Antigonish Activist: The pragmatic idealism of Fr. Gregory MacLeod

By Dr. Michael W.  Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

Special to Commonweal

This blog post was published in two parts. Both Part One (May 7) and Part Two (May 14) are available on this webpage.

In his December 2, 2020, entry for the ecclesial blog Go, Rebuild My House, Myroslaw Tataryn, a theologian and Byzantine Catholic priest, captures the essential pragmatism of the Bergoglian vision: “Francis asks us to be Christ in the world, as it is.... As Christians, we need to address the pandemic of fabricated realities that wraps itself in dogma but denies the Word of God that calls us to live the gospel, to embrace the forgotten, neglected, condemned.”

Looking at the world as it is was also the motto of a diocesan priest on the geographical and political peripheries so favored by Pope Francis: Gregory MacLeod of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. In his biography of MacLeod, Father Greg: A Life, the Acadian cleric Daniel Doucet neatly encapsulates MacLeod this way: “He was a priest by calling, a philosopher by profession, a businessman by necessity, and a bon vivant by DNA; there was no area of human endeavour which escaped his interest or curiosity.”

He was certainly the most unlikely priest I had ever met. In 1969, I was in my senior year at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. My most inspiring philosophy professor was holding a special seminar for invited guests and faculty with the recently returned (and academically minted) Fr. Gregory MacLeod. Fresh from Europe and irrepressibly keen on attuning young minds to the demands of eighteenth-century English empiricism, MacLeod made quite the impression.

He had a quick, supple mind coupled with an easily distracted delivery. But the deeper impression left on his audience was not to be found in his arresting insights, but in his arresting attire: flowered ascots and a monocle. Not customary clerical clothing, to be sure. But as I was to discover, there was nothing customary about this cleric in any regard—sartorial, intellectual, vocational.

MacLeod was born in 1936 in Sydney Mines on Cape Breton, a Gaelic redoubt marked by a complex and often torturous history of conquest, re-conquest, suppression, cultural marginalization, and economic fragility. The island’s fractious history is reflected in its varied names: Unamakia (Mi’kmaq), Îsle Royale (French), and Gear Breatanin (Gaelic). It was cut off from the mainland by the Strait of Canso until the construction of a causeway in the 1950s. Nevertheless it retains a culture of its own.

Fr. Gregory MacLeod was the most unlikely priest I had ever met.

MacLeod tasted firsthand the peripheral status of the Cape Bretoner (derisively dubbed Capers by outsiders). Economically dependent on steel and coal ownership “from away,” and deprived of the fiscal and political clout of mainland Nova Scotia, the island also lacked educational opportunities, despite its status as the primary priest-feeder for the Diocese of Antigonish. MacLeod completed his first two years at St. Francis Xavier’s junior college there, and then headed to the mainland.

St. Francis Xavier’s main campus is in Antigonish, and was marketed (not inaccurately) as the Notre Dame of the North. During its robustly Catholic phase, St. Francis Xavier boasted priest-professors in abundance, with clergy living in every student residence, all in a rural setting. In the 1950s, when MacLeod was an undergraduate, it was still very much a diocesan university with priests making up the majority of the teaching faculty. He had every reason to think that if he became a priest he would be appointed to teach there by his bishop. In time, that did happen—and the university would never be the same again.

After graduating from university, MacLeod entered Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, the regional theologate for Atlantic Canada. He began studying for the priesthood in an environment he loathed, later dismissing his four years there as wasted ones, where he languished intellectually in a climate marked by boredom and mindless regimentation. He was fed a tepid Thomism, with simple survival a requisite for ordination. Ordination finally arrived in 1961. MacLeod’s torture was over, his liberation about to begin: he was bound for the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Oxford and Louvain galvanized MacLeod’s intellectual energies and resourcefulness. At Oxford he discovered, under Elizabeth Anscombe and Sir Antony Kenny, the rewards of a philosophical rigor that had eluded him in the seminary, and at Louvain, where he did his doctorate, the ferment generated by the Second Vatican Council. Nevertheless, in both institutions MacLeod, a social activist by temperament and inclination, became increasingly restive. He sought a kind of action plan, a path forward that didn’t just rotate around the notion of the academy-as-cloister. He became increasingly committed to the idea of the academy-as-action-center.

