Project Canterbury

Leaders of the Canadian Church
Edited by Canon Bertal Heeney

volume two
Toronto: Musson, 1920. 299 pp.


NEIL McDonald, father of the subject of this sketch, came to this country from Islay, in Scotland, in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company about 1820, and was assigned to aid in the exploration of Sir John Franklin.

After fulfilling his obligations to the Company, he "went free," as it was commonly called, and settled down as a farmer at Point Douglas, on the Red River, half a mile north of Upper Fort Carry. The year following he was married to Ann Logan, a daughter of William Logan, a retired Hudson's Bay officer. A family of five sons and five daughters blessed this happy union, Robert, their second child being born in 1829.

His father, Neil McDonald, was a man of cheerful and kindly disposition, with a great fondness for Scotch songs, and of no mean ability in singing them. Robert's mother was esteemed by her neighbours as a hospitable woman of the genial sort; what wonder then if the children also, who grew up in the serene atmosphere of such companionship, were lovable and pleasant in their lives.

Robert's education was commenced in the St. John's Parish School. Later on he studied in the McCallum Academy, and finally entered St. John's Collegiate School, where he took a course in Divinity, under Bishop Anderson, by whom he was also admitted to Deacon's Orders, in 1851, and to the Priesthood the following year.

Only one document remains that seems to throw light on young McDonald as a student. It is a manuscript in the hand-writing of Bishop Anderson. In it there is a list of five boys who held scholarships in 1855. One of those was McDonald, another was Coldwell, who afterwards became Lt.-Col. Coldwell, and Master of Corpus Christi, Cambridge; and these two were the only students of Bishop Anderson's time who became Hon. Fellows of St. John's. It may therefore safely be said that tradition has visible means of support in asserting that the name of Robert McDonald had a high place among the successful students of his day. In 1884 the University of Manitoba conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity--fitting tribute to what he was, both as a scholar and a missionary.

In 1853 Mr. McDonald was appointed by Bishop Anderson to the charge of White Dog Mission, situated at the junction of the Winnipeg and Lac Seul Rivers. This station had been established the year before by Mr. Philip Kennedy, and given the name of Islington.

We have no definite record of the immediate result of young McDonald's work at White Dog Mission, but we know that he applied himself assiduously to the task in hand, giving special attention to the teaching of the natives.

His term of service here is important as being a preparation for his great work of forty years among the natives of the Yukon and Mackenzie Rivers.

Without doubt his experience during the nine years at this place enabled him to avoid the mistakes of a novice.

The Ojibway, the Indians among whom he worked at White Dog, are second to none in their belief in the supernatural. They hold to their various traditions with a tenacity that no merely human power can overcome, and when they insist upon some practice on the plea of being so taught by their father and mother, the missionary has the difficult task of how not to condemn the filial respect to parents that he is in other ways endeavoring to inculcate.

Mr. McDonald's knowledge of the Indian character, and his kindly and sympathetic nature were invaluable assets, in his undertaking at White Dog, to convince the Ojibway that the Gospel representation of "Kachi Manito" (the Great Spirit) was a much worthier conception of him than that entertained by their fathers.

Many among them were impressed by his teaching and were baptized. Mr. McDonald preached to the Indians in their own language, and there are now in this district children of some of his parishioners and pupils whose lives bear tribute that his teachings are not forgotten. Mr. McDonald had full opportunity of judging the merits of the Syllabic System, in his translations of the Ojibway language into Tukudh. The fact that this translation is in Roman characters would indicate that he did not think it wise to try to expand the capacity of the former to meet the huge requirements of the Tukudh language.

In October, 1862, Mr. McDonald reached the Yukon, and was the first Protestant Missionary designated specially for mission work in that district.

