Museum Musings: Bishop John McLean

Photo courtesy the Bill Smiley Archives. Bishop John McLean and his wife Kathleen pose for a photo taken around 1880.

Just west of the Saskatchewan Penitentiary stands a little white church.  It was the first Church of England parish church in the Prince Albert Settlement, at one time the pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Saskatchewan, and also the college chapel of the federally chartered Emmanuel College.  Buried in the graveyard which surrounds the church are many of the early settlers of the area including, immediately east of the church’s chancel, John McLean, the first bishop of the Diocese.

John McLean was born to Charles, a merchant, and Jannet (Watson) McLean on Nov. 17, 1828 in Portsoy, Banffshire, Scotland.  John McLean was baptised and raised in the Presbyterian church and, like so many youngsters in that era, received his primary education at home.

There is an unconfirmed report that McLean joined his brother in walking to London to volunteer with a Presbyterian missionary society.  His brother was accepted but, as John was only sixteen years old, he was refused.  If true, this would have been a great loss to the Presbyterian church, but it certainly was foreshadowing of what McLean would be expected to do in his future life.

John returned to Scotland, where, in 1847, he won a bursary and attained entrance into King’s College, Aberdeen, from which he graduated in 1851 with a Masters of Arts in Science and Classics.  After graduation, McLean returned to London, England, where he gained employment with a manufacturing firm managed by his uncle.  He became interested in the Church of England Young Men’s Society, and began studying foreign languages as well as taking theology classes. 

By 1858, it was suggested that McLean seek ordination. In taking this decision his continuing friendship with Robert Machray, a fellow student at Aberdeen, played a part.

McLean emigrated to London, Canada West, where he was ordained by Bishop Cronyn, first as deacon on 1 Aug. 1858, and then as a priest on 15 December. At the latter service, McLean was given the somewhat unique distinction of preaching the Ordination sermon, choosing as his text Hebrews 7:11.  Bishop Cronyn appointed him chaplain to the garrison and curate of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Canada West (now Ontario).

It was while serving in this Ontario city that McLean met and married in 1861 his wife, Kathleen Wilhelmina, daughter of the Reverend Richard and Frances (Blake) Flood.

In 1866, Robert Machray asked McLean to assist in the revival of St John’s College in Winnipeg.  Machray had been consecrated as Rupert’s Land second bishop in 1865.  Between 1866 and 1874 McLean taught at St John’s College, of which he was warden and professor of divinity. He was also appointed examining chaplain to the bishop of Rupert’s Land, archdeacon of Assiniboia, and rector of St John’s Cathedral at Winnipeg.

During the Red River disturbance of 1869–70, McLean joined Machray in urging the Protestant inhabitants, the majority of whom were Anglican, towards a moderate course, and in advising them to send English-speaking delegates to the convention proposed by Louis Riel for January 1870.

In 1873 the Church of England authorities were contemplating dividing the vast diocese of Rupert’s Land. McLean went to Britain that year to raise funds for the proposed new diocese of Saskatchewan.  While he was in England attempting to raise money for the bishopric endowment fund for the new diocese, on May 3,1874 the Archbishop of Canterbury consecrated McLean at the Parish Church of St. Mary in Lambeth.

Of interest, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Archibald Campbell Tait, was the first Scottish Archbishop of Canterbury.  Like McLean, Archbishop Tait was raised by his parents in the Presbyterian church, but turned towards the Scottish Episcopal Church and was confirmed into the Church of England in 1830 during his first year as a student at Oxford.

McLean described his new diocese as follows: “it is in Western Canada:  it is bounded on the east by the Province of Manitoba, on the west by the Province of British Columbia at the summit of the Rocky Mountains, on the south by the International boundary line between Canada and the United States, and on the north by the Aurora Borealis and world without end.”  The Province of Manitoba was, at that time, much smaller than it is now.  In fact, it was nick-named “the postage stamp province” due to its square shape and its compact size.

The new diocese was a vast area, according to one document covering 700,000 square miles and by another document, covering 900,000 square miles.  It was populated by about 30,000 First Nations persons, with a few small settlements of white people.  There were no endowments, no missionaries, no churches.

