Father Jimmy Tompkins

Text taken with permission from Michael Welton (1995)

Introduction: "The Momentous Gravity of Things Now Obtaining"

In the general adult education literature, the Antigonish Movement is often used to illustrate emancipatory or liberatory adult education practice (Brookfield, Lovett, Newman). That's the bird's eye view, from afar; up close, placed under the microscope, the movement becomes contradictory, complex, conflictual, a mix of conservative, progressive, liberal and radical currents. The primary purpose of this paper is to explore the Catholic nature of this Movement; in order to do so, one must understand both the global context within which Roman Catholicism was responding to the modern world and the particularities of life in the Catholic diocese of Antigonish in eastern Nova Scotia in the early twentieth century. Caught in a swirl of pressures from within and without, the Roman Catholic Church in eastern Nova Scotia developed into a forum for the debate of its "relevance" to a modernizing and industrializing society. Beginning in the early 20th century, spearheaded by Father Jimmy Tompkins, a cadre of reform-minded priests (dubbed by Tompkins as "Bolsheviks of a Better Sort") began to shape a new "social Catholicism" in response to the "plight of the poor" and the "plight of the Church." I contend that this dual response to the modern world--what I would call contradictory tendencies within early 20th century Catholicism--must be understood if we are to make sense of the way adult education, as discourse and practice, is shaped in eastern Nova Scotia. For the Antigonish reformers, recovering the Church's lost influence was intimately linked to their educative and political struggles to emancipate the oppressed peoples laboring in the mines, at sea, on the farms and in households.

Throughout the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church had been very reluctant to respond to the urgent new questions posed by industrialism and modernity. The Roman Catholic Church's social ethics had been shaped in the context of a rural, patriarchal, and hierarchical society. Now, this particular form of Catholic identity was being undermined as Catholic workers grappled with the new realities of widespread poverty in the midst of excessive wealth, union organizing, cyclical economic depressions, socialist parties speaking with secular accents and women's insistent demands for social equality. If traditional forms of social solidarity were being rent by the new class divisions of industrial society Catholics were also being forced to make sense of it all in a world in which God seemed to have receded to the outer edges of space. Church dogma, homilies, and charity for the individual poor seemed utterly inadequate responses to the new kinds of problems 20th century men and women were facing. The Catholic Church desperately needed to provide a new cultural synthesis for changed times.

Nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholicism in Europe, the United States and Canada could be described as a fortress Catholicism. Catholics were ghettoized, dissent was controlled and hostility to the "Protestant" and "secular" other encouraged. Behind the walls of a fortress Catholicism, Catholics hoped to ride out the storms of secularism and socialism seeking to invade their walls. In the diocese of Antigonish the Catholic hierarchy watched over its largely Scottish Highlander constituency, and Catholicism became almost inseparable from a rural, poor, patriarchal, anti-modernist existence. The diocesan newspaper, The Casket , condemned the evils of socialism, suffragettes, Protestants and assorted infidel movements. Suffragettes, for example, were depicted as "wild creatures," who, if given the vote, " would raise problems not yet thought of..." ( The Casket , July 17, 1913). Yet, towards the end of 1913 one notices a new spirit percolating through ultramotanist Catholicism. The Rev. Andrew Egan, writing on the subject of "The Catholic Church the Friend of the Working Man" ( The Casket , October 23, 1913), called upon Catholics to stand for the "right of the employed against injustice from all sides, and for any movement that makes for social betterment..."

Rerum Novarum Comes to Nova Scotia

Fr. Egan's words are inexplicable outside Pope Leo XIII's epochal encyclical, Rerum Novarum , delivered in 1891. Under considerable pressure from grassroots labor movements to respond to the plight of the working classes, Leo XIII lowered the drawbridge of fortress Catholicism to the plight of suffering workers. A laissez-faire Catholicism was no longer acceptable, and Catholics were encouraged to understand the modern world in order to bring a Catholic influence to bear upon the major problems of the day, particularly the social problem. Transcendental justification was provided for social action, and a certain amount of space was opened up for dialogue regarding what constituted a just economic and political order. Yet, the papal prescription against socialism and for private property constrained the possible solutions to the social crisis, and made communication difficult between the Catholic social activists and militant socialists as well as between conservative and progressive/populist factions within the Catholic church itself.

Thus, there is a profound ambiguity in this Leonine opening out to the world. The Church is under considerable pressure to move toward the world ( Rerum Novarum addresses the plight of the industrial worker) in order to restore its lost influence over secular affairs by competing directly with other ideologies (socialism or Protestantism). The Antigonish reform-cadre who clustered around Tompkins--a spearhead minority--were impelled into action by two potentially contradictory impulses. One, which we could label the universal impulse, was to respond authentically and humanly to the "plight of the poor" on farm, sea and in the mine. The other, which we could label the particularist impulse, was to act to ensure that the "plight of the Church," the threat to its own identity, was addressed. In a lecture to St. Francis Xavier students in early 1952, Moses Coady (who was mentored into leadership by his cousin Tompkins) beautifully captures these two impulses. "It may be good for our souls to investigate why the masses of our time have been lost to the Church and why the great masses of the world's people still live in conditions not in harmony with their dignity as human beings." For Coady, the loss of the working masses was a "great scandal," and he proclaimed to his students that the "Church always has been jealous of having a say in the guidance of the institutions operating in these fields." The desire to restore the lost influence of the Catholic Church is, I argue, strongly and weakly present in Catholic thought and action in Nova Scotia. The Catholic integrists wanted to maintain the Church's authority and governance of all domains of society, and the Catholic populists, sensing that this latter position might be untenable in the modern world, sought to participate in debates about society's future as one dialogue partner among many. Rerum Novarum has been interpreted in status quo maintaining ways in the history of Catholicism. But Tompkins and the reform-cadre of Antigonish read Rerum Novarum as a text that demands radical engagement with the pressing issues of their suffering region.