At Fort Yukon he was three thousand seven hundred and fifty miles from his home in Winnipeg. Finding more opportunities and greater scope for vaster heroic effort, he forthwith gave himself without stint to the prosecution of the work, which at his Master's bidding he had gone forth to perform. He was not absolutely first in this part of the Mission field. Some Roman Catholic Priests had attempted to gain a foothold among the Tukudh and Archdeacon Kirkby had gone as far west as Fort Yukon in 1861, baptizing about one hundred Indians.

The evangelization of the tribes of North-West America had presented great difficulties to missionary efforts, owing to the nomadic habits of the people, who are dependent on the chase for their livelihood. The farther north the tribe, the greater the difficulties, and when the Arctic regions are reached the climate effectually bars a policy often pursued farther south, that of sowing seeds of grain and religious truths simultaneously.

By constant seeking out the Indians and conversing with them, first through an interpreter, Mr. McDonald gradually acquired a knowledge of their language, while at the same time he was imparting to them a knowledge of saving truth. In thus rapidly acquiring their language Mr. McDonald was helped by his knowledge of the classics. He could speak at least three other languages besides English. Tukudh was probably the most difficult of all, yet in a few years he mastered it and before he died probably spoke it better than the Indians did.

At the end of two years it was reported in the Church Missionary Intelligencer "that a first fruit had been garnered," in that a leading Chief of the Yukons died, exhorting his people to become Christians indeed, that they might follow him to that blessed place whither he felt sure that he was going.

About this time Mr. McDonald was so seriously ill that he was thought to be dying. This news having reached the Church Missionary Society, the Rev. W. C. Bompas offered to go out and continue the work.

In those days the journey from London to Fort Yukon took so much time that when Mr. Bompas arrived, Mr. McDonald had quite recovered; so that instead of God having decreed the death of his servant in the wilderness, his illness but served to awaken the interest of other Christians in the work. Mr. McDonald had hardly recovered when scarlet fever broke out among the Indians.

This dread disease, serious to any people, is much worse where the lack of proper sanitation, ignorance of the proper methods of treatment, and absence of necessary drugs and equipment renders its victims an easy prey.

The disease commenced in the autumn and lasted all through the winter. With the thermometer between twenty and sixty below zero, Mr. McDonald journeyed continuously from one centre to another, giving physical and spiritual aid where most needed.

How many lives were saved that winter through his instrumentality it would be hard to say. He thus proved to the Indians that he loved them, and they made him the return, that was no doubt dearest to him, of accepting his Saviour as theirs.

During this winter he wrote to the Church Missionary Society, "It is to be hoped that the Tukudh will be led by the present trying affliction through which they are passing to attend more to the things which pertain to their eternal peace. It will be so with some, no doubt.

"May there soon be a mighty religious awakening among them, and souls be brought from darkness into light, translated from the kingdom of Satan into that of God's dear son."

The Church Missionary Society considered this prayer answered when he wrote six months afterwards: "I have had the pleasure of admitting within the visible church, by baptism, upwards of eighty adults, and there are many more awaiting admission."

He had now reached a stage in his work when a knowledge of reading on the part of some of his Indians made it important that they should be supplied with books in their own language.

His experience enabled him to decide that the printing in Roman character was preferable to the Syllabic for these books. The Syllabic was of great service in providing books for the Cree, temporarily, but it would have been unwise to attempt expanding its capacities to meet the requirements of the Tukudh; the Cree being accredited with only about thirty-two distinct syllables, the Tukudh having about five hundred.

To reduce to writing such a language as the Tukudh with its complexity of sounds, required a very correct ear, much patience and skill, so that the method of spelling would have all the simplicity of which the language would permit, and at the same time be uniform.

To give the reader a slight idea of the language the names of some of the tribes are here given, and let it be remembered that there are many words much more unpronounceable: Tunun, Kutchin, Tet-let, Kutchion, Tranjik-Kutchin, Notsi-Kutchin, Tetsi-Kutchin, Geuds-du-Large, Vuntlet-Kutchin, Nun-Kutchin, Nugoochonjyek-Kutchin.

