The primate of all Canada

Published June 11, 2015

(This story was first published in the September 1893 issue of the Canadian Churchman.)


More than once or twice of late, the Canadian Churchman has noted – for the consideration of its readers, now in every part of Canada as well as the United States and Great Britain – the remarkable character and career of Robert Machray, long known, loved and valued in the North-west as “Bishop of Rupert’s Land,” now, happily, to be still better known as “His Grace, the Most Reverend the Primate of Canada, Metropolitan and Archbishop of Rupert’s Land.”

This Anglican Church hero – reminding one in many ways of the late Bishop Strachan – has at length reached the summit of ecclesiastical eminence in his adopted country, and become the worthy “chieftain” of a powerful branch of the Church Catholic. We append below the excellent biographical sketch furnished lately by the Empire – whose reports of the Synod meetings and all matters connected with the Church of late have attracted so much favorable notice for their accuracy, intelligence and good taste.

The engraving is from the splendid photographic group, of which we have secured the copyright, and which – as a historical memorial as well as a work of art – is destined to be recognized as of permanent value to every Churchman in Canada. We hope, from time to time, to give similar “excerpts” from this photograph, accompanied by appropriate personal notices. It was very noticeable at the recent Synod how evenly all the honours were divided among the nationalities as well as the professions: Scotch, Irish, English and Canadian – Saxon and Celtic, and mixed! We propose to make this element of harmony in the great “national council” still more evident and widely recognized – in every Church household in Canada, in fact, within our reach. Here is what the Empire says:

They are making history pretty fast these days up at Trinity College. Every day is marked by events of the highest importance to the great Anglican communion of Canada that will be looked back to by future generations as an epoch in the history of the Church. A week ago the English Church consisted of disjointed, scattered fragments, that five days of conscientious legislation have welded into an organic unity, with a strong personality as its administrator.

In any assemblage of men Robert Machray, Primate of all Canada, Metropolitan of the province of Rupert’s Land and Archbishop of the diocese of Rupert’s Land, with his tall commanding figure, rising a full head above other men; his long flowing beard; descending even to the girdle, and his piercing yet kindly gray eyes, would be a man to single out and to study.

The new primate was born near the city of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1832. His father was an advocate, and the future head of the Canadian Church was educated at the schools of the city and at King’s College, Aberdeen, the “alma mater” also of John Strachan, the first Bishop of Toronto.

He was graduated M.A. from King’s College in 1851, with the Simpson and Halton prizes, and in the same year he entered Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge; the Taylor scholarship was his in the following year, and in 1855, on his graduation as a wrangler, he was elected to a fellowship of his college, a relation he has maintained during all the varying circumstances of almost 30 years of missionary labours in the North-west.

Last Friday the venerable prelate received the honorary title of D.C.L. at Trinity, but he has a whole quiverful of this kind of honours: M.A. (Cam.) 1858; D.D., 1865; Hon. LL.D. (Aberdeen), 1865; Hon. D.D. (Dur.), 1888. He was ordained deacon in 1855, and priest in 1856. During his residence at Cambridge he was very active in the work of the university, and was successively vicar of Newington and Medingley; in 1858 he was appointed dean of Sidney-Sussex College; in 1860-61 he was university examiner, and in 1865 Ramsden University preacher.


It was on the 24th of June, 1865, that this distinguished young mathematician and preacher was consecrated in Westminster Abbey as the second Lord Bishop of Ruperts [sic] Land, in the presence of Archbishop Langley, of Canterbury, and Bishops Tait, of London; Browne, of Ely; Suther, of Aberdeen; and Anderson, Metropolitan of Rupert’s Land. His new diocese contained 870,000 square miles; beginning at the height of land near Port Arthur, it extended westward as far as the snow-capped summits of the Rockies; in width it stretched from the southern boundary of Canada northward until lost in the ice-bound north. This was the wide field of labour for which the active, energetic young divine left the arduous ease of a college life to become a veritable John the Baptist.

The new Bishop’s first care was to revive St. John’s College, an institution which all through his Canadian career has been the mark of his beneficent care, of his unstinted labours, and of his magnificent liberality. St. John’s College is the keystone to all his labours. From his remarks at Trinity’s special convocation last Friday we are in no doubt about his educational ideas. He is a thorough believer in education on a religious basis, a training of students resident in college under proper supervision, with daily worship. And he has spared neither time, money nor himself to build up St. John’s College to his ideal. Besides utilizing his diocesan organization to increase the college professoriate, he himself performs the duties of lecturer in mathematics, and also professor of ecclesiastical history, a chair endowed largely through his own munificent gift of $10,000.

But not merely St. John’s bears the mark of his fostering hand. From his arrival on Canadian soil he has taken an active part and found a leading position in all educational matters of the North-west, and his fellow citizens have fully recognized his worth. He has been chairman of the Provincial Board of Education since its formation. He has been chancellor of the University of Manitoba since it was founded.

His achievements in the Church surpass even his successes as an educationist. He arrived in a remote, barren land, where the nearest railway left him 600 miles from his destination. There were no roads, no towns; the only inter-communcation was the rude trail of the wild Indian winding over a prairie dotted here and there only by the forts of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

FORT GARRY, HIS FUTURE HOME, was inaccessible to the world; there were no emigrants then. It was not known that there lay the richest and widest belt of wheat land, the most fertile soil, in the world.

There he found old St. John’s College with about £25 worth of books in a little building, which is still made to serve for some of the college purposes. Hither he came to supervise and direct the labors of 18 clergy scattered over his broad diocese. To-day, here stands new St. John’s, a handsome brick structure with stone foundation, with its ample lecture-rooms, and well-chosen library, with its students’ quarters and preparatory school – equipped in every respect to carry the blessings of education to the coming race – a substantial and abiding monument to Archbishop Machray.

To-day, in the diocese of Rupert’s Land alone, there are 80 clergy, while from his original diocese he has seen successively six suffragan bishoprics erected. His own diocese is to-day in a remarkable state of efficiency, having at the centre a capitular body with a dean and three residentiary canons, all of whom are professors in the college.

Of simple and unassuming habits, His Grace is proverbial for industry, and beloved by all who knew him. His chief recreation is mathematics, and from it doubtless has come his marvelous accuracy of detail. The native energy and vigor that carried him a score of years ago through long and fatiguing journeys by dog-sleigh and canoe to the remotest parts of his diocese is now expended on his voluminous correspondence and his duties as prelate and professor.

Yesterday the Canadian church gave him its highest honors. Last year England’s queen conferred upon him the unique position of Prelate of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, thus singling him out as the foremost of all colonial bishops.

His residence is Bishop’s Court, on the west bank of the Red River, a modest mansion, built originally of logs forty years ago. In front of it is a sloping lawn, and a broad, majestic expansion of the river. His grace lives between the past and the present – old and new St. John’s – while close at hand is the plain, unpretending cathedral church, the Westminster Abbey of the North-west.


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