When a biography describes its subject variously as a “man who insisted on deference and respect” and “a haughty administrator,” the reader might be expecting a counter-argument explaining that mere foibles cannot detract from the admirable qualities also possessed by the man.
That such an argument doesn’t come might be partly the result of author Peter McGuigan’s meticulous yet uncompromising style; it might also be because no very strong counter argument exists for a man of such extraordinary ambition and questionable ethics.
As the title suggests, this book is not merely a biography of the Archbishop of Halifax who was the driving force behind upgrading (in modern parlance) Saint Mary’s from a college run by Christian brothers to a university run by Jesuits. It is also about the era and the political landscape in which the Catholic Church and its individual clergy could affect huge institutional and societal changes.
Early chapters trace the gowth of the institution from the 1776 law forbidding formal education of Roman Catholic youth, through to the moment in 1843 when Saint Mary’s was officially recognized by the Nova Scotian government, to the Great War and the Halifax explosion of 1917 after which Archbishop Edward McCarthy allowed Saint Mary’s to be used as one of Halifax’s emergency hospitals.
When McNally enters the story a third way into McGuigan’s book he does so with a sense of entitlement stemming in part from his “privilege of a foreign education.” He had attended a Vatican school in Rome where he became a friend of the future Pius XII. His unwarranted faith that he could succeed through connections is one of the book’s recurrent themes.
As it happened the expected promotions come too late in life for McNally. For a man determined to become Canada’s first English-speaking cardinal, the rank of Archbishop of Halifax achieved at the age of sixty-six (in 1937) represented a thwarted ambition. But any political power, the author notes, was not safe in McNally’s hands. He was still more than capable of manipulating documents to achieve the ends of funding projects dear to his heart.
While clearly an expert in this area of history, McGuigan’s style leans towards the scholarly in approach and he references other works in his own narrative as well as his endnotes. When he cites a research thesis at the very beginning of his first full chapter, however, he is in danger of showing a red flag to readers in search of entertainment. But McGuigan does know how to employ quotes tellingly, as with one of McNally’s personal letters; the plaintive but demanding tone gives the reader a sense of the pressure he was capable of placing on his allies to help his advancement. - Paul Butler, Atlantic Books Today, Fall 2012