Posted by: Cornwall Community Museum | February 1, 2016

The Story of Iona Academy, St. Raphael’s, Glengarry County


In 1975, Sister Claire MacDonald made this presentation to the SD & G Historical Society in Cornwall.

The Story of Iona Academy St. Raphael’s, Glengarry County.

Delving into historical lore, we find the story of St. Columba and the Isle of Iona very close.

In the 6th century, Columba with 12 monks left Ireland and formed a monastery at Iona, an island on the west coast of Scotland.  From here they went forth throughout the Highlands and western lands christianizing.  For many years, Iona was the centre of Gaelic relgion.  However, the prophecy of Columba before his death was about to be realized — “Instead of monks’ voices shall be heard the lowing of cows.”

Then in 1200 Reginald, the Lord of the Isles, had the Abbey rebuilt.  But the day finally came when the buildings fell into ruin, and for hundreds of years only the tower remained.  The time of “the lowing cows” had come.

In 1900 the Duke of Argyll gave the Abbey to the Church of Scotland.  He stipulated that any recogized Christian denominations should be granted the use of it for public worship. In 1938 Rev. Mr. George MacLeod found the “Iona Community.”  They spent the summer rebuilding the Abbey and conducting ecumenical seminars, study groups, etc.

The spirit of Iona is immortal.   The faith, the learning culture could not die with the crumbling to earth of its perishable buildings.  And so we find many sore-tired people of the Highlands, reduced to poverty and wretchedness through the ravages of war, looking toward the New World where they might plant and nurture the precious seed of Christian culture bequeathed to them.

In 1802-03, 3 ships arrived at Quebec laden with emigrants from the north of Scotland, among them being the disbanded soldiers of the Glengarry Fencibles.  This men, accompanied by their Kneydart Chaplain, Rev. Alexander Macdonell, settled near the Kneydart emigrants, and named their new home after their native glen, Glengarry.

Due to bad crops and the hardships and privations of the settlers trying to establish new homes, and the War of 1812 – 14, the building of the church was delayed.  However, the built a home for Father Macdonell.  The following is a quotation from the “Catholic World” Vol. 34, Oct. 1880.

“The Bishop’s home built in 1807 is a spacious stone mansion, capable of accommodating  many persons, and fronting on a large garden laid out in 1826 by a gardener whom Bichop Macdonell brought with him from Scotland.  There are still lilacs growing in the garden from the Bishop’s time, and there is also seen in the garden a sun dial whereon we trace the hours in Roman numerals, and the initials R.J. McD, 1827.”

The Bishop’s house still stands in good condition, and there is a fireplace in every room.  In front is a stone wall built by the college boys in the 1820s.  At the foot of the steps may also be seen the traces of the root cellar used in the Bishop’s day for storing potatoes, turnips, apples, etc.  Here is where Father Macdonell and his assistant teachers and ecclesiastics lived from 1808 to 1836.  But after he was transferred to Kingston, the building was used as a presbytery for the parish priests ’till 1890.  Here also was the first printing press, and from it some of the first communiques in English went forth to Upper Canada.

Now that the building of the immense church was well under way, the Bishop turned to means of educating the children of his Scottish emigrants.  He was insistent on the establishment of schools, urging his people to make every possible sacrifice, for if they failed, they would be “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”  So he went to England for financial help, and in 1818 a school for boys was built at St. Raphael’s near the Bishop’s house — on a grant of 3,20 pounds sterling from the British Crown.  To this day may be seen the foundation stones of this log cabin.  “It was a modest structure, but sufficient fro the purpose.”

But the Rev. A, Macdonell’s greatest anxiety was to give his people a learned, cultured, devoted clergy.  So he returned to England for help.  He received 350 pounds sterling to build an addition on the west side of the school for young men who wished to study for the priesthood, and the building was called “The College of Iona” — a seminary for boys.  Rev. William P. MacDonald was the first rector of the College.  In the College, he taught, along with professors from Montreal.

