If you are a history buff, that is, if you’ve made an effort to learn about the history of the immediate area, you are aware of the role of religion in the lives of our ancestors. In some ways, religious beliefs shaped and defined the history of this area. Religious intolerance, which has been making the news lately, was to a degree a factor in shaping society.
What reminded me of the connection between history and religion is a comment a friend made about Kentville and the Catholic Church. We were discussing early Kentville history and he noted that the town’s borders once stopped on the south bank of the Cornwallis River. “That’s why they built the Catholic Church where they did north of the then town limits,” he said. “They wouldn’t let them into town.”
“They,” I assumed were either political leaders or the citizens of the town who were non-adherents of the Catholic Church. Anyway, the friend’s remark was a reminder of the role religious intolerance played in our history. And while I had heard before that Catholics were once excluded not only from Kentville but from living on the floor of the Annapolis Valley, it seemed like one of those bits of folk nonsense that persist over the years.
My interest in this folklore about Kentville and possible Catholic exclusion piqued, I decided to question Kentville’s unofficial historian, Louis Comeau. I asked Comeau if there was any truth to the story that some recognized religions and their adherents were once banned from Kentville.”
“While I’ve never seen anything in print,” Comeau replied, “folklore has it that the Catholics were once forbidden to build a church in Kentville.”
According to family folklore, Comeau said, his Catholic ancestors and other Irish Catholic settlers weren’t welcome in Kentville or anywhere in the settled areas of the Valley floor. “In Kings County, the Irish had to be content with homesteads on the mountain. Look at how many Irish families you find that have been settled for generations on the North Mountain, for example,” Comeau said in effect.
Comeau also told me that when his ancestors sailed from Ireland, they left as Malones and arrived as Lyons, apparently believing they would be discriminated against if their Irish surname revealed they were Catholics.
One of Comeau’s ancestors, James Lyons, operated the Kentville Hotel or Stage Coach House on Main Street in Kentville and later opened the Lyons’ Hotel on Aberdeen Street, where Macdonald Chisholm Insurance now stands. Comeau said that according to family folklore, Lyons was a successful businessman only because he kept his religion a secret. “This was in a period when Catholics weren’t accepted,” Comeau said.
Comeau’s research indicates the old boundary of Kentville on the north was the Cornwallis River. This was still the boundary when St. Joseph’s Church was completed in 1853. But whether the church was built outside of Kentville because of religious intolerance cannot be determined.
For some insight on this, we must turn to Eaton’s history of Kings County. “The legal difficulties under which Roman Catholics laboured in Nova Scotia after the introduction of civil government in 1749, were for a long time very great,” Eaton writes. Eaton was referring to an act passed by the government in 1758 than banished “every popish person… and every popish priest” from the province.