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Vol 38  No 2
September 1, 2005



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Public symposium coincides with Basilica anniversary

Memorial researchers examine Irish-catholic roots

By Jeff Green

Memorial University history and education professor Dr. John Fitzgerald is the chair of an Irish-catholic symposium taking place this month in St. John’s. (Photo by Chris Hammond)

A contingent of experts from various departments at Memorial University will help shed some light on an already fascinating chapter of this province’s history this month. They’re taking part in a free public symposium celebrating Irish Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland and Labrador. The event has been tailor-made to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the consecration of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

“Several years ago a number of people came to me and said this would be a good time to feature some of the research which is taking place in the scholarly community on Irishness in Newfoundland and Eastern Canada and on Roman Catholicism, particularly in the 19th century,” said Dr. John Fitzgerald, with the Department of History and Faculty of Education at Memorial and the symposium chair. “So I made some enquiries and found that there were all sorts of people interested in giving papers.”

That’s when he and an organizing committee hatched the theme for the conference, set for Sept. 8-10. A Place to Worship for His People’s Creed: A public symposium on the history of Irish Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland includes lectures by nationally-known scholars, local researchers, private scholar and experts from MUN.

“Memorial University’s scholars are the backbone of this conference and will be providing the principal content,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “We’re relying heavily on people with well-known expertise.”

Those experts include Dr. John Mannion of the Department of Geography, who is renowned for his research on Irish migration to Newfoundland and settlement patterns; Shane O’Dea, Department of English and this province’s leading authority on the architecture of St. John’s, will lead a guided seminar on the architectural history of what has come to be known as the Ecclesiastical Precinct. Bert Riggs of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives will speak about his research on a Thomas Nangle, a Catholic priest who was responsible for assembling and completing the Beaumont Hamel Memorial Park in France in the 1920s.

Dr. Hans Rollmann, Department of Religious Studies, will also be taking part in the symposium and will talk about the “mystery architect behind the building of the Basilica.”

“There has been much guessing as to who he might be. Previous scholarship had only a name and place, a Mr. Schmidt from Altona, but that was about it,” said Dr. Rollmann. “With the help of an internal SSHRC grant, I have done archival and library work in Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Munich. In my paper I will try to give this mystery man a face, who he was, what he did before Bishop [Michael] Fleming approached him in the summer of 1838 in Altona near Hamburg, Germany, and why he was consulted.”

Mr. Riggs said the symposium is not only an opportunity to network with other historians and scholars but a chance to share ideas. “I am in the research phase for a biography I plan to write on Nangle and any exposure I can get for him in the meantime is a good thing,” he said. “This symposium … is important because it provides an opportunity and a venue for the presentation and discussion of a particular aspect of our history that was crucial to our development as a place and as a people.”

Several Memorial alumni ­ including Mekaela Mahoney (BA ’03), Barbara Crosbie (BA ’85) and Jeff Pollock (B.Sc. (Hons.) ’99, M.Sc. ’04) ­ will also present topics. As well, Lt.-Gov. Edward Roberts, a former chair of the Board of Regents who received an honorary degree from Memorial in 2003, is scheduled to speak at the symposium. “[He] is actually completing an MA in Newfoundland history…and is well known as an authority on the history of Newfoundland and Labrador,” said Dr. Fitzgerald. “He will be giving a paper on the connections between politics, church and state throughout Newfoundland and Labrador’s history.”

Dr. Fitzgerald said this is the first time this sort of symposium has ever been organized in this province. He said one of the highlights of the event will be a special ceremony honouring Bishop Fleming, who was responsible for the construction of the Basilica-Cathedral. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada will officially designate him a person of National Historic Significance at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9.

The symposium ­ which takes place at the Lantern on Barnes Road and the Basilica ­ is free and open to the general public and will be a great event for history buffs, said Dr. Fitzgerald.

“The people who come to this public symposium will receive a rich diet of all sorts of this province’s Irish, cultural, and religious history,” he said. “Many of the presentations will be illustrated, and already there is substantial interest.”

To find out more about the symposium and to view a full schedule, log onto


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