The history of our parish has been transcribed primarily from Lift Up Your Hearts by Rev. Joseph C. Legree. Please see the bibliography below for all resources consulted in the preparation of this page.
The Early Beginning’s
By the 1840’s, over twenty Catholic families had settled along the Ottawa River, 140 kilometres north-west of Ottawa. At the time, the community of first settlers and loggers were dispersed farms along what was known as Government Road (later Highway 17), and now present Pembroke Street East. At that time, there existed two small villages along this road, located on the Ottawa River near the present Pembroke Mall: Lower Miramichi and Campbelltown. Further up the river, the small village of Pembroke, was located at the mouth of the Muskrat River, where present day Pembroke Street East and West meet. Bishop Ignace Bourget, of the Diocese of Montréal, directed Father James Christopher Lynch of Chapeau, Québec, to look after the spiritual needs of the growing number of families across the river.
With the creation of the Diocese of Bytown (Ottawa) in 1847, this area of small communities fell within the new Diocese’s boundary. The newly appointed Bishop of Bytown, Bishop Joseph Eugène Bruno Guigues, visited the area with Bishop Patrick Phelan (Dioceses of Kingston) to determine a suitable location to have a church built for the growing Catholic community. The location of the present Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception Cemetery, at the corner of Pembroke Street East and Broadview Drive was chosen as the site to hold the first Roman Catholic church. Records state that it was 32 feet by 42 feet, made of wood, and could hold 200 worshipers. It took until 1851 to put the finishing touches, and consider the project complete. The Irish Evangelist, credited with spreading Christianity into Scotland, Saint Columba (spelt Columbkille in the Scots language), was selected as the patron saint of the church and for its namesake; presumably because of the majority Irish and Scottish settlers in Pembroke.
Father Lynch could only serve mass every other week, and so the parish petitioned Bishop Guigues for a permanent pastor. The first pastor of St. Columbkille’s Church did not arrive until 1856, when Father John Gillie began his ministry in Pembroke at the age of 24. In 1864, the first separate school was built opposite the church, followed by the construction of a presbytery the following year. In 1864, a Catholic School was built across Pembroke Street from the church. In 1866, the church was expanded by the addition of two side galleries. The parish facilities were further expanded in 1868 when the former Anglican rectory across the road from the church was purchased and occupied by the Grey Sisters of Ottawa. This building was later used as the first Pembroke hospital, operated by the Grey Sisters.
From left to right: 557 Pembroke Street East, the original convent, and later first hospital in Pembroke, is now a private residence. The Reverend Father John Gillie, St. Columbkille’s first Parish Rector from 1856-1868. The original gravestone of Fr. John Gillie, first Parish Rector of St. Columbkille’s.
In 1868, the parish priest of Pembroke, Father John Gillie, applied to the Grey Nuns’ Motherhouse in Ottawa, for Sisters to establish a convent in his parish. On May 15, 1868, three Grey Nuns, Sister Kirby, Sister Whelan, and Sister Louise, came to open the new mission. Sister Kirby who five years earlier had founded the first Grey Nun Establishment in Ogdensburg, NY, was the Superior chosen to lay securely the foundation in Pembroke, and this office she held for seventeen years – years which were filled with abundant good works of zeal and charity. In 1868, Father Gillie passed away and was temporarily succeeded by Father Thomas Caron, then by Father Oliver Boucher.
Despite all of this activity on the east side of the Muskrat River, it was becoming apparent that the centre of the community was shifting west. Pembroke Village was rapidly surpassing Fraserville and Lower Miramichi in importance and development. It became necessary to move the Convent, school, and church. The main portion of the former Convent of Mary Immaculate on Renfrew St, was built in 1871 and 1872, the cornerstone being laid on June 25 1871. On September 2, 1872 school opened in the new convent with forty pupils present. The first Mass was said in this Convent of Mary Immaculate on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, September 8, 1872.
The Grey Sisters of the Cross were able to purchase the lots surrounding the Convent and work on the new church began in 1872. Father Jouvent had a building erected, the interior unfinished in 1874, and then he was replaced by Reverend Remi Faure in 1875. No presbytery was erected at this point, the pastor would live in rented rooms. By 1878, the parish had two hundred and fifty families, so the first General Hospital was opened in the old Convent in Lower Town.
