Historical Notes:
Holy Cross and Irish Halifax in the 19th Century

This page presents snapshots of some aspects of Holy Cross and of the influence of the Irish on Halifax in the 1800s. There is no comprehensive history of the Irish in Halifax. Much of the story can be found in the published works of the late renowned genealogist, Dr. Terry Punch. A deep examination of selected facets of Halifax Irish life is presented in Irish Catholic Halifax: From the Napoleonic Wars to the Great War, published by The Canadian Catholic Historical Association in 2015. The notes on this page might lead a reader to dig deeper into the subject.

The early nineteenth-century public burial grounds in Halifax were congested and unsanitary. The first Roman Catholic cemetery in Halifax was adjacent to St. Peter’s Church (the first Catholic parish in the province after the expulsion of the Acadians), but this graveyard soon proved inadequate. By 1835, the wardens of the parish of St. Mary’s sought land to build a larger Catholic cemetery south of the city. On 26 July, 1843 (the Feast of St. Anne), the construction on the new burial ground began

For Archbishop William Walsh (1804-1858), leader of Halifax’s Catholics; the construction of a new cemetery presented an opportunity to unite the Irish community and elevate the profile of Roman Catholics in the city. Between July and September 1843 three ostentatious processions left the Cathedral and marched to the site of the new graveyard. The first excursion was to clear and organize the ground, the second to erect a chapel (the famed “chapel built in a day”), and the third to consecrate the cemetery and dedicate the chapel to Our Lady of Sorrows. Two thousand workers participated in the first two processions, while the third and final event reportedly attracted even greater numbers.

The first burial in Holy Cross was young John Mahar, the three-year-old son of Daniel Mahar. Like many of the individuals buried in Holy Cross, no stone marks young Mahar’s final resting spot. In fact, the 2500 grave markers presently visible at Holy Cross represent only a small fraction of the 24,000 burials that took place within its gates. Those stones that do remain, however, tell a remarkable story of Irish migration, kinship, and settlement. Surrounded by the markers of their priests, politicians and bishops, the remaining stones are a visible reminder of a generation of Irish migrants who left Eire to build a new life in Nova Scotia.

The man partly responsible for one of the most acrimonious political periods in Nova Scotia’s history is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery without a marker. Born in 1818, William Condon was the son of Irish emigrants from Tipperary. Elected as president of the Charitable Irish Society in 1839, he swiftly became one of Halifax’s most prominent Irish citizens. Although the Halifax-Irish were staunch supporters of Joseph Howe and the reform movement in Nova Scotia, by the 1850s the relationship was beginning to deteriorate. When, in 1855, Howe travelled to the United States to recruit indigent Irish Americans to fight for Britain in the Crimean War, The Halifax Catholic newspaper publicly attacked the politician. Howe replied by making disparaging remarks about the Irish community. Things became worse in May 1856, when a crowd of angry Catholics attacked a number of unsuspecting Protestant railway labours at “Gourley’s Shanty” on the Windsor line. As the acrimony worsened following the arrest and unsuccessful trial of the Gourley Shanty rioters, Joseph Howe sought retribution against William Condon, who had been chief among his critics. As an employee of the colonial government Condon was unquestionably in a vulnerable position and in early 1857, he was sacked. Two weeks later, ten Liberals crossed the floor to the Conservatives in protest and the government fell. Mr. Condon eventually gained a position as a lighthouse keeper, and lived out his working days there.

In 1849 four women from the Sisters of Charity of New York disembarked in Halifax to answer Archbishop Walsh’s request for a group of religious women to educate his flock and care for Catholic orphans. The Sisters of Charity, dedicated to working among the indigent, were not only visible within local schools, but they provided basic social services to generations of Halifax Catholics. Soon after, the Sisters of Charity were joined by members of the Religious of the Sacred Heart. The Religious of the Sacred Heart were focused primarily on teaching and educating many of the girls from Halifax’s most affluent families, but also founded an excellent “free school”, College Street School.