At this time, Father A. Macdonell was appointed Bishop, and King George IV, as a personal gift, gave him his episcopal ring…This ring is still in the Diocese.  His diocese extended from Sandwich to Lake Superior along the Great Lakes, to Ottawa, and as far wast as River Beaudette.  He travelled by foot, by canoe, on horseback, rough wagon, sleigh, visiting the many settlements in the forests…We are told that he had an open sleigh lined with bear skin, and a team of horses.  As soon as the rivers were frozen, he started on his journey visiting his people.  Anybody that he found anxious for a higher education returned with him and studied at Iona.

The College of Iona during the 10 years of its existence gave 14 priests to the diocese.  However, many other students went on to other professions.  The school was a European Classical College.

It was closed as a seminary when the Bishopric was moved to Kingston in 1836.  The next year the Bishop obtained a charter for a new college in Kingston, known as Regiopolis College…But the log cabin–the College of Iona–continued as a school ’till 1881, when the partitions were taken down and it was turned into a chapel.

Among the boys who studied in the log cabin was Hon. Donald Sandfield Macdonald.  After completing the classical course, he was engaged in Public Works, and in 1873 was made Postmaster General.  In 1875 he was appointed Lt-Gov. of Ontario.  His son, the late Col. A.G.F. Macdonald was editor of the “Glengarry News” for many years.

This is a quotation concerning Dr. Strachan’s tour in Glengarry, dated Oct. 23, 1828.

“Dr. Strachan left Cornwall on Sept. 30, 1828, and came to St. Raphael’s.  Here the Archdeacon found a church which he described as a most gigantic undertaking in so wild a country.  There was also a school, and a college for boys in active operation, and the people were engaged in erecting a never completed school for girls.

In 1900 Rev. D.A. Campbell became pastor of St. Raphael’s, and remained there ’till 1948.  At that time the parish had a one-room rural school and education was at a low ebb.  In 1913 he invited the Sisters of the Holy Cross to come to St. Raphael’s.  Sister M. Sophie (Janet Campbell), Sister Elodie and Sister Oliver (from Quebec) answered the call.  They taught catechism, and prepared children from confirmation, and helped in the sacristy.  They lived in a small building attached to Mr. A.A. MacDonell’s tore.

In 1913, under the guidance of Rev. D.A. Campbell, and with the financial help from Bishop William A. Macdonell, Bishop of Alexandria, the Bishop’s houses which had been closed since 1881 was renovated and converted into a boarding school for girls and a residence for the sister.  In 1914, new recruits came.  Two of them taught in the elementary school near the church.  One was Sister Albina, an aunt of Rev. D.B. McDougald, pastor at St. Columban’s.  Each year brought an increase in the number of day pupils, and the boarder’s quarters were run at full quota–about 15 to 25.

scan0013Bishop A. Macdonell’s home circa 1881.  After it was remodelled in 1913 it became the main building for Iona Academy.

Rev. D.A. Campbell, with the help of the parishioners, had moved the log cabin (the College of Iona) to where it is today.  Then it was renovated, clapboarded, and in 1914 was opened as a Private High School with Sister Irma (Sarah MacPherson) and Sister Florina (Elizabeth Kennedy), as teachers.  Here may still be seen the hand-hewn beams of the ceiling, the addition, or partition where the 2 buildings were joined and the century old bell and the tabernacle of the altar still exist.

The little log cabin continued as a High School from 1914 to 1924.  Among the first graduates from this High School were Msgr. R.J. MacDonald, retired, now at St. Columban’s, Mr. Alen Edward McDonell, who was principal at Williamstown for many years, and many other teachers.

Then this building was further renovated, equipped and functioned as Iona Commercial College from 1924 to 1945…

From the “Canadian Magazine” Set., 1923, Alden Griffin Meredith’s chapter, “A Little Journey to Glengarry” is quoted:

“At. St. Raphael’s the life history and work of Bishop Macdonell (1st Bishop pf U.C.) is being preserved and arranged by the loving care of Rev. Father Campbell, himself a native of Glengarry, whose charming personality and enthusiasm in his undertaking stir the heart and stimulate the imagination of the too-forgetful modern Canadian.  He has had the small log cabin….where such men of mark as Rev. George Hay of St. Andrew’s, Rev. Michael Brennan of Belleville, Rev. Edward Gordon of Hamilton, and many others received their education from Bishop Macdonell, moved to a better site, and properly repaired so that all the relics of the past are preserved.  The hand-hewn beams are straight and sound, and the broad planks of the flooring worn by the feet of Glengarry boys are still going strong.”

