The Founding of St. Patrick’s Church

The founding of St. Patrick’s church was heavily influenced by three strong personalities: an itinerant priest, a garrison captain, and an Irish Catholic visionary.

Captain John Butler Wilson arrived in Sydney in 1785 and became the first captain of the Sydney Garrison. Soon thereafter, Captain Wilson met and married an Irish Catholic named Margaret Caverly. Unlike his wife, Captain Wilson was an Anglican. The difference in their religions and nationalities normally would have been an insurmountable obstacle, but not for these two. Wilson and Caverly were married but on the agreement that they would raise their children as Catholic. When their first-born son died soon after birth, however, there was no Catholic graveyard in Sydney in which to bury his little body. During the 18th century under the Penal Laws, Catholics in the Maritimes were not permitted to own land and could not establish churches, only chapels. So, Captain Wilson purchased a property, and his wife found a priest, Father Henry MacKeagney, to consecrate the land and perform Catholic burial rites. In 1805, Wilson had a wooden chapel constructed on the site. After his death in 1823, Captain Wilson was buried in the graveyard next to his son.

The growing population of Catholics in the area created a need for a larger place of worship for the community. Margaret Wilson gave the property to Father MacKeagney to expand the original chapel into a larger stone structure. In 1828, the Penal Laws were relaxed enough to allow the new construction to be deemed a church. Part of the expanded church covered the graves of Captain Wilson and his infant son; this was considered a great honour, placing the pair closer to God. MacKeagney consecrated his new Church as St. Patrick’s in defiance of his bishop’s desire to give it a nice, inoffensive, British-sounding name. MacKeagney was able to flout the Church’s authority because the Penal Laws prohibited the Catholic Church from owning property, so MacKeagney owned the church personally. His church meant his choice of name.

When MacKeagney got into trouble through his well-intentioned fund-raising tactics, he was defrocked, and thus unemployed. Margaret Wilson found MacKeagney homeless and destitute, and wanted to solve this problem by bringing him home to stay with her. But society’s expectations would have found that scandalous, so she married him!

Until the early 1960s, St. Patrick’s Church continued to be used as a place of worship. When the Old Sydney Society began to restore the church in 1966, they discovered the bodies of Captain John Butler Wilson and seven others under the floorboards. All the bodies were reinterned and given full Catholic burial rites – all except Captain Wilson, who was Anglican.

St. Patrick’s Church now serves as a museum devoted to preserving and promoting the culture and heritage of Sydney, Nova Scotia, and Cape Breton Island.



From June to September, St. Patrick’s Church Museum is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.