Moving Forward: Awakening the People from their Apathy

The reformers in early twentieth century Nova Scotia had more than their share of pressing issues to contend with. Outward migration had been continuous from the late nineteenth into the first two decades of the twentieth centuries. Indeed, the "vacant farm" symbolized the plight of rural society. The plight of rural society was exacerbated, too, by the significant shift of population to the burgeoning industrial towns (Glace Bay in Cape Breton grew from 6,945 to 16,562 between 1901 and 1910). Many fewer young people than in earlier decades were staying down on the farm, lured to the booming West, or into waged war in the mines, steel factories or subsidiary industries like the Eastern Car Company in New Glasgow which advertised for 500 jobs in July 1913. The history of coal and steel in Nova Scotia is a history of bitter class struggle, violence, exploitation and miserable working and living conditions. And to make matters even worse, the region was experiencing a crisis in the fishery. Thousands of fishermen were being forced out of the fishery, largely by the rapacious intrusion of the huge beam trawlers. When Jimmy Tompkins went to Canso as parish priest in January, 1923, he discovered that many of the fishermen and their families were close to starvation.

Tompkins began his work at St. Francis Xavier College, located in the small town of Antigonish, in 1902, becoming vice-president in 1908. The very name, St. Francis Xavier, today has a kind of luminous glow surrounding it for many adult educators. But in the early twentieth century it was a very modest and parochial institution, scarcely deserving the name of "university." Tompkins believed that Catholic higher education lagged terribly behind the modern world; in its revitalization lay at least some answers to the desperate economic and political situation facing Nova Scotians. Tompkins played a leading role in sending promising men throughout the world to acquire the latest knowledge about the natural and social sciences. Dr. Tompkins and his friend and colleague, "Little Doc" Hugh Macpherson (who cam to St. Francis in 1900 and is one of Nova Scotia's pioneering popular educators in agriculture) embodied the new winds of populism beginning to blow in a rather lethargic cultural and intellectual milieu.

In 1912 Tompkins returned from a British universities meeting held at Oxford ablaze with desire to carry the university to the people. It was dawning on Tompkins that adult education could precipitate a cultural awakening in men's and women's hearts and souls. Foreshadowing the concerns of late twentieth popular educators, Tompkins maintained that workers would be dominated and exploited unless they got knowledge for themselves. Education was the way to power. But how to proceed? The leadership of the diocese--Bishop Morrison and Rector Hugh Macpherson (not to be confused with "Little Doc")--were neither sympathetic to Tompkins' radical intuitions nor his importunate nature. Beginning in late 1913, impatient of "noble theorizing" (letter to Moses Coady, October 29, 1914), Tompkins plunged into feverish social action on two fronts. He opened a column on the "Forward Movement" in The Casket , and began to orchestrate action to boost civic awareness and responsibility. The period of the Antigonish Forward Movement, from its beginnings in late 1913 to its gradual dissipation by the end of 1915, is particularly important for out understanding of adult education and the new Catholicism. First, it is clear that Tompkins believed that the plight of rural society had to be central to any reform agenda. Second, that sectarian attitudes had to be rejected and a new era of dialogue with Protestants opened up. Third, Tompkins' populist learnings are manifest in his scathing denunciations of local political bosses. Fourth, it is in this period that we see the crystallization of a self-conscious vanguard of reform-minded priests. The Forward Movement sought to repopulate the country, beautify the town, dredge the harbor and find an educator to work with farmers. They succeeded only in getting Little Doc Hugh Macpherson to work as an agricultural representative in 1914. This was, however, a major accomplishment, and it is clear that "popular education" in the early twentieth century meant that scientific knowledge was mediated to the common people. Science could enlighten farmers as to the causes of their dilemmas and problems, and could enable them to take more control over their lives.

"Fraught with Wonderful Possibilities"

The Antigonish Forward Movement precipitated important social learning processes. Once "commercial pessimism" and "citizen lassitude" (a colonized or oppressed mentality) had been thematized on the ground of civil society, debate opened up around the possible ways forward. Slowly it began to dawn on people that "underdevelopment" was not a natural condition; that their cultural awareness was responsible, in large part, for their current predicament. By the end of World War I, Jimmy Tompkins was acutely aware that a new spirit of democracy and questioning of power elites was breaking into western people's consciousness. People were hungry for knowledge, and they wanted a say in how society was being run. From 1918 until he is banished from St. Francis Xavier in December, 1922, Jimmy Tompkins intensifies his educational agitational work.