The high school students increased in such numbers that it was necessary in 1924 to build 2 spacious wings to the Bishop’s house–one wing equipped with 4 modern classrooms, and the other wing had a chapel, dining room and dormitories.

To fiance this building, Father Campbell lectured at the University of Washington, D.C. for many summers.  He made $11,000 which he contributed to the building.  The parish was also levied, which entailed financial sacrifices.  The teachers in the high school received no salary or grants.  They lived on the money received from the fees for tuition paid by the boarders.

At the opening of the new school in 1924–thereafter known as Iona Academy–the guest speakers were Dr. Kerr, Director of Rural School Organization for Ontario, Dr. Fraser, Provincial Archivist, both of To.  They eulogized the work done by Father Campbell and his parishioners.  Within this new building we were able to accommodate 50 boarders. Improvements continued to appear. In 1926 the kerosene lamps were discarded and electricity was introduced…

A driveway with iron enclosure and terraced cement walk was built in 1936, supervised by Mr. J.D. McRae, and also an arched gateway with IONA ACADEMY carved in the semicircular are, bidding “Welcome to Newcomers” and “Home Again” to old ones.  An artesian well yielding a bountiful supply of water was dug in 1937.  New sleeping quarters for the sisters and a modern kitchen were constructed in 937.  The ground were levelled and graded to provide basketball, tennis courts, soft ball, etc.  Hedges, rocj gardens, flower pots graced the lawns….

On June 30, 1930, there was the unveiling of a monument in memory of Bishop Macdonell…The following is an excerpt from Col Fraser’s address…

Bishop Macdonell “…found in Upper Canada a receptive people who from the beginning had one their best for their children’s education by private, district and grammar schools.  He will always be remembered as the founder of the College of Iona at St. Raphael’s.”

“Iona Academy of today, right here in St. Raphael’s, the revival of the Bishop’s efforts, makes an appeal to sentiment as well as to practical utility to us today, and I hope as the time goes on it will be richly endowed and generously supported.”

In 1949 the Sisters of the Holy Cross took over the administration of Iona Academy from the diocese.  After buying the building and grounds for $20,000, they immediately added $11,000 of repairs to the building.  The number of day students and boarders continued to increase in the High School.

In 1965 the Holy Cross Order again stepped in and built a brick school at a cost of $500,000 adjoining the stone building, the former High School and Bishop’s House.  They also built the Sisters’ Residence.  It was a modern High School for grades IX to XIII.  It comprised the Msgr. Campbell Memorial Chapel, a cafeteria, a modern kitchen, gymnasium, classrooms, etc.  There was a staff of 9 teachers in the High School, 2 in the elementary school, and 7 sisters who helped in the boarding school and about 80 boarders.

The Cross on the chapel tower in front of the school is the Cross of Iona, also called the Celtic Cross, of ancient origin, used by the early Celts, and is prominent on the Isle of Iona.

In 1971, due to a lack of personnel and the stand taken by the Ontario Government against private high schools, curtailing all grants beyond grade X, the Sisters were obliged to abandon Iona.  All through the years they had taught grades XI, XII and XIII without salaries.  But with the highs cot of living, and a drop in religious vocations, they could continue no longer.

In 1972 grades IX and X phased out, and the last 2 Sisters withdrew in June, 1973, closing an epoch of 60 years.

In 1973, Iona Academy was purchased, and is operated by the SDG County Roman Catholic School System as Iona School.



  1. I am a graduate (1953) of Iona Academy, Sister Claire was my grade 12 teacher, this means so much to me. Thank you!

  2. Sister Claire was also my Science teacher and will always remember her gentle nature. I feel very blessed to have had two wonderful years living at Iona Academy with some of the most interesting students and teachers.
    Thank you so much for the memories! Susan S. Carvell nee Larocque

  3. I was a student at Iona Academy from 1967 to 1969. They were some of the most precious years of my life.

  4. I too was a student from 1970-1972 and remember Sr. Claire MacDonald as being a very kind woman.

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