Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Catholic studies class brings artifacts to life in new exhibition

December 21st, 2022
Dr. Barry MacKenzie (back right) and students in CATH 298 class (Souls, Sins and Sorrows: Catholicism in Canada)

Students in StFX professor Dr. Barry MacKenzie’s CATH 298 class (Souls, Sins and Sorrows: Catholicism in Canada) can now add “guest curator” to their CVs, following the official launch on December 6th of “Venerable Objects: The Material Culture of Catholicism in Antigonish” at the Antigonish Heritage Museum.

A firm believer in combining innovative assignments with traditional coursework, Dr. MacKenzie assigned students the task of co-curating an exhibit of more than 40 different artifacts from seven different local collections. Items range from the common (a chalice, holy water from Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre, and clerical vestments) to the unusual (a locket containing a 170+ year-old lock of hair, a papal medal gifted to an Antigonish man in 1858, and a seal used by the founder of StFX).

Other artifacts are related to the devotional lives of particular ethnic communities, including two century-old Mi’kmaq prayer books (one in pictographs and the other in the Latin alphabet) and a statue of Our Lady of 's-Hertogenbosch brought to Antigonish by a Dutch immigrant family in the 1950s.

“I wanted my students to learn the value of using material culture to open a door to understanding history in a different way,” Dr. MacKenzie said. “Four years ago, when I last taught this class, my students did a similar exhibit, and I knew there were more amazing artifacts out their just begging to be studied and displayed.”

Catholicism casts a long shadow in Antigonish, Dr. MacKenzie remarked. “Though there are certainly some very troubling elements to the legacy of the Roman Catholic Church in eastern Nova Scotia,” he noted, “the exhibit tells the story of individual Catholics as much as of the institution. For that reasons, many of the artifacts speak to personal devotion. Many of these transcend linguistic, cultural and ethnic groups and speak to the pervasiveness of Catholicism in this area.”

During the official opening of the exhibit on December 6, several students in the class spoke about their research. “What I really enjoyed most about this assignment was learning about the impact that figures like Father Coady and StFX have had, not only in our local community, but around the world,” noted Matthew Breau, a second year political science student from Chelmsford, ON. “It makes me especially proud to be a Xaverian knowing some of the other work StFX focuses on.”

The exhibit will be on display through winter 2023. The museum is open Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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