It would take many volumes to record at length the story of Mr. McDonald's missionary travels. Taking these "journeyings often," as a whole, Bishop Reeve thus refers to them in a letter printed in the "Canadian Churchman," a few weeks after the death of Archdeacon McDonald.

"He travelled among the scattered tribes both in summer and winter, down the mighty Yukon River, as far as Behring Straits, up the river through the now famous gold region, seeking out the remote tepees, undaunted by either the piercing cold of winter or the still more trying mosquitoes of summer, and had the joy of seeing nearly the whole nation, consisting of several tribes, brought to the foot of the Cross, forsaking their old heathenism, and turning from darkness into light and from the power of Satan unto God."

On one occasion returning from a long journey, accompanied by his wife, they became lost in the mountains and were a whole week without food.

Reference is made to one of Mr. McDonald's longest journeys in the annual report of the Church Missionary Society for 1872, when Fort Yukon was still his chief centre. Following are a few extracts from his journal while on his journey to Fort St. Michael: "June 14th, 1872. About two hours afterwards I assembled them again, when they appeared more interested. The Decalogue was repeated to them a second time.

"I set forth the law of Christ, and the greatness of His salvation and impressed upon them the offer of His grace, exhorted them to repentance, speaking strongly about conjuring.

"Of seven who are conjurers, four renounced their craft, one of these was Larion, a chief of the Koyookuk Indians, belonging to Fort Nulate."

"June 16. Had the pleasure of seeing two of them succeed in learning by heart a hymn of two verses, and a short prayer. At 8 o'clock, proceeded on our way. Came on two camps of Indians this afternoon. They are called the Yoolikuk Indians.

"They all have the features of the Esquimaux, and have their hair cut close on the crowns of their heads. They speak the same language as the Tetsi-Kutchin, with only a slight difference.

They had heard of my coming and seemed glad to receive instruction.

"June 19th. Lord's Day. At one a.m. came to a large camp at Igrahasagmute. Having had attacks of catarrh I did not venture to address them, but simply told them I would do so on my return from St. Michael's."

If "Igrahasagmute" is a fair sample of the Yoolikuk language a man with catarrh could not fairly have been expected to give an address, especially on a serious subject.

He was able to give an address at another camp through an interpreter, who was a member of the Greek Church.

At midday they came to a camp of Ju-ga-licks, but the interpreter was dissuaded from giving his address by the other members of the Greek Church who were on board the boat, and so the occasion had to pass unimproved, and also a subsequent opportunity of addressing the Indians of another camp.

The country as they passed out of the Yukon River into Norton Sound is thus described by Mr. McDonald: "On the right-hand bank of the river a range of hills ran along with but few breaks; on the left bank the hills are more detached, and at a greater distance from the river. The different kinds of trees are spruce, birch and willow. The river is full of islands, and is very wide at a few places, apparently over six miles. Weather cloudy, and mosquitoes extremely numerous and troublesome. June 24th. At 2 a.m. o'clock arrived at St. Michael's, which is situated on a bay on Norton's Sound. Met with a kind reception from Captain Reidall, agent of the Hutchinson Hotel Co. Nearly all the officers of the company are here at present. A considerable number of servants and Indians are employed as boatmen here. Took a walk to-day with Capt. Reidall. The prospect, though bleak and barren, is rather pretty."

Mr. McDonald spent a month at this point, five thousand miles from Winnipeg. Capt. Reidall was most kind and with his assistance and that of Elijah Kaschefni-Koff, a Russian lad who could speak Esquimaux, he was enabled to translate a shortened form of the Decalogue and some texts, also to compose a short prayer, and a hymn of three verses.

In regard to this he wrote in 1879: "They learned to sing it well to the tune 'Portuguese Hymn.'"

On leaving St. Michael's as was his custom he intrusted the honour of acting as instructor or leader to the most competent person in the band.

In this year the boundary between British and American territory was settled, and finding that much of the country through which he had preached Christianity belonged to the Americans, he regretfully retired to the east of the Rockies.