Consecrated in September 1843, Our Lady of Sorrows chapel in Holy Cross cemetery is one of Halifax’s most iconic structures. The religious significance of the chapel is obvious; however, it is important to note that its construction, like the cemetery, was also a means of rallying Irish Catholics to improve conditions and raise the profile of the community in the garrison town. Between July and September 1843 grand processions were held from St. Mary’s Cathedral to the new cemetery grounds whence thousands of volunteers prepared the yard. Although known to be “built in a day,” the beautiful chapel was the product of work carried out on 26 and 31 August, which also produced the layout of paths, the construction of a ground well, and “St. Ann’s Bridge” over the stream which crossed Holy Cross during its early years. The Chapel furnishings were sparse, but were dignified by its remarkable statuary and stained glass. Archbishop William Walsh was known as a collector of European artwork and his acquisitions included mediaeval statuary and manuscripts.

In Nova Scotia Irish Catholics were represented in all sectors of the economy. Among the mercantile elite, there were many influential Irishmen, including Sir Edward Kenny. Born in July 1800 at Kilmoyly in the Barony of Clanmaurice, in sight of Ballyheige Bay, County Kerry, Edward Kenny (and his brother Thomas) migrated to Halifax in 1824 to work as a clerk for the Cork merchant James Lyons. In 1828 the Novascotian reported the establishment of new firm, T & E Kenny at No. 24 Hollis Street, opposite the province building. Active in the local Church, Kenny was also an influential business and political leader. Alongside Joseph Howe, he helped fight for political reforms in the province, and later served for a period as mayor of Halifax. He was a founding member of the Union Bank (1856) and the Merchants Bank of Halifax (1864 – later the Royal Bank of Canada). By the 1860s, Kenny was one of the wealthiest men in Nova Scotia, and one of the most prominent Irishmen in British North America. He was a member of the first federal cabinet of the government of Canada, retiring in 1877 to pursue other interests. Kenny died in May 1891 and left a large fortune to an extended family, many of whom held influential positions in Canada and the United States. Although his narrative is not representative of the wider Irish story in Halifax, his mercantile and political success illustrates the extent to which some Irish Catholics were able to elevate themselves in colonial Nova Scotia.

James Tobin’s father Michael, a butcher, immigrated to Nova Scotia by way of Newfoundland in the late eighteenth century at a time when Catholicism and Catholics were still under legislative disabilities. James Tobin, who for over thirty years was a leading figure in St. Peter’s / St. Mary’s parish, would live to see these penalties removed, and would become the first Roman Catholic to have a seat on the Council of the colony.

Along with his younger brother Michael, James Tobin continued their father’s business as “J. & M. Tobin”. The prolonged European War, coupled with the War of 1812 presented opportunities for the brothers to diversify, thus expanding their business. British naval blockades of American ports permitted Nova Scotia merchants to more readily continue their West Indies trading.

In 1825, James and Michael Tobin participated in the founding of the Halifax Banking Company. For years, there had been discussion in the press that the business of capital was hampered for want of a banking institution. Founded with an initial capital of £50,000, the bank was divided into ten shares.

Participating in the founding of the Bank placed James Tobin in the inner circle of Halifax’s commercial elite. In 1827, the Assembly passed a motion removing the disabilities against Catholics with the removal of state oaths, two years before London passed its own legislation in 1829. James Tobin was nominated in 1831 to sit on the Nova Scotia Council, and became the first Catholic, once he took his seat in 1832, to sit there.

At the time of his death, he was one of the wealthiest men in Nova Scotia, with an estate valued at £50,360.

For many individuals in nineteenth-century Halifax, life was extremely difficult. In cities throughout Europe and North America poverty was rampant. The first residence for the poor in Halifax was located on Spring Garden Road but soon proved inadequate for the mounting need. In the spring of 1867 the Acadian Recorder printed a notice of tender for “the erection of a brick building, on the south common, for the accommodation of the inmates of the poor asylum. The poorhouse (or Poors’ Asylum) was, as historian Judith Fingard illustrates, “an alternative to the prison,” and a place of “final resort.” Some inmates were mentally ill, others were petty criminals, but most were elderly, physically handicapped, seasonally unemployed, or unwed mothers. Those inmates who were physically able were put to work in the kitchen, hospital, or “stoking the furnaces.” In the nineteenth-century there were 1365 “paupers” buried in Holy Cross. Almost all of these individuals last known residence was the “Poor’s Asylum.”