The fate of the original church is unknown. Although visible in a photo dated 1905, it was gone by the time the Grey Sisters were granted the property in 1956. The cemetery and the churchyard of the first church had long been used as a Catholic burial ground and when the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception separated from the Ottawa congregation, the property was deeded to them by Bishop Ryan. The sisters continued to use the property as a cemetery until 1965. In all, it is estimated that up to a thousand burials occurred on the site by 1889, including many of Pembroke’s first settlers, business people and Aboriginals.
On July 11, 1882, the Vicariate Apostolic of Pontiac was established. It was an immense territory stretching from James Bay on the north to the northern limits of the Diocese of Kingston and the Diocese of Peterborough on the south. Because Pembroke was centrally located on the main missionary route, and because St. Columbkille’s was the largest parish, Bishop Narcisse Zéphirin Lorrain, the new Bishop, chose this parish for his temporary parish church and base for this apostolic labours.
In 1885, construction was begun on the Bishop’s House beside the church, with its eventual completion in 1887. Shortly after its completion, the Cathedral sanctuary was enlarged and rebuilt, two new side altars, to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, were added, a spacious sacristy was erected. While the basement of the church was made into a parish hall, the sacristy basement was to accommodate the altar servers. All the interior decorations were completed by December 31, 1890.
Circa 1885. From left on Renfrew Street you can see the High School, St. Collumbkille’s Cathedra;, the Convent of Mary Immaculate, and Calvin Presbyterian Church. The long low building in front of the school is a skating rink on Isabella Street. (Photo courtesy of The Victoria Centre).
Elevation to a Diocese
Pembroke’s first four bishops, from left to right: Bishop Narcisse Zephirin Lorrain, Bishop Patrick Thomas Ryan, D.D., Bishop Charles Leo Nelligan, D.D., and Bishop William Joseph Smith, D.D.
With the resignation of Father Doucet in 1894, Father Elie A. Latulippe became rector of the Cathedral. During this priest’s regime, a Casavant pipe organ was installed, a separate school established in Stafford Township (present day Laurentian Valley), and additional rooms were added to the Cathedral Separate School.
The next great historic event was to occur on May 4, 1898, when the Vicariate of Pontiac was elevated into the Diocese of Pembroke and Bishop Lorrain as its first bishop. Father Latulippe remained a rector until transferred to Haileybury as pastor in 1906. His assistant, the Reverend John Kimpston, became rector for the years 1906-1914. The Little Sisters of the Holy Family, a French religious order from St. Hyacinthe, came to look after the household duties of Cathedral rectory (cooking, washing, cleaning, mending, etc.) since 1906. During this time, several important events took place. The Cathedral itself was consecrated on August 9, 1907. Father Latulippe, the forther Rector, was consecrated bishop as Vicar Apostolic of Temiscaming on November 30, 1907 by Archbishop Duhamel of Ottawa, assisted by Bishop Lorrain and Bishop Scollard of Sault Ste. Marie, as co-consecrators.
After a public fundraiser, a western wing was added to the General Hospital in 1908. In the years that followed, Bishop Lorrain was obliged to appeal to Rome for an auxiliary bishop, due to declining health. So Father Patrick Thomas Ryan was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Pembroke July 25, 1912 by Archbishop Charles H. Gauthier of Ottawa, assisted by Bishop Scollard of Sault Ste. Marie and Bishop Schrembs of Toledo, Ohio as co-consecrators. Bishop Ryan returned to Renfrew 1912-1914 to care for St. Francis Xavier Parish.
In 1914 Bishop Ryan was appointed administrator fo the Diocese due to Bishop Lorrain’s ill health. With the Cathedral being a hub for the community in 1914, Rector Father Patrick S. Dowdall made one of his first projects to modernize the basement of the Cathedral into a parish centre. New installations for lighting, heating, and boardrooms and offices for various parish organizations came into being. The year 1915 recorded the death of the beloved Bishop Lorrain whose remains were laid to rest in the crypt of the Cathedral.