Making Fort McPherson his headquarters, he built there a church and parsonage. Feeling an increasing need of more Indian books, he accepted an invitation from the Church Missionary Society to take a rest and left for England in 1872, taking with him his translations of the four gospels, and part of the Book of Common Prayer. These were printed during the winter by the British and Foreign Bible Society, under his supervision.

Bishop Bompas, writing four years later, to the Church Missionary Society, said: "Archdeacon McDonald deserves great credit for the accuracy with which he rendered the Gospel into Tukudh."

The subdivision of the huge diocese of Rupert's Land was decided upon during Mr. McDonald's absence and was consummated soon after his return in 1873. .

That part of the territory known as "the North (or Mackenzie River) District" was to constitute one of the three new Sees and to be designated "The Athabasca Diocese."

Following on this decision the Rev. William Bompas left for England to be consecrated Bishop of this northern See. There were many who considered Robert McDonald was the man justly entitled to this honour, but never did he, by the slightest hint, convey to the mind of anyone that he shared in such an opinion, or that he regarded the matter as worthy of consideration. Some doubt arising as to whether Mr. Bompas would accept the position, Archdeacon Cowley, who was then secretary for the Church Missionary Society, in Rupert's Land, consulted Mr. Ross, a commissioned officer of the Hudson's Bay Company at Mackenzie River, then on leave in the Red River Settlement. His opinion was voiced as follows--"If you can persuade him that it is his duty, he may accept; if you can't he never will."

The Bishop, who was now married, made Fort Simpson his headquarters. It was at this Fort that most of the Hudson's Bay officers of the district annually assembled in charge of the boats and the crews belonging to their respective trading posts.

In September, 1875, the missionaries of the new diocese were also there, with the exception of the Rev. Arthur Shaw of Fort Chipewyan. Their names follow: The Rt. Rev. W. C. Bompas, Rev. R. McDonald, Rev. W. D. Reeve, and the cate-chists, Messrs. K. N. L. Macdonald, Joseph Hodgson, Alien Hardisty, William Hern, and A. C. Garrioch.

Before dispersing for another winter campaign the Bishop held a meeting at which he outlined the situation in the diocese, viewing the outlook with the optimism inherent in the born missionary.

Mr. McDonald took a leading part in the discussion, which was followed by the Bishop announcing that he had conferred upon the Rev. Robert McDonald the title of Archdeacon, regretting at the same time that the added dignity was not supported by any additional salary.

Inhabitants of the far north are more readily predisposed to friendship than those who live in more thickly populated parts of the country, and the relations between the employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and the missionaries were very cordial.

At this meeting one of the mission buildings was used as a dormitory by some of the visitors. The building included a large lecture-room with long table and benches, and here Archdeacon McDonald invited the Hudson's Bay officers and others to assemble on their last evening before separating for another year, about twenty men spending a pleasant hour in exchanging reminiscences and enjoying each other's society without reference to creed; Roman Catholics and Anglicans, sitting down to a light supper in a complete spirit of brotherly love.

Two hours before this meeting the Archdeacon held a service in the church, his daily practice here, for the benefit of the ten Tukudh, who formed the crew of one of the boats.

The Church is a neat building of wood with tower and spire, standing in a clearing between the mile-wide Mackenzie River and a fringe of tall spruce.

It was a calm and beautiful evening in September, the setting sun just gilding the roof and tower of the church, before dipping behind the tall trees, conveying to the beholder a glimpse of the "Peace which passeth all understanding."

Entering the church the Indians quietly took their places, and a hymn being given out sang together in their clear musical voices, apparently with heart as well as voice. Prayer followed, in which they distinctly gave the responses.