For many Irish Catholic women in nineteenth-century Halifax, domestic labour represented the primary opportunity to enter the paid labour force. Census records reveal that hundreds of Halifax-Irish women worked as servants, cooks, maids and cleaners throughout the hotels and grand residences of the city. Many of the young women who staffed these positions were from Halifax, but many others came from Newfoundland and Ireland. One of these migrant Irish women worked in the elegant home of Sir Edward Kenny near the downtown, on what was then called Pleasant Street (now Barrington). Bridget (Pierce) Lowrey was born into a Newfoundland fishing community in 1846. Economic life in Britain’s oldest colony was challenging and by 1871 she was working in the large Kenny residence preparing teas, dinners and bedrooms for important guests and politicians. Bridget married and moved to California in the 1870s but returned ten years later after her husband died. She worked as a cook in a Halifax hotel to support her two children. In January of 1907, she died from complications relating to a fall while at work in the Queen Hotel. She was buried in Holy Cross on January 11, 1907. We don’t have a picture of Bridget Lowrey, and her grave (like so many others at Holy Cross) is unmarked. Yet this hard-working woman represented the lifeblood of Halifax-Irish society. She and the thousands of women like her, now lost to time, built our community in the nineteenth-century and left a lasting legacy.

Halifax was constructed by the British in 1749 as a naval base to counter the French Fortress of Louisbourg further up the Atlantic seaboard on Cape Breton Island. It was constructed at a tremendous cost and its sole function (at least theoretically) was to support the British north Atlantic squadron. A giant “citadel” was constructed on a hill overlooking the harbour, and garrisoned by regulars and Royal Engineers. As an important garrison, thousands of soldiers and their families called the city home. Within the various British regiments stationed at the citadel were numerous Irish soldiers. The first Irish solider buried in Holy Cross was Patrick Mulreyal, a private who died on 28 December 1847 while serving with 82nd (Prince of Wales Volunteers).

Although Holy Cross cemetery is the primary burial ground for the Irish immigrant generation of Halifax, it is first and foremost a Roman Catholic cemetery and there are individuals buried within its gates from numerous ethnic backgrounds.  More than forty individuals of African descent are interred at Holy Cross. Like many others buried there, little is known about their lives. This is illustrated by the burial in December 1843 of the ninety-one-year-old Winifred Jackson. Born in 1752, she was only the thirteenth person to be interred in Archbishop Walsh’s new graveyard. Other than her name and age, we have no other information about what might have been a fascinating life story. We don’t know if Winifred was born in Nova Scotia or came as a loyalist during the American Revolution or migrated to Halifax at some other time.

Halifax, like other parts of Nova Scotia, suffered a persistent shortage of priests in the early years. While Bishop Edmund Burke began instruction with young men in the Glebe House in 1802, his dream of starting an academy and seminary was not realized during his life. After many petitions, though, Archbishop Murray of Dublin sent two priests to open a college in Halifax. Located on Grafton Street near Spring Garden Road in three modest buildings, Saint Mary’s College started classes in January, 1840.

Later, under Irish-born Bishop, Thomas Connolly, Saint Mary’s was briefly relocated to the Nisbit estate at North and Agricola, to be led by the LaSalle Christian Brothers. With the departure of the Christian Brothers in 1876, though, and the death of Connolly that same year, the experiment collapsed.

Short of funds, the College closed in 1883. It remained so until Archbishop Cornelius O’Brien, the first Canadian-born prelate in Halifax, organized a successful fund-raising drive to finance the construction of a collegiate on Windsor Street, on the same site as Holy Cross Seminary, the Monastery of the Good Shepherd, and St. Joseph’s Orphanage. Saint Mary’s reopened in 1903 with two classes totalling 24 students. O’Brien’s successor, Archbishop Edward McCarthy, was able to secure funds from the estate of Patrick Power, a wealthy Catholic merchant, and the future of Saint Mary’s College was made secure.