Bishop Ryan had the joy of receiving a special welcome home after visit to Rome in 1930, and also presiding over the Golden Jubilee of the Vicariate of Pontiac in 1932, which celebrations were mainly religious and simple because of the stringency of those times (note the Great Depression). Bishop Ryan died April 15, 1937, and was succeeded by Bishop Charles Leo Nelligan November 11 of the same year, Father Breen was appointed Vicar General and in the following year he became a Domestic Prelate. He would have both honours through the wartime years even though he had asked for a transfer to Eganville and received it in 1940. In 1939, Father Deloughery became a chaplain in the Canadian Army and the Grey Sisters took over the direction of the High School until the Christian Brothers came in 1948. Monsignor Breen was succeeded by Reverend R.M. Clarke, J.C.D as rector in 1940.
In 1940, the Parish had another dismemberment with the formation of Paroisse St. Jean Baptiste for the French speaking people. The former parish of that name was changed to Most Holy Name of Jesus. Father Clarke had also a building program in the Bishop’s House. It was renovated in its entirety and a wing was added for the chancery offices and bishop’s suite. In 1942, Father Clarke was elevated to the rank of Domestic Prelate.
During the Second World War in 1940, Rector Father Clarke had also a building plan prepared to renovate the Bishop’s House. Once the Bishop’s House was completed, Fr Clarke completed research with Mr. Alphonse Martineau to plan renovations for the Cathedral. Construction began in May 1951. With the side walls partly taken down and transepts added, the new annex gives entrance to the upper and lower sacristies, passage into the church for processions and entry into the parish hall. The altars, Communion rail, episcopal throne, and the shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help were all renewed, blending in well with the architecture. The main entrance was somewhat changed to give more vestibule space. The retaining walls of the tower and gallery were pierced through to form cross alleys. A baptistery was located off the vestibule. The pulpit and stairway built by Messmer had an efficient sound system placed therein during 1950. The organ was also rebuilt and refurbished.
In the year 1952, the new General Hospital of Pembroke was erected (present day Pembroke Regional Hospital), while the old hospital became Marianhill Home for the Aged. Later the Grey Sisters supervised the erection of the new Motherhouse on MacKay Street (Carefor Mackay Centre). The Sisters of St. Joseph also supervised the erection of a new Motherhouse in the west end (across from the West-End Mall). A new elementary school was erected behind the Cathedral and one dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes in the east-end. Our Lady’s High School was erected just behind the Convent of Mary Immaculate on Isabella Street (present Wise Owl Daycare Centre). All the buildings received the blessing and support of Bishop Smith. These were years of unprecedented growth.
After Vatican II
In 1962, the Lorrain School of Nursing was erected adjoining to the General Hospital, and in May of 1962, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish was erected comprising the families east of Cecelia Street and the country area of Highway 17 to Meath Hill and La Pass Road.
During the year 1965, a new diocesan administration building was added to the present Cathedral rectory and chancery. The new building connected to the old on two floors. This was built to house the offices needed for the implementation of the decrees of Vatican Council II. On the first floor were the Bishop’s Office, Chancery Office, Office of Lay Apostolate, Office of Religious Education, a meeting room for Diocesan Consultors, the Senate of Priests, and for special occasions. The second floor contained a private chapel, the living quarters for Bishop Smith and Bishop Windle and a guest room. The building was erected by M. Sullivan Construction Company, Arnprior.
Pembroke’s previous four bishops, after 1970, from left to right: Bishop Joseph Raymond Windle, D.D., Bishop Brendan Michael O’Brien, S.T.D., Bishop Richard William Smith, and Bishop Michael Mulhall D.D.
After Vatican II, the Cathedral was also renovated by Gerry Barink Construction to have a wider sanctuary area. The bishop’s throne was moved from the left side to the place where the main altar had been. A new altar was placed in the sanctuary for the celebrant to face the people. The old pulpit and stairway were removed, as was the Communion railing. An altar of reservation over which was suspended a lighted canopy was located on the left side of the sanctuary. The area in front of the other side altar was converted into a baptistery. New lighting was installed in the main body of the church and in the sanctuary, and the entire church was carpeted. The pews were refinished. The colour scheme of the walls was off-white. This work was executed by Guy Perrier and Associates of Vanier, Ontario. The Cathedral was rededicated by Bishop Smith at a special liturgy.
