As the permanent population, and the numbers of young people and children in Newfoundland increased during the early 19th century, public interest in access to education also grew. Parents increasingly came to believe that education would be a means of social and economic mobility. As institutional churches also expanded, clergy believed that education could be a means of ensuring the practice of the faith among the next generation. Thus religious denominations in Newfoundland encouraged, or sought to provide educational opportunities to their congregations: the Church of England's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel opened schools in Bonavista in the 1720s, and in St. John's in the 1740s in response to the existence of a Roman Catholic school there. As well, benevolent and fraternal societies also began educational institutions with a view towards addressing the needs of the working classes.
Bishop Michael Fleming understood both the parental aspirations for education, and the religious opportunities that it presented. He was determined to provide "cradle-to-grave" cultural institutions for Irish Roman Catholics and in particular, wanted to address the needs and aspirations of working class Catholics. In the 1820s, Fleming had introduced religious instruction at the Benevolent Irish Society's Orphan Asylum in St. John's. But the need for religious education, in his view, extended beyond St. John's, and for this reason, he actively recruited religious orders of women from Ireland to deliver the educational and religious program for the Church.
With the financial support of his congregation, in March 1833 Fleming went to Galway, Ireland, where he sought several sisters of the order of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to come to Newfoundland and open a school for female children. Founded in 1775, the Presentation Sisters were a semi-cloistered religious order founded to educate "young girls, especially the poor, in the precepts and rudiments of the Catholic faith." Four sisters agreed to go to Newfoundland - Sister Magdalene O'Shaughnessey, Sister Xaverius Lynch, Sister Xavier Molony, and Sister Bernard Kirwan - and in exchange Fleming agreed to support the sisters with a lump sum of £1500, a temporary house while a new one was built for their use, and an annual fee of £100.
The sisters arrived in St. John's on 21 September after three weeks at sea and a violent passage across the Atlantic, and moved into their temporary convent at the foot of Pilot's Hill, previously the Rising Sun Tavern, on the site of present-day Nunnery Hill in St. John's. One month after they arrived the sisters began teaching female students, and the Orphan Asylum became a boys' school.The Presentation Sisters taught from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon. Enrolment rose from 450 to 850 girls, and the sisters were joined by Maria Nugent, the sister of reform politician John Nugent. She was an accomplished author and musician and fluent in four languages.The Presentation sisters were the first teachers in Newfoundland to introduce music into the schools on a daily basis.
While the Presentation sisters had a considerable influence on the Irish community in St. John's, Fleming desired to extend Catholic education further. In 1839 he decided to invite a second order of religious Irish women to Newfoundland, the Sisters of Mercy. Founded in 1831 on Baggot Street in Dublin by the heiress Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy differed from the Presentation sisters in that they were not bound by rules which kept them cloistered, and thus they were free to walk the streets, two by two, and care for the poor. They became famous as the "walking nuns". They were very well-educated and Fleming sought them for Newfoundland to teach the daughters of the more well-to-do at a "pension" school, in order to help create a Catholic middle class capable of governing Newfoundland.
In 1839, John Nugent's sister-in-law, Mary Ann Creedon, joined the Baggot Street Convent and prepared to go to Newfoundland. Catherine McAuley had also intended to go to Newfoundland, but died in 1842. Creedon, Sister Rose Lynch, and Sister Ursula Frayne then went to St. John's and opened a school in the town on 1 May 1843. Forty-two students were taught a basic curriculum which included reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, history and "the use of the globes". Parents paid extra for lessons in Italian, French, music, and the piano.
Within a year, Sisters Ursula and Rose had developed differences of opinion with Fleming and were back in Dublin, leaving only Creedon in St. John's. She was joined in 1843 by Maria Nugent, who took the name in religion Sister Joseph, but she died of cholera in 1847. Several months later, John Nugent's daughter, Agnes, presented herself as a novice, and in 1850 Theresa Bernard arrived from Ireland also as a novice.
Together, the work of the Presentation sisters and the Sisters of Mercy became the centrepiece of Catholic education in Newfoundland for the next century and a half, and a cornerstone of the denominational education system. Their skills and talents were recognized by all denominations, and over the next century they and their convents were sought out by parents of all denominations as centres of excellence in the arts, learning, and particularly, music.
In the 1830s, Bishop Fleming had attempted to bring the Irish Christian Brothers, a lay religious order founded in Waterford by the merchant Edmund Rice, to Newfoundland to teach. But no brothers could be found. In 1847 four brothers of the Franciscan order in Ireland were recruited by Fleming to come to Newfoundland, to teach at the Benevolent Irish Society's Orphan Asylum school, and provide an education to male students in academic subjects and the practical skills thought suitable for a fishing colony. The brothers temporarily lived in St. Michael's Monastery, a house on the "Belvedere" estate previously owned by the Emerson family. When winter set in, the brothers moved to an apartment in the Orphan Asylum School, and over the six next months the BIS spent £570 renovating the OAS to accommodate the brothers and a "vast increase of pupils". By February 1848, there were over 630 children and adults enrolled as pupils, including 120 pupils studying grammar and geography, 510 studying reading, writing, arithmetic, as well as 53 adults studying "Algebra, Euclid, Navigation, Mensuration, and surveying". Most significantly, no fees were asked for and the education of all students was free. Unfortunately for St. John's and for the Church, the Franciscan brothers' work in Newfoundland seems to have died with Fleming. The brothers returned to Ireland in 1851, and records are silent on the reasons for their departure. It was not until 1876 that the Irish Christian Brothers were recruited to come to Newfoundland.