Then followed scripture reading with an exposition, then another hymn, a collect, and the benediction. A simple and striking service, not soon to be forgotten by those who had the privilege of being present. The Archdeacon's brother Kenneth also took part in this service. A letter written by Richard Hardisty, Chief Factor, to Bishop Machray, dated 2nd November, 1872, gives the following independent testimony of the character of Archdeacon McDonald's work: "Some of the Tukudh were up this fall. I wish you could have seen and heard them offering prayer and praise in their own language, they sing so well and have such beautiful voices. It was enough to make every white man present hang his head in humiliation and shame, that the poor people only a few years ago sunk in the depths of barbarism and superstition should thus set an example of Christian piety, and unbounded faith in the Father of all."

"Mr. McDonald deserves great praise for his labours and success among the Loucheux. The fruit he is gathering and will gather is well worth the labours and devotion of a life-time; and I think so well of Mr. McDonald that I believe he will spend his life for the benefit of the people among whom he has worked so long and so well."

In 1877 Archdeacon McDonald married Miss Julia Smith, one of his converts. Born in the country, and inured to its rigorous climate, she gave him in unusual measure the rich treasure of her love and devotion, and for many years relieved him of the drudgery which falls to the lot of the unmarried missionary.

She sometimes accompanied him on his journeys and was also of much assistance in his work of translation. In June, 1904, he reached the age of 75, and his retirement from lack of physical strength for the work became necessary. He made his last earthly abode in a humble dwelling in Winnipeg, very near the spot where he was born, and it was her hand which ministered to his needs, while he quietly worked and prayed, her voice that soothed him until the time of waiting passed, the night came, and he entered upon his eternal rest.

Archdeacon and Mrs. McDonald had a family of four sons and three daughters, of whom only three outlived their father. Of the three sons two enlisted with the Canadian overseas forces. Kenneth joined the Navy and Hugh, the youngest son, entered the army. He was granted his commission, and when about to return home, contracted Spanish influenza, followed by pneumonia, of which he died.

Mr. McDonald's work had been so blessed that even in the early eighties, when a long leave of absence was necessitated by a second serious illness, and his advancing age forbade his making continuously such arduous journeys, his Christian leaders were able to carry on the good work.

In 1878 it appears in the Church Missionary Reports that eighteen of these lay helpers, all of them unpaid, were assisting their pastor in his work; and in his journal of the previous year he mentions John Tehietla, one of these helpers, as keeping a school attended by forty pupils who were learning to read. In this same year his baptismal register showed up to that date he had baptized 1,393 Indians

Perhaps it was a real gain that during his last fifteen years in the mission field he had to be more stationary, for he had this greater opportunity to prepare graduates for confirmation and Holy Communion, and also to more thoroughly train his Christian helpers, of whom several were admitted to the ministry.

When not engaged in teaching, he continued his work of translating, and had finished, when he left the Mackenzie River Diocese in 1904, the Old and New Testament Scriptures, the greater part of the Book of Common Prayer, a hymn-book, a separate edition of psalms, a book of instructions, a grammar and a dictionary. When he retired to the east of the Rockies he expressed the hope that the promising sphere of missionary enterprise that he was leaving would not be overlooked by the American Church, and it is satisfactory to know that the work was taken up and that his successors appreciated what he had accomplished.

This extract from an article dated April, 1915, by the Ven. Archdeacon Stuck, appearing in "The Spirit of Missions," bears testimony to these facts :

"Archdeacon McDonald, that sonality of Christian Missions in of Alaska, who passed to his rest and reward only last year, was at Fort Yukon in 1862, fifty-three years ago, and when we celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Rev. John Chapman's entering upon his work, we remembered that it was also the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the work of the Church of England in what is now Alaska, and we sent our warm and respectful congratulations to the venerable churchman, now living in Winnipeg."

Young William Loola soon came under the influence of Archdeacon McDonald's teaching, and was attached to him as a travelling companion and pupil.

Together they made some of those remarkable journeys of evangelization in the interior that have never been chronicled, but which were surprising in their extent.

