Religion and Politics, 1829-1890
Though many of the Roman Catholic clergy were generally quiescent before
the arrival of Fleming, in the 1820s, increasing numbers of lay Irish
developed political ambitions. They perceived that without representative
government, merchants still dictated what happened in the colony, that
substantial numbers of Newfoundland residents were denied religious
liberties, and that Newfoundland was not receiving fair treatment by the
British Government. Prominent members of the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS),
such as Patrick Morris,
Patrick Doyle, and Laurence O'Brien became involved in the reform movement
for local government, which began in St. John's and attracted a following
on the Avalon peninsula. Encouraged by the passage of the Judicature Act
in 1824 which abolished the naval surrogate courts, and spurred on by the
grant of a permanent civil governor and council by which local needs might
be addressed, reformers gathered support.
|Patrick Morris (1789-1849), n.d.
Morris was a prominent member of the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) and
became involved in the reform movement for local government.
Artist unknown. From Benevolent Irish Society (St. John's, NF), Centenary volume,
Benevolent Irish Society of St. John's, Newfoundland, 1806-1906 (Cork, Ireland:
Guy & Co., 1906) 54.
In the 1820s, not all of the Newfoundland Catholic clergy were as
deferential to British rule as Scallan, and this reflected their awareness
of, and sympathy with movements back home in Ireland. In addition to
supporting the reform movement, the Irish-born Franciscan priest Michael
Anthony Fleming (1792-1850) organized the Irish in the St. John's
congregation to support Daniel O'Connell's Catholic emancipation movement.
This Irish movement sought full civil rights for Catholics and the repeal
of discriminating measures. Fleming was much less of a latitudinarian than
his superior, Thomas Scallan, and believed that the Church should be less
deferential, less influenced by the British, and less susceptible to the
influence and control of Church properties by boards of lay trustees. It
should be more closely associated with the image of Catholicism projected
by Rome, known as ultramontanism (literally, 'over-the-mountain-ism'), an
intellectual and ideological movement within the Church which looked over
the European Alps to the Church in Rome for guidance and direction.
When Scallan became sick and died in May 1829, Fleming succeeded him as
vicar apostolic and assumed leadership of the Roman Catholic Church until
his own death in 1850. During that 20 years he implemented sweeping reforms
which transformed Newfoundland Catholicism from an inchoate,
poorly-organized denomination into a powerful, disciplined institution, and
which encouraged Irish immigrants to begin thinking of themselves as
Newfoundlanders. He disbanded the group of lay trustees which dominated the
affairs of the Chapel Committee and the BIS's Orphan Asylum School.
Schools, convents, chapels, and cemeteries were opened, Irish religious
orders were invited to teach, and Fleming dedicated a large portion of his
career to constructing the largest Irish cathedral ever constructed, to
that date, outside of Ireland. For undertaking these things he received
much public admiration, extending beyond the confines of his congregation,
and garnered the support of the rising generation of Newfoundland political
reformers. This placed him front and centre in the political life of
Despite this, the Reformers and Fleming had enemies in the local press, at
Government House and in the British Colonial Office. Not only were they
opposed by the Tories of Government House, the Council, and some merchants,
but also by an Irish faction composed of alienated Catholics and Wexford
expatriates, some of whom had been members of the disbanded Chapel
Committee and the Orphan Asylum Committee.
||The Bow Wow Parliament, 1832.
This drawing by John Doyle (or H.B., his pen name) caricatured the
Newfoundland House of Assembly as a pack of unruly dogs.
Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives,
Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
with more information (53 kb).
Newfoundland politics reached a breaking point by 1840, after a
particularly violent by-election in Conception Bay was reported to London.
Britain decided that a Parliamentary Committee would investigate
Newfoundland affairs and make recommendations, and by 1843 this process
culminated in the amalgamation of the House of Assembly with the
Legislative Council. London also placed extraordinary pressure on Rome to
do something about Fleming, and in November 1840 Pope Gregory XVI ordered
Fleming to banish the priest Edward Troy from Newfoundland - Fleming sent
him to Merasheen Island in Placentia Bay - and the Pope summoned Fleming to
Rome to explain himself. While Fleming kept sending defences of himself, he
claimed never to have received the summons and did not go to Rome, and Rome
did nothing about it. Thereafter Fleming contented himself with building
his cathedral, a project which came to possess his every attention until
his death in July 1850.
©2001, John Edward FitzGerald