The previously mentioned little white church, St. Mary’s, was consecrated by Bishop McLean on Christmas Day, 1875. The men of the community had asked the Bishop to dedicate the church after one of the women saints in the Bible as a tribute to the women of the community whose courage and loyalty were evident in meeting the privations and hazards of life in Canada’s northwest.

On Nov. 1, 1879, Bishop McLean opened the work of Emmanuel College in the building that the McLeans used as a home. Its purpose was to promote “higher scholastic training and instruction”, but Bishop McLean spoke in his charge to the first Synod of the Diocese (held at St. Mary’s on Aug. 31, 1882) that the college was necessary to meet the “sense of need I entertained for a trained band of Interpreters, schoolmasters, catechists and pastors, who being themselves natives of the country would be familiar with the language and modes of thought of the people.”  The Bishop himself became the first Warden and Divinity Professor of the College.

In addition to the primary object of training native helpers a regular course of Theology was established for Candidates for Holy Orders, and also a Collegiate School for boys and young men.  During the winter term of 1881-82, there were thirty pupils, of whom twelve were missionary students, including four Cree men, and eighteen pupils of the Collegiate School.

In order to provide appropriate instruction, the Bishop brought John McKay, the son of a Hudson’s Bay Company factor and an aboriginal mother, from Battleford, as well as James Flett from Winnipeg.  McKay became an Archdeacon in 1885, and was principal of Emmaneul College from 1887 until 1900.  Flett, also an English Metis, became vice-principal of the College, and was made a Canon of the diocese.  He also became the Superintendent of Education for the district.

In 1883, due in large measure to the personal lobbying of the bishop and his wife, Kathleen, an act was passed by the Government of Canada “to establish and incorporate the University of Saskatchewan and authorize the establishment of a college within the limits of the Diocese of Saskatchewan.”  This act gave the institution status to confer degrees in all faculties, but no religious tests or qualifications were to be required except for degrees in divinity.  It also established the Governor General as Visitor, and ruled that all statutes and regulations of the University must be laid before the Secretary of State for Canada, and secure the approval and signature of the Visitor. The bill was assented to by the Governor General on May 25, 1883.

‘In August, 1886, the second diocesan Synod met. It was to be the Bishop’s last Synod, and in his address he said:

‘”Since we last met, I have been able to visit, and hold Confirmation, in every mission in the diocese but one, and this will be shortly visited. In the great majority of cases I have made at least two visits to each mission.”

After the Synod was over, although he was not in good health, he started on a long visitation to Calgary and Edmonton, taking with him his fifteen-year-old son, Hume.  The Bishop did not feel well as they started on their return journey from Edmonton. On going down the hill near the HBC fort, they met a cart, and, there being no room to pass, their wagon was upset, and all were thrown out. They proceeded on their journey, but soon after the Bishop became seriously ill, and after proceeding five miles, they returned to Edmonton, where he lay for three weeks at the Ross Hotel under medical charge. By the doctor’s advice, McLean had a large skiff built by the Hudson Bay Company, with the stern part covered with canvas like a tent. Two men were engaged to conduct it to Prince Albert, a distance of six hundred miles by water. They reached Fort Pitt on Thursday, October 7, exactly eight days from Edmonton.

The Bishop was so ill when he reached Battleford that he was obliged to remain in the skiff.  After the Bishop’s return home, he rallied considerably for a few days, but he was too much weakened by the hardships of the journey, fever set in.  On Sunday morning, Nov. 7, he became unconscious, and remained so, surrounded by all his family, until 12 p.m., when he died.

Bishop McLean was buried in St Mary’s churchyard with all the pomp that the Anglican Church and the town of Prince Albert could muster. The Prince Albert Times and Saskatchewan Review mourned him as the town’s best friend, “the central figure of our community.” His old friend Machray praised his “great and varied gifts, readiness of utterance, and unceasing devotion.”  According to the reminiscences of the Reverend Canon J.F. Dyke Parker, Bishop McLean was the first official chaplain appointed to the North West Mounted Police. Accordingly, his funeral was conducted with full military honours.  Although a very cold day, it was estimated that over 1200 attended to pay their respects.

Tomorrow, Friday, May 3, at 7:00 p.m., a service of Holy Communion will be held at St. Alban’s Cathedral to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the consecration of its first bishop, John McLean.