MacLeod’s models for the academic as social-change agent could be found in various quarters, and St. Francis Xavier, Canada’s premier breeding ground for progressive social-justice thought, was one of them. The Antigonish Movement—the product of two enterprising priest-educators, Jimmy Tompkins and Moses Coady—applied Catholic Social Teaching (as articulated in the papal encyclicals Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno) in innovative ways for an economically depressed region of Canada. The movement skillfully combined workers’ cooperatives, rural-development projects, adult-education modules, and consciousness-raising pastoral and pedagogical strategies. The goal was to enable people to shape their own destinies, both individual and communal. Although it was created out of the economic woes that had defined early twentieth-century Nova Scotia, the Antigonish Movement would later become an international model—indeed a precursor of the liberationist movements that emerged mid-century in Latin America.

The economic radicality of Tompkins and Coady’s vision could be seen in its historical context as a strategy of Christian engagement: if the Church does not offer the economically deprived and socially marginalized an opportunity for “improvement” then competing options or ideologies will serve as substitute theologies. In other words, if we don’t offer a generous hope grounded in the Christian ethic, then the allure of Marxism will be all the greater. As Coady said in an impassioned plea recorded in Alex Laidlaw’s The Man from Margaree:

Let us not forget that to be condemned to permanent economic poverty and social insecurity threatens life itself, closes the road to culture and stifles the very yearnings of the human soul for happiness.... Allow the masses of the people to wander leaderless in the economic desert of want and poverty, and inevitably they will turn from those men of religion who are satisfied to preach abstract justice and charity to those irreligious leaders who can, or at least say they can, solve the people’s problems.

MacLeod returned to Canada from Europe in 1969, many years after the Antigonish Movement’s heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. By then the prophetic economics of Tompkins and Coady’s vision—also a means of evangelization in the face of the communist and socialist alternatives—was seen as a historical curiosity. For MacLeod it was anything but. Certainly, the times had changed, but the notion of subsidiarity—Pius XI’s principle of power and accountability exercised at the local level—was still relevant. And MacLeod became its regional champion.

From the very outset of his return to his diocese, he was busy disturbing the settled powers in the university and in the chancery. MacLeod first advocated for the creation of a cooperative for prostitutes in Honduras. He’d been inspired by a visit to Antigonish priests who had volunteered to work in Latin America following Pope John XXIII’s plea for North American clerics to become missionaries abroad. Economic freedom, MacLeod saw, was the first major step to personal freedom: only then could the women become autonomous agents, free from pimps and madams. This idea lacked traction, but others caught on. Invoking Pope John XXIII’s concept of socialization—which urges cooperation and coordination between larger government bodies or corporations and smaller, weaker economic entities—MacLeod diligently protected the small player. (Socialization also involved limiting monopolistic power, to preserve the principle of subsidiarity.)

Part 2

As MacLeod wrote in his manual, How to Start a Community Enterprise: A Personal Approach, he had little stomach for a leftist anti-business attitude. He also resisted the kind of inflexible, confrontational approach that opted for ideology over entrepreneurial competency. Deploring endless philosophical discussions (though he was, of course, a philosopher), MacLeod valued technological facility over a romantic William Morris–flavored dreaminess, and saw political networking as a pillar of success. He set up a collective of shared economic and social resources, composed of people drawn from various occupations and none, to form New Dawn Enterprises. They would set about the task of identifying a problem, determine the kind of social enterprise required, secure the requisite financing, and make a moral commitment to act in concert with their communal and personal values. “Our approach,” MacLeod recounts, “was problem-oriented and practical. When we identified a critical shortage of dentists in the area, we decided to acquire a building and seek a health grant from the province. We built a dental clinic and attracted a dentist from the mainland.”

