Dispensation Request


Father Aeneas Bernard MacEachern, 16 July 1817

Correspondence between priests and Bishops can sometimes reveal details about specific marriage dispensation requests and whether or not they were actually granted. Below, I have attached extracts from two letters discussing one of these requests.

The first is from a letter written by Father Aeneas Bernard MacEachern of Prince Edward Island to the Right Reverend Joseph-Octave Plessis, the Bishop of Québec. In it, he seeks the Bishop's permission to marry a couple who are first cousins, thus requiring a dispensation of the 2nd degree of consanguinity. Not only does it name the couple involved, it also details the groom's reasons for wanting to marry the girl in question. These reasons may seem odd to us today, but they do serve to highlight some of the religious and social beliefs of that period.

The second is a portion of Bishop Plessis' response to Father MacEachern, translated from the original French. As you can see, it is the Bishop's response to Father MacEachern's request to marry the couple.

I trust these letters will provide some insight into the granting of marriage dispensations. I also hope it will be of some interest to those researching the Glenaladale and West River MacDonald families. It is a unique perspective on the individuals involved, and one that we might not necessarily find through other sources.

Father MacEachern's letter:

Charlotte Town July 16th 1817

My Lord,

Young Mr. Donald Macdonald of New Glenaladale came to me the other day, and asked of me to write to your Lordship, praying that your Lordship would be pleased to grant to him a dispensation in the Degree of cousins german. That is with his cousin Miss Helena Macdonald only daughter of Col. John Macdonald of the West River. The reasons he gave me were as follows. That he does not see any other one of his own religion on the Island, with whom he could think of being connected. That his Forefathers were Catholics, and being resolved to live, and die in the truth faith, he is determined not to bring perversion into his family. That if he went to England or Scotland for the purpose of choosing a companion for life, he is so embarrassed with debts, that he cannot well afford the expence, and that it would be some time before he could, perhaps, fix his mind to his liking. The said Helena was reared most religiously by her pious mother, and I am convinced that she would make a good wife for him, and would from her natural docility, and prudence of temper, humour his mother better than anyone I know. He says moreover, that, as he means to enter into the state of Matrimony, he wishes to do so as soon as he can, so as not to be exposed to misfortune, that might endanger his salvation. Your Lordship's determination on this subject, is expected as soon as convenient.

Bishop Plessis' response (translated from the original French):

Québec, 30 Sept. 1817

Monsieur - All of Mr. MacDonald's arguments fail against my lack of power to dispense in the degrees in question. Non est major defectus, quam defectus potestatis [There is no greater failing than the failing of power]. The Holy See delegated to me this power for a limited number of cases. That number has been exceeded. I can't knowingly go any further. Advise him to submit his request directly to Rome. It is the only way he will obtain the desired dispensation.

Additional Information

I wasn't familiar with the couple in question but was still curious about how this request to marry turned out. I wanted to bring a little closure to this particular file, so I placed a query on the Island Register web-site. I received two replies, both of which were very helpful and informative.

It would seem that young Mr. Donald Macdonald of Glenaladale was not able to marry his cousin, Miss Helena Macdonald of the West River. According to one of the respondents, the family was already inter-married to begin with, not counting the relationship between Donald and Helena themselves. This matter appears to have been raised by Donald's sister, Flora, in a letter she wrote to Bishop Plessis objecting to the proposed marriage. So, either through Bishop Plessis' original concerns, or the later objections raised by Flora Macdonald, the union never came to be.

As for our young couple, they did pick up their lives and move on, both eventually marrying other people. Donald married Anna Matilda Brecken. Helena, or Helen, married Daniel Brenan, whom she remained with until her death in November, 1862.

Many thanks to Basil Campbell and Mary J. Gallant responding to my query and forwarding the additional information on this family. Their time and efforts are greatly appreciated.

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