottetown, P.E.I., and installed in Chatham a week later. Born in Ireland, Bishop Rogers moved to Nova Scotia at the age of five and was ordained in Halifax in 1851. As Bishop, he expanded St. Michael’s, adding an episcopal and priests residence and a Bishop’s Chapel. A teaching area, library, and residence for teachers and students also emerged, forming the nucleus of St. Michael’s Male Academy.
In 1868, Bishop Rogers invited the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph of Montreal to serve at the leper colony in Tracadie. The following year, members of the same community opened a convent and hospital in Chatham. On July 16th, 1869, four foundresses—Mother Davignon, Sister McGurty, Sister St. Louis, and Sister Vitaline—inaugurated Chatham’s first Hotel Dieu Hospital in the Rectory built by Father John Sweeney. This group would also open St. Joseph’s Preparatory School for boys in the old rectory in 1919.
On February 14th, 1878, the entire complex of buildings surrounding and including the church, with the exception of the old rectory, were reduced to ashes. The alarm was raised at two thirty A.M. by Bishop Rogers and Thomas Fitzgerald (a student). The Miramichi Advance of February 21st, 1878, states: “As the wood composing the Cathedral was very dry and very flammable, the structure seemed to go down before the fire like dry leaves.”
After the fire of 1878, Mass was held in a large school room of St. Patrick’s Hall downtown. At a parish meeting, a committee was struck to solicit contributions, to repair the loss and to provide immediate temporary accommodations, as well as a permanent Cathedral.
A second St. Michael, another wooden structure, was built on the same site and plans were drawn for the building of a new Cathedral. In 1900 Father Thomas Barry, Parish priest of Bathurst was named co-adjutor Bishop of Chatham with the right of succession. When Bishop Rogers resigned in 1902, Father Barry became the second Bishop of Chatham.
Bishop Barry immediately began construction of the Cathedral. Stones were quarried from Millbank and French Fort Cove, and transported across the river by parishioners. The Basement of the new stone church was opened for worship on June 9th, 1908 when the Rt. Rev. Msgr. William Varrily blessed the church and celebrated the first Mass.
In 1909, Bishop Barry brought the Basilian Fathers of Toronto to open St. Thomas College. At this time he began construction of the Bishop’s Palace which was completed in 1911. Also in 1909, the bells of the Cathedral were blessed and the Lady Chapel was added to support the west wall of the Cathedral. The construction of the Cathedral occupied Bishop Barry until his death in 1920.
In September of 1922, Patrice-Alexandre Chiasson became the Third Bishop of Chatham and he supervised the completion of the Church, and installed several of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary. It was during his tenure in 1938 that the seat of the diocese was moved to Bathurst.
In 1970-1971 St. Michael’s Church was renovated to conform to the directives of Vatican II, and in 1983, the church basement was finished to provide space for a great number of Parish activities.
In 1989, on its 150th Anniversary, St. Michael’s Basilica was elevated to a minor Basilica by Pope John Paul II and Most Rev. Edward Troy. D.D., Bishop of Saint John presided at the consecration and declaration. Saint Michaels continues to play a leading role in the community and the various committees of the Parish Council are active in caring for the spiritual and temporal needs of the people.
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