He creates the "For the People" column in The Casket in 1918.

This is a very significant move on the part of the reform cadre. In column after column, Tompkins and the reformers (including the Englishmen, Henry Somerville, and the American, John Ryan) argue that the common people must learn how society operates and direct their action based on this knowledge. The reformers successfully create a new discourse which, rather than reacting defensively to modernism, now becomes one of the competing options interplaying with others in the conflictual cultural field of Nova Scotia. But what particularly distinguishes this discourse (which I label Catholic populism) is the fervent and strong emphasis on adult education as central to the process of enlightenment and empowerment. Pedagogical activism, or transformation through self- activity, is placed at the heart of this populism which skillfully weaves itself out of different ideological strands.

He opens up dialogue with industrial workers.

By the end of World War I Tompkins is still concerned with the plight of rural society. But he now begins to more consciously address the labor question. In the "Education and Social Conferences" of 1918 and 1919, he succeeds in opening up dialogue on questions of industrial democracy. On his own, he speaks with the "red" leadership of the workers in Cape Breton. He tries to foster a WEA-style adult education for the industrial workers, rather than the Plebs League favored by Communist workers in the United Kingdom.

He launches the People's School in January 1921.

Tompkins launched the People's School (about 51 "men" come to the School, held at St. Francis Xavier) to demonstrate the power of adult education to change people's way of seeing and acting within the world. It turns out to be a great success: Moses Coady, who taught mathematics at the School, found the students "anxious for knowledge and desirous of improvement.. The time is ripe, it would seem, for a vigorous program of adult education in this country." And the progressive Halifax Herald (May 28, 1921) commented: "For many years universities everywhere have been, and most of them still are, laboring under the misconception that they, by divine right, shall serve the wealthy and privileged classes, and in no degree promote popular education.

He promotes a federation of universities in Nova Scotia in 1921 & 1922.

Tompkins spearheaded an enormously controversial effort to create a University of Nova Scotia. He believed that Catholic higher education was in a terrible mess, and that by itself, St. Francis Xavier could not prepare Catholic men and women to confront the modern world. The Carnegie Corporation was willing to provide funding for a non-sectarian university system. Within this scheme, Dalhousie would become the center and St. Francis would become a kind of people's community college, as would Mount Allison (Methodist) and Acadia (Baptist). In Halifax, a Catholic College, akin to St. Michael's in Toronto, would be established. The poor, under-resourced religious colleges could not really fund high-level university and graduate work. Did not some sort of unification make eminent sense? Unlike Bishop Morrison and Rector Hugh Macpherson, Tompkins did not fear the secular world of the natural and social sciences. He believed, on can conjecture, that there was no contradiction between God's revealed truth and the natural laws. created by God, governing natural and human affairs. Both "truths" would converge, and the well- equipped Catholic professor of any of the natural sciences could place his or her scholarly work in the service of more socially efficient practices, be they in the fishery or on the farm.

A royal battle within the Church ensued. The hierarchy feared secular places--breeders of atheism and syphilis--and Scots and Acadians were told that along with St. Francis, they would also lose their identities. The issue was painful and difficult and complex. The progressive agenda, coupled with the federationist move, was too much for the Church hierarchy. In late December, 1922, Father Jimmy Tompkins was removed from his position, and sent to Canso, a fog-bound outport fishing village.

Real adult education springs from the pain of the people.

From 1923 until St. Francis Xavier actually agreed to create an extension department in 1928, Tompkins agitated amongst the fishermen. By 1927, his pedagogical activity and seed-sowing took root, and many fishermen helped along by reform-priests in the fishing villages, forced the government into inquiring into the state of the fishery. The commissioners sided with the plight of the fishermen, recommending adult education for cooperation. The reform cadre also agitated for an extension department in the 1920s meetings of the "Education and Social Conference." By 1928, reform cadre efforts to pressure the Church hierarchy to create an extension department and to launch a coherent attack on social and economic problems had succeeded, and Moses Coady was appointed as first extension director. After a whirlwind stint organizing fishermen's unions, Coady and the reformers began to shape what would become known throughout the world as the "Antigonish Movement" in 1929 and 1930. The creation of the Extension Department had been born out of acute suffering amongst the people and the ceaseless agitation of Jimmy Tompkins and his band of "Bolsheviks of a Better Sort."


Lotz, Jim, and Welton, Michael (1997). Father Jimmy: Life and Times of Jimmy Tompkins. Wreck Cove, Cape Breton Island: Breton Books.

Welton, Michael. "Bolsheviks of a Better Sort: Jimmy Tompkins and the Struggle for a People's Catholicism, 1908-1928" (36th AERC, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada: May 1995).

The "people's schools" of Fr. Jimmy Tompkins opened the doors of the University to men and women from impoverished fishing, farming and mining communities in the region. By the 1920s, Fr. Tompkins and his cousin, Moses Coady, had pioneered a practice of popular education and community organizing which enabled people to change their lives and their futures. For information about the ongoing work started by these two adult educators, see the web site of the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University.