He also helped the Archdeacon in the work of translating the Scriptures and Liturgy into the native tongue.

When the Hudson's Bay Company withdrew from the Yukon after the purchase of Alaska by the United States, missionaries of the Church of England withdrew also, and the natives of this place were left with no other spiritual ministrations than William Loola could give until Bishop Rowe was consecrated to the Missionary Episcopate of Alaska in 1896, although the English Church missionary visited the place from time to time.

Again writing of William Loola in "Spirit of Missions," September, 1918, Archdeacon Stuck says, "The Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Yukon in 1847. Ten or twelve years after starting this trading post the first missionaries were sent here. In 1862 Archdeacon McDonald arrived. It stands to the everlasting credit of the Church Missionary Society that they reached out thus early into these remote parts, and their labours constitute a chapter of evangelization, not the least memorable in the history of Christian missions, though almost unwritten, and seemingly forgotten by the compilers and encyclopedists thereof."

It is a commonplace of books about Alaska that the first mission, except that of the Greek Church, was established at Wranghill by the Presbyterians. Yet the best tribute I have seen to the work of the man I have been referring to is contained in one of the early reports of Dr. Sheldon Jackson, the eminent Presbyterian minister, who for many years was Commissioner of Education for Alaska under the United States Government. "It was mainly from Archdeacon McDonald that William Loola received his early training, travelling widely with that distinguished pioneer and helping him in his great work of translating the sacred books into the native tongue. Under his tutelage Loola became a native catechist, and was long employed in visiting outlying tribes and accompanying his people in their hunting encampments, teaching them to read their own language, now first reduced to writing, and then to become acquainted with the Scriptures. The impress of his early training never left him. It had moulded and established his character."

In the last days of June, 1912, fourteen months before his death, the Archdeacon paid a visit to the Paisleys at Ridgeway, Mrs. Paisley being a niece of his. While there he baptized their five months' old baby, and then accompanied them in their car to Portage la Prairie, where an "old-timer" gathering was being held in Island Park. Much attention was here paid to the Archdeacon, he being unquestionably the greatest, oldest and best-looking of the "old timers" there.

When taking leave of the Paisley family next day the scene was indeed touching as he embraced and kissed the little one he had received into Christ's flock the day before, his Master's words, "Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" being as applicable to the aged saint as to the little child.

The manner in which, from a small salary, he regularly helped to lessen the strenuous experiences of two maiden sisters, who predeceased him by only a few years, was simply wonderful.

An old friend of his in Winnipeg, on being asked what she considered the most striking feature in his character, evidently had this fact in mind when she replied, "His lifelong, unwavering attachment to his friends."

Canon J. W. Matheson, in a sermon preached in St. John's Cathedral, the Sunday following the death of Archdeacon McDonald, spoke on the text Hebrews 12: 1: "Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us."

The sermon was a splendid tribute to the life-work of one who may fittingly be called "the apostle to the Tukudh."

This sketch cannot be more fittingly brought to a close than by giving two short extracts from this sermon. "To those of us whose connection with church work here is of long duration, that grave, we are confident, is one before which many visitors in the days to come will uncover in honour of one of the most signally successful missionary careers of our age. It is the grave of a man who, by God's help, was enabled to redeem a tribe.

"It is a grave before which many who were privileged to know his personality, and many who shall hereafter read the inspiring story of his life, will offer earnest thanksgiving to God for a noble example, and breathe a silent prayer to Him that they, too, may run with patience the race that is set before them."

In another way also his life was a witness to the glory of the Christian ministry. Many young men are deterred from entering the ministry by the poverty and hardships entailed. Archdeacon McDonald lived a hard life, but he died a glorious death, leaving an example to future generations. Hardship and poverty he knew in full measure; but is there any successful business man who, in his heart, does not covet the rich and unfailing crown this veteran missionary has won?

If the heart of the Deity is love, if the crown of life is love, then there can be no question that the ministry affords a better sphere than any for attaining the "coronation of life."

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