A Haughty Man of Selfish Ambition
History of Saint Mary’s Focuses on Archbishop Who Helped Expand University to South End.
Walking up the front steps to McNally Hall at Saint Mary’s University in South End Halifax will never be the same.
That signature building bears the name of Archbishop John T. McNally (1937-1952), a Catholic bishop described in Peter McGuigan’s new book as “a haughty man of obvious intellectual gifts” consumed by “political intrigues” and “selfish” ambition. Seen in that light, the saintly image of SMU loses some of its glow.
Local Halifax historian Peter McGuigan has produced a truly fascinating and unique chronicle, mixing biography, local heritage, and institutional history in equal parts. As a longtime resident of the South End and a Saint Mary’s alumnus, he is already well-known as a history buff and a meticulous chronicler of local heritage.
In this narrative, he takes us on a meandering walk through the history of Saint Mary’s University from its origins in the early 1800s as a public school for boys, through the McNally era to the present day.
The book originated on a quiet Sunday evening in fall 2008, sparked by a telephone conversation between Saint Mary’s University president Dr.
Colin Dodds and the author. Dodds was familiar with McGuigan’s local history vignettes and suggested he take on a bigger project, namely the struggle to re-found Saint Mary’s University at Gorsebrook between 1944 and 1951.
The rise of Saint Mary’s University, as recounted in McGuigan’s book, is a complex, quixotic, and surprisingly controversial story. With his deft hand and encyclopedic mind, the author faithfully reconstructs the rise of the university from Saint Mary’s Boys School in 1802 to the Gorsebrook campus, mainly through the lens of a line of Catholic bishops from Cornelius O’Brien (1883-1906) to McNally’s death in November 1952.
McGuigan’s intimate knowledge of South End Halifax shines through and especially so in the later chapters on the impact of the university’s relocation on the local landscape and streetscape.
The balance of the book, the epilogue covering 1952 to now, reads more like an excerpt from the SMU prospectus.
The thematic approach, focusing on McNally and his political machinations, makes the book a rather unusual institutional history.
It is clear the author was heavily influenced by previous scholarly writings by Robert Nicholas Berard, a Catholic church historian at Mount Saint Vincent University. Indeed, the book’s title appropriates one used by Berard back in the late 1990s.
Archbishop McNally was, by most accounts, a brilliant but ruthlessly ambitious, less than admirable figure.
Climbing the Catholic hierarchy preoccupied his thinking. He was crushed when Toronto’s James McGuigan was named a cardinal and he died a bitter, isolated man.
The author’s scathing assessment of McNally is consistent with that of Berard and the bishop’s own contemporaries. Yet focusing so much of the story on McNally tends to cast a strangely sombre, dark mood over the re-birth of Saint Mary’s in the city’s South End.
South enders will be delighted with McGuigan’s book. It nicely compliments the author’s Historic South End Halifax by going into far more detail in describing the evolution of the city’s most affluent residential district.
Scenes of the Gorsebrook estate and open fields, the McNally Hall architectural designs, and the former golf course layout will bring back vivid memories. So do delightful tidbits such as the fact that the McNally building granite comes from the old Nova Scotia Penitentiary.
Fixating on McNally allows the author to address, indirectly, the current crisis of confidence gripping the Roman Catholic church. Bishops like McNally are shown to have human imperfections, clearly soiled by political machinations and internal church politics.
It’s surprising to read in a history of a university that would-be saints engaged in acts of political manipulation unworthy of men of a higher calling.
McGuigan’s focus on the church’s backroom politics need not deter the reader from enjoying this many-layered tale. The book is full of fascinating little character sketches, rare archival photos, and the odd personal observation, drawn from a life lived mostly in the South End. It also provides a very useful list of historical milestones in the university’s history.
From beginning to end, Peter McGuigan’s latest book is full of intrigue – and well worth reading as well as savouring, especially on a quiet Sunday afternoon. -for The Chronicle Herald by Paul W. Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University.