History of St. Ninian’s Parish & Its Cemeteries

Antigonish’s first Roman Catholic church was a small chapel erected between Church and College Streets, close to the present-day Bank of Nova Scotia. The area’s Roman Catholic settlers acquired the parcel of land from Thomas Russell in 1805. Five years later, the small structure was built as a “mission” of Arisaig parish and given the name “St. John’s.” A burial ground located almost immediately to the west of the church extended as far as the present-day corner of College and Main Streets.

Until 1817, the entire Roman Catholic population of Nova Scotia was under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Diocese of Quebec, which assumed responsibility for all British North American Catholics after the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). In 1812, Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis visited the area and suggested the name “St. Ninian” for the small Antigonish church, an acknowledgment of the congregation’s growing Gaelic character. The initial parish included such surrounding rural areas as Heatherton, Lochaber, St. Andrews, St. Josephs and Antigonish Harbour. Three years after his visit, Bishop Plessis appointed Rev. Remi Gaulin the first Pastor of St. Ninian’s.

In 1822, Rev. William Fraser arrived from Scotland and assumed responsibility for the Vicariate Apostolic of Nova Scotia, which had been established five years prior to his arrival. While the Vicariate’s official seat was Halifax, increasingly large numbers of Rev. Fraser’s congregants—many of them recently arrived Highland Scottish immigrants—resided in northeastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

In fact, several members of Rev. Fraser’s immediate family had emigrated to the colony prior to his arrival, settling at Fraser’s Grant. While Rev. Fraser spent his initial years as a missionary in Cape Breton, he relocated to Antigonish in 1824 to better serve the region’s Gaelic-speaking Catholic settlements. Five years later, Rev. Fraser formally changed the parish name from St. John’s to St. Ninian’s.

Shortly after settling in Antigonish, Rev. Fraser oversaw the construction of a large wooden church on the northern side of Main St., the present-day location of the former Royal Canadian Legion building and adjacent service station. A cemetery was established immediately behind the church. The new facilities served the growing parish for half a century. While Rev. Fraser assumed the office of Bishop of Arichat in 1844, he continued to reside in Antigonish throughout his tenure.

St. Ninian’s Church, Main St.

St. Ninian’s Church, Main St.

Upon his death in 1851, Bishop Fraser was laid to rest in the Main St. cemetery. His successor, Rev. Colin Francis MacKinnon, was a native of William’s Point. As with his predecessor, Bishop MacKinnon spent the majority of his time in Antigonish, and presented his parishioners with a plan to construct a stone cathedral in 1865.

While consideration was given to erecting the new structure on the site of the present-day St. Martha’s Hospital, Bishop MacKinnon eventually settled on its present location atop “Cathedral Hill” and construction commenced the following year. Eight years passed before the structure was completed.

St. Ninian’s Cathedral was officially dedicated on September 13, 1874. The Main St. wooden church was converted into the Main St. School and served in this role until 1917, Morrison School, located immediately behind the Cathedral, was opened. The Main St. property was subsequently sold to A. K. MacDonald.

St. Ninian’s Cathedral on the day of its dedication.

Following the Cathedral’s completion, the few graves located adjacent to the old chapel’s location were transferred to the Main St. Cemetery. College St. was then extended to connect to the newly constructed St. Ninian St., which ran below the Cathedral. In 1877, Bishop Fraser’s remains were exhumed and placed in a vault under the newly constructed stone structure. Throughout the decade’s remaining years, burials continued in the original Main St. Cemetery.

In 1880, Bishop John Cameron relocated the official seat of the Diocese from Arichat to Antigonish. Six years later, the Diocese officially changed its name to Antigonish, although prior to that date its bishops had conducted most of their episcopal duties from the community. That same year, the parish finally acquired land for a new cemetery at its present location.

St. Ninian’s Cathedral postcard (date unknown).

A new road was constructed from the west end of St. Ninian St. through the campus of St. Francis Xavier University to the new location, where the first interment took place in 1881. Since that time, the present cemetery has served the needs of St. Ninian’s Parish, as well as individuals from other locations with family connections to the parish and community.