The year 1979 brought about the announcement that the Old Marianhill Home for the Aged was to be replaced in a few years by a dual facility complex of 160 beds; 100 under the Ministry of Community and Social Services, 60 under the Ministry of Health. The costs would be three-and-half million dollars with a grant of one million dollars from the Ministry.
In 1980, the parish received some sad news. Both St. Joseph’s and St Patrick’s Separate Schools were closed because of declining enrolment.
In 1981, the Cathedral was interiorly redecorated and repainted. The appointments and furnishings were not changed as the renovation has already taken place. That same year it was announced that Catholic High and Bishop Smith High would amalgamate next year with the latter facility being used by the Renfrew County Roman Catholic Separate School Board for Grades 9 and 10 by the private board for Grades 11, 12 and 13. Some 370 students of Grades 7 and 8 were in Bishop Smith School and 280 were in Catholic High from Grades 9 to 13. The high school graduates were exhorted by various speakers to do God’s will, to adhere to Christian principles, bring Christian values to a suffering world and avoid misplaced peer pressure, to seek the good advice of parents and teachers. Father Grant Neville, Chaplain, had opened a new chapel for the students. The Blessed Sacrament is present any many young people may go and prayer and realize how near God really is for them.
Three priests of the diocese played hockey for the Flyer Fathers. This team has among its regulars Fathers Patrick Blake, Grant Neville, and John McElligott. It is a mixture of hockey and humour on ice. Several skits were enacted in cut-up fashion yet the team remained serious about vocation and objectives. They play thirty exhibition games a year, charging $1,500.00 to cover travel expenses. There is also a division of the gate receipts. Since its inception, the organization has raised $1,000,000.00 for charity. They often have ministry on the road; people bring them their problems. The design of black and gold sweaters is a smiling priest with his eyes raised to a shimmering halo overhead shows a mixture of fun and seriousness. Their motto is “praying and playing”.
St. Columbkille’s Cathedral, November 2019.
The New Millenium
In preparation for the Great Jubilee of Year 2000, Bishop Brendan O’Brien and the Rector of the Cathedral, Father Patrick Tait, ordered a redecoration of the cathedral. New carpet was installed and places of honour, like the altar of celebration, were finished with marble tiles. Repainting was done and with the new technologies developing, special tapestry were printed and installed to give it back its Irish heritage decoration.
A few years later, at the inspiration and guidance of Bishop Richard Smith, a new and more honourable baptismal fount was installed at the entrance of the nave. At the same time, a five foot statue of St. Columbkille, the patron saint, was custom made and installed in a prominent place at the front of the church.
In 2019, the final main stained glass window was reinstalled into the Cathedral walls after many years of tireless work of painstaking restoration. That same year, the Cathedral’s signature organ was refurbished and updated with modern electronics. In addition, the entire parking lot was repaved.
Cheney, David M. 2013. Bishops; Dioceses. Accessed January 2020. http://www.catholic-hierarchy.org/.
Diocese of Pembroke. 2015. “Parish Profile: St. Columbkille Cathedral, Pembroke.” Edited by Heather Coughlin. Ecclesia(Pappin Communications) 17.
Diocese of Pembroke. 2013. “Pembroke’s Pioneer Cemetery.” Edited by Heather Coughlin. Ecclesia (Pappin Communications) 11.
Diocese of Pembroke. 2014. “Refurbishing Cathedral’s historic stained-glass windows.” Edited by Heather Coughlin. Ecclesia (Pappin Communications) 16.
Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception Pembroke. Unknown. “Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception Pembroke, Ontario Twenty Years After.” Catholic Health Alliance of Canada. Unknown Unknown. Accessed January 2020. https://www.chac.ca/about/history/books/sisters/Grey%20Sisters%20Pembroke%2020th.pdf.
Hamilton, James Eldon, and John Delbert Hamilton. 1976. Our Heritage. Pembroke, Ontario: Donald F. Runge Limited.
Legeer, Rev Joseph C. 1988. Lift Up Your Hearts: A History of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pembroke. Kingston, Ontario: Brown & Martin Ltd.
Patterson, Jackie Ryan. 2009. Pembroke – A Glimpse Into the Past. Renfrew: Custom Printers of Renfrew Ltd.
Pembroke Regional Hospital. n.d. Our History. Accessed January 26, 2020. https://www.pemreghos.org/ourhistory.