This was MacLeod’s modus operandi: empowering the community, rousing its latent energies, networking with the government, the corporate world, and local business and banks, and actually getting things done. Unlike many of his contemporary liberationists, he celebrated rather than disparaged the entrepreneurial instinct. As he made clear in his speeches and books, and through his lobbying activities, the focus must be “place-based development, which sees the local context as the starting point for social change rather than a nation or a global system.” This isn’t just the thinking behind the Antigonish Movement; it’s also the thought of E. F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), Barbara Ward (The Rich Nations and the Poor Nations), and, most importantly, the Basque priest Don José Maria Arizmendiarrieta, whose idea of a “new reformed economy” helped create the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation.

From an economic-history perspective, MacLeod created something new. Harvey Johnstone, author of Boundary Exploration: The Entrepreneurial Experiments of Fr. Greg MacLeod, argues that the “cabbage patch priest,” aware of the staggering failures of traditional cooperatives, was determined to move beyond this narrow model. He did so by creating a kind of capitalist-socialist hybrid: “MacLeod considered his New Dawn Enterprises a neo-cooperative, that is he considered New Dawn to be fundamentally co-operative in philosophy [because] in the very broadest sense it was taking what is good out of capitalism and what is good out of socialism.” So MacLeod’s philosophical training wasn’t subsumed after all by his activism. It is there, together with his formation as a Christian and as a priest, as his reliable substratum.

When he wasn’t working on his business ideas (and they were ever germinating), he was in the lecture hall and in the parish parlor, provoking his fellow clerics, irritating pious philanthropists, and agitating conventional university bureaucrats.

MacLeod resisted the kind of inflexible, confrontational approach that opted for ideology over entrepreneurial competency.

As a former university president, I have some sympathy for Malcolm MacDonnell, the erudite and witty priest president of St. Francis Xavier, who not infrequently found himself on the receiving end of MacLeod’s righteous fury. Outraged that his request for tenure had been turned down (largely because of his failure to produce the necessary quota of peer-reviewed articles), MacLeod harangued the hapless MacDonnell by fulminating without qualification: “Any decent intellectual knows that publishing for the sake of publishing is a fraud. Any institution that lays down an institutional rule enjoining professors to publish or to perish is also a fraud.” Not much negotiating room there.

MacLeod did get his tenure and subsequent promotion. He did publish several books. And he won over opponents in the political realm who objected to his business plans. All this he did by dint of perseverance, ruthless self-critique, and deft politicking.

And he never stopped. Tom Penney, a former Catholic secondary-school chaplain and social worker, knew MacLeod well. Penney’s mother had worked closely with MacLeod during the time he set up a college of crafts on Cape Breton Island. Penney told me that when MacLeod was dying in 2017 of cancer, he had visitors with him in palliative care up to the penultimate moment: “To the very end Greg was a community visionary—whether attempting to restore railway service in Cape Breton or creating new housing for the poor. His sister told me about Greg’s final day: a visitor was at the door and Greg implored his sister to not let anyone in to see him unless they had a file in their hands.”

MacLeod’s ministry was as imaginative as it was pragmatic. It drew handsomely on the corporate insights of the Hudson Bay Company, while also taking inspiration from the communitas of a Benedictine monastery. MacLeod found flourishing examples of Catholic social teaching in both the original genius of the Antigonish Movement, and in the practical cooperatives of Mondragon in Spain. He labored to enact an economy with a human face, sensitive both to the needs of workers’ unions and the priorities of business. What mattered most to the Cape Breton social-justice priest was life as it is. He was a pastor with, as Pope Francis would say, the “smell of the sheep.”


This content is published with the permission of Commonweal and originally appeared on April 27, 2021.

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