St. Alban the Martyr

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Memorial Tiles: Rev. John Bathune (Bethune)

BATHUNE (BETHUNE): Reverend John: 1751 - 1815

Tile ordered and paid for by Charles Bethune, Port Hope, Ontario, August 1888

John Bethune, a Church of Scotland clergyman, was born into a respected family on the Isle of Skye. Apparently, his youth was marked by poverty, but he received scholarships and eventually graduated with an MA from King’s College, Aberdeen in 1772. He emigrated from the Isle of Skye with several members of his family to North Carolina, a colony that had become a place of refuge for thousands of Highlanders after the 1745 rebellion in Scotland.

When the American Revolution broke out, Reverend John Bethune served as chaplain to the Royal Highland Emigrants Regiment (later known as the 84th), a Loyalist unit. For a time in 1776, he was a prisoner of the revolutionaries in Philadelphia. After his release, he made his way to New York and from there, to Halifax. By August 1779, he had moved to Montreal to take up his appointment as Chaplain to the 1st Battalion of his regiment.

Reverend Bethune helped to found the first Presbyterian congregation west of the town of Quebec, and this initially small congregation later went on to found the St. Gabriel Street Church, the mother church of Presbyterianism in Canada. In 1787, Bethune moved to the western area of the Province of Quebec that was to become Upper Canada in 1791 (later Ontario) and devoted the remainder of his life to his ministry among the Highland settlers in Glengarry County.

John Bethune married Veronique Waddens in 1782. Their children, six sons and three daughters, were a credit to them. John and Alexander Neil attended school in Cornwall where John Strachan (later Bishop Strachan) taught. Both these sons rose in the Church of England’s hierarchy, the former becoming Dean of Montreal and the latter, Bishop of Toronto. Another son, Angus, worked with Canadian explorer, cartographer and surveyor David Thompson, and also visited China about 1813 on behalf of the North West Company.

Doctor Norman Bethune, Angus Bethune’s great grandson, perhaps the best known of John Bethune’s descendants, travelled to China in 1938, and became a hero of the Chinese for his work performing emergency battlefield surgery with the Chinese communists in their struggle against Japanese invaders. He established training for doctors, nurses and orderlies. One wonders if tales of his great grandfather’s travels to China with the North West Company influenced his decision 125 years later to assist the Chinese people. While working in China, Dr. Norman Bethune contacted septicemia after cutting his hand during surgery, and died of his wounds on November 12, 1939.(1)

The Reverend John Bethune is the most honoured and respected of Canada’s Church of Scotland pioneers. He died in Williamstown, Upper Canada, on September 23, 1815.(2)


1. “Norman Bethune,”, accessed May 2011.

2. “Bethune, Norman,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Vol. V.