Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 6, 2000
Social teaching changed lives
MacNeil recalls glory days of Antigonish Movement
WCR Staff Writer
The Antigonish Movement, a Church-led Nova Scotia movement that helped workers become masters of their own destiny, was brought about by people who believed deeply in the social teaching of the Church, says Archbishop Joseph MacNeil.
These were mostly Scottish and Irish people, the majority of the population in Nova Scotia in the early years of the 20th century, who had faced oppression and injustice in their home countries and were determined it wouldn't happen again in their new homeland, related MacNeil.
They were largely Roman Catholic and Presbyterian, believed deeply in the dignity of the human being and their lives were permeated by their faith.
"The sense of the Gospel was very much part of their lives," MacNeil noted. "They were taught the basic values and principles of their religion so that the notion of the Gospel of St. Matthew - 'I was hungry and you fed me. I was a stranger and you took care of me' - was all part of their lives, of their being."
The priests in the area "absorbed that kind of teaching, that kind of concern for others" and that's how the Antigonish Movement came to be.
MacNeil spoke about the Antigonish Movement Oct. 29 at a brunch series organized by the Social Justice Commission. Some 100 people attended the lecture at Chateau Louis Conference Centre.
The movement was led by Msgr. Moses Coady and Father Jimmy Tompkins. In the early years of this century they developed St. Francis Xavier University and then worked to meet the needs of impoverished Nova Scotia communities.
The instrument of their efforts was the university's extension department. Through the department, thousands of people throughout Canada and other parts of the world were taught the basics of cooperatives, credit unions, labour unions, democracy and community development.
A Nova Scotia native, MacNeil was part of the movement first as a student at the university, then as a parish priest and finally as director of the university's extension department in the 1960s.
The movement was born out of a sense of concern for others prevalent in the Nova Scotia Diocese in the early years of the 20th century, he said.
Students at St. Francis Xavier "absorbed that sense of concern for others and a great number of the graduates, even teachers, became priests."
Priests and bishops at the time realized the importance of access to education for everyone.
Coady and Tompkins, who was vice president of St. Francis Xavier for many years, went all over the world looking for new ideas, "always with the idea that somehow they would be able to help their own people back in the farms, in the fishing villages, in the coal mines and in the steel mills," MacNeil said.
At one point, the bishop decided to send Tompkins to a fishing village as a parish priest. That decision proved providential "because this little man" discovered that the people in the fishing villages were starving because they had no way to sell their products.
So he started campaigning for a royal commission to be held. The commission was soon established and Coady, who made a presentation before the commission, was chosen to organize the fishermen.
In a short period of time Coady, who had previously organized the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union, had most of the fishermen organized and had established various cooperatives.
But Coady and Tompkins wanted more. Their idea was that they should bring education to the people so that they could become masters of their own destiny.
So Tompkins came up with the idea of setting up a people's school, where they would invite people from the farms, the fishing villages and the mines to come.
They would give them some basic education on democracy, on how to organize meetings, "on looking for better things in life, on how to integrate their faith with the secular realities that their were living with," MacNeil said.
That idea was eventually developed by St. Francis Xavier University, which decided to establish a department that would "bring university to the people."
The mandate of St. Francis Xavier's extension department was basically "to help bring people to a better standard of living (through education)," noted MacNeil. "So they said the main thing has to be education but it has to be practical education."
So Coady and Tompkins, now with the backing of the university, visited impoverished fishing communities to find out what their problems were. In most cases the problem was that they had no way to sell their fish.
Through the extension department, they taught the fishermen to form cooperatives to sell their fish and to set up their own financing system through credit unions.
"So it was a learning process at a very, very practical level," MacNeil said. "And of course, many of the people involved were illiterate and they had to be taught how to read and write."
Because people saw that something was happening, they began to call this the Antigonish Movement, MacNeil said. "Something was happening at St. Francis Xavier that seemed to give hope to a whole lot of people."
The movement began to get "wonderful rave reviews" from newspapers across North America.
As the movement's popularity grew, so did the demands on it.
Many priests in urban areas began pressuring the leaders to include the demands of steel and coal miners, who basically wanted trade unions.
Coady had a problem with that, saying trade union people are part of whole "capitalist enterprise" that the movement was trying to change, said MacNeil. Another fear was that trade unions would be taken over by communists. But the priests insisted that the miners' interests should not be ignored.
At one point there was a strike at the mines and "all the parishes had machine guns at the entrance of the church and it almost seemed that parish priests condoned it," MacNeil related. That seemed to have changed the leaders' stance on trade unionists.
Gradually the St. Francis Xavier's extension department would develop programs for union leaders. So for a good number of years many of the top union leaders in the country were trained by the university.
"So that was another way in which the university kind of reached out and helped people become masters of their own destiny," MacNeil said.
Eventually union leaders from many other parts of the world, especially the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa, came to study at St. Francis Xavier. That tradition continues today through the Coady Institute, which MacNeil helped establish during his time as director of the extension department.
"It's amazing how the lives of the people have been affected by St. Francis Xavier's extension department," the archbishop said.