French missionaries from Québec served Mi’kmaq and early Acadian settler communities in the Miramichi region beginning in the 1700s.
Beaubear’s Island and French Fort Cove were among the last holdouts in the region, from the British explusion of the Acadians.
Irish immigration to the Miramichi followed, adding to the Catholic population in the region, and building a Catholic church in Nelson.
Québec missionary Father William Dollard was sent to serve in Bartibogue in 1823, and then Saint Patrick’s in Nelson in 1826. Following him was Kilkenny Ireland’s Father Micahel Egan, who founded the Saint Michael the Archangel mission in Chatham in 1833. Chatham Catholics built up the first Saint Michael’s Church which opened on March 17, 1839.
Saint John’s Father John Sweeny was ordained by Bishop Dollard in 1844, and with Saint Michael’s Church, built the first parish rectory in 1846. This small building serves to this day, as Saint Michael’s Museum and Genealogy Centre.
In 1847, Father Sweeny ministered to hundreds of dying Irish immigrants from plague ships docked at Middle Island, in the ‘Looshtauk Tragedy.’
Saint Michael the Archangel Parish became the seat of the new Diocese of Chatham on April 30, 1860, to serve Catholics in Northern New Brunswick. Donegal, Ireland Father James Rogers was ordained bishop August 15, 1860 and installed in Chatham on August 22, 1860.
His Bishop’s residence and chapel expanded into Saint Michael’s Academy, a library, school, and residence for teachers and students.
In 1868, Bishop Rogers invited the Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph to open a convent and a hospital. Chatham’s first Hotel Dieu Hospital was opened in the little rectory build by Father Sweeny. After moving into a larger Hotel Dieu Hospital to serve health care needs in Chatham, the little rectory building was used as a preparatory school.
The Religious Hospitallers of Saint Joseph’s legacy continues in service, in the Mount Saint Joseph Nursing Home, originally constructed by the Religious Hospitallers in 1975. Saint Michael the Archangel Parish continues to serve residents there, and in the Miramichi hospital and care homes.
On February 14, 1878, the wooden Saint Michael’s Church and surrounding buildings caught fire and were reduced to ashes. Another wooden Church was built on the same site.
Father Thomas Barry of Bathurst was named second Bishop of Chatham upon Bishop Rogers’ resignation in 1902.
Bishop Barry began the construction of the stone Saint Michael’s Cathedral.
Parishioners quarried and ferried over stones from Millbank and French Fort Cove.
The first Mass in the new stone church was celebrated on June 9, 1909.
Cathedral construction occupied Bishop Barry until his death in 1920, with the completion of the bell tower and the addition of a chapel of Our Lady to support the Cathedral’s west wall. Bishop Patrice-Alexandre Chiasson supervised the completion of the work of Chatham’s Catholic community in building up their monument in faith.
Bishop Barry invited the Basilian teaching order to open Chatham’s Saint Thomas College, to take over from Saint Michael’s Academy.
The Diocese of Chatham took over the college in 1923, and Chatham’s Reverend James M. Hill is noted as president of the college from 1923-1945. He was ordained and named as Bishop of Victoria, B.C. in 1946. The local high school still bears the name James M. Hill.
In 1938, the seat of the Diocese was moved to Bathurst, and Chatham was brought into the Diocese of Saint John. In 1964, Saint Thomas University was moved next to the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.
No longer the Diocesan Cathedral, Saint Michael’s was raised to the status of a minor Basilica by Pope John Paul II on January 28, 1989 – in the 150th anniversary year of the church’s building. Bishop Edward Troy presided at the consecration of Saint Michael’s Basilica.
Saint Michael the Archangel Parish continues to serve in Faith, Hope, and Charity, for the French, Scottish, Irish, and newer Catholic Christian communities of the Miramichi region.
The Basilica holds the names and memories of those who served for King and Country, including Military Cross-awarded Chaplain Raymond Hickey who served with the North Shore Regiment at Juno Beach on D-Day.
For more history, visit Saint Michael’s Museum