A Brief History of Newfoundland Catholicism and the Archdiocese of St. John's:
From Lord Baltimore to Vatican II
by Hans Rollmann(1)

The first priests to reside permanently in Newfoundland were secular and Jesuit priests who accompanied Lord Baltimore and served his Avalon settlement at Ferryland from 1627-1629. The presence side by side of an Anglican priest, the Rev. Erasmus Stourton, produced a situation of clerical pluralism unlike that in other European territories of the day. While a sacramental act, the baptism of Anglican children by Roman Catholic priests, became an ecumenical stumbling block, a situation of sustained religious competition and confrontation never developed because of the demise of the settlement for commercial reasons.

A more lasting presence of the Roman Catholic Church was the result of French colonial activities in the region. Unlike official English policy throughout the eighteenth century, which saw in Newfoundland primarily a school for sailors and a fertile fishing ground, the French sought to establish a permanent settlement in Newfoundland with the political and social institutions of the day, including a Roman Catholic parish. Bishop Jean St. Vallier of Québec was personally responsible for the establishment of an ecclesiastical presence in Plaisance (Placentia), which he visited for a whole month in the summer of 1689. The parish, confirmed in a royal decree of King Louis XIV, also granted monetary allowances and tax exemptions to the Recollect Fathers. Originally, the Recollect province of St. Denis in France supplied Plaisance with priests, but an order of the king in 1701 transferred this responsibility to the Recollects from Brittany. The early tensions between church and governor over private morality and the limits of ecclesiastical power in the settlement were in due course replaced with more amiable relations. At its height, Plaisance was served by three priests, had a monastery, a church, and a graveyard, and could be compared ecclesiastically with a parish of similar size in mainland France or New France. The departure of the French inhabitants in 1714 as a consequence of the treaty of Utrecht ended the institutional presence of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland until the arrival of James Louis O'Donel in 1784.

Throughout the eighteenth century Irish immigration increased, despite an ambivalent and at times hostile attitude of the colonial authorities toward settlement. Penal laws as well as gubernatorial fiat prohibited the establishment of an enduring ecclesiastical presence in Newfoundland. The granting of religious liberty to Roman Catholics in the colonies in 1779 in response to a change in the English penal code and the publication of this change through governor John Campbell in 1784 signalled the beginning of an enduring presence of the Roman Catholic Church in the island. Pope Pius VI established Newfoundland in 1784 as a separate ecclesiastical territory under the direct control of Rome. James Louis O'Donel, an experienced Franciscan Recollect father and former provincial for Ireland, became the prefect of the new mission, thus removing the island from the control of the Bishop of London, who traditionally had held spiritual jurisdiction over all British North American colonies. O'Donel was given complete authority over the Roman Catholic clergy in his province as well as full ecclesiastical faculties, including the right to perform the sacrament of confirmation. In response to petitions by clergy and laity and after consultation with the British authorities, who saw O'Donel's presence as a stabilizing force on the island, Rome, in 1796, elevated the Prefecture of Newfoundland to a Vicariate Apostolic. This resembled a situation similar to the one the Roman Catholic hierarchy of England found itself in. On 21 September 1796, James Louis O'Donel was consecrated bishop at Québec City. The new Vicar-Apostolic and titular bishop of Tyatira was also responsible for the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon. During the vicariates of O'Donel and his successors Lambert and Scallan, a cordial relationship existed between Newfoundland and Québec, expressed not only in the mutual recognition of ecclesiastical faculties but also through the education of Roman Catholics from Newfoundland in Québec seminaries and convents. This situation changed, however, with the raising of the political and ecclesiastical stakes during the episcopates of Bishops Fleming and Mullock.

The episcopates of Bishops Fleming and Mullock coincide with a growing political maturity for Newfoundland and the agitation for civil rights on the island and elsewhere, albeit within the context of equally politicized anti-Catholic Protestant forces in society and government. While the first three titular bishops in Newfoundland had pursued a policy of appeasement toward the British colonial authorities and the pacification of their Irish parishioners along with latitudinarian and ecumenical attitudes toward non-Catholics, the Catholic ethos of the subsequent generations was stridently emancipatory along the lines of an Irish nationalism politically but ultramontane and integralist toward "liberals" within the church. Instruments of political and social power in the hands of the Roman Catholic leadership were the Liberal party and the educational institutions. The latter, administered through the congregations of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (since 1833) and Mercy (since 1842), imparted religious and moral values but also solidified the class and gender expectations of the bishop. Episcopal and pastoral responsibility now also included concern for the equitable implementation and administration of poor relief and a generous social policy across the island.

Ecclesiastically, the vicariate of Newfoundland became a diocese in 1847, and the subsequent successful efforts of Bishops Fleming and Mullock to free Newfoundland of any suffragan obligations either to Québec or Halifax only heightened the self-confidence of Newfoundland Catholicism. In 1855, when Newfoundland received "responsible government," the Roman Catholic Church could claim this victory in no small measure as its own, then to be crowned in 1904 with the declaration of Newfoundland as an independent ecclesiastical province, comprised of the Archdiocese of St. John's and the dioceses of Harbour Grace (since 1856; now Grand Falls) and St. George's on the West Coast of the island.

We thus observe a crucial re-definition of the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth century, from a classical church model with its preoccupation to serve the spiritual and moral needs of the immigrant Irish populace through cultic professionals, to a politicized church intent on achieving civil rights, demographic representation, and social equity for its members even at the cost of ethnic and religious polarisation. The political efforts in this process of self-definition resulted in the achievement of "Responsible Government" in 1855. And the ecclesiastical initiatives and defensive actions aimed at convincing Rome of the unique location and strength of the Newfoundland Church secured in 1904 an independent territorial status. The subsequent history of Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland bears the stamp of self-confidence from this dual achievement.

With Bishop Thomas Power in 1870, the unbroken rule of the Franciscan Recollect fathers came to an end in Newfoundland. Power's place in Newfoundland Catholicism reflects the changed situation, and his episcopate can best be characterized as the rule of a benign Ultramontane, seeking to secure and maintain the presence of the Roman Catholic Church by solidifying it internally. Under Archbishop Power, the Congregation of Irish Christian Brothers became involved in teaching (more recently, in community projects). The Congregation later administered also Mount Cashel Orphanage, which in our time has become a symbol of notoriety and shame in connection with the sexual abuse scandals associated with it. The above characterization about Archbishop Power holds true also for his successor Michael Francis Howley, despite his greater public presence and involvement in social issues (the aftermath of the Bank Crash of 1894, the French Shore question, and opposition to the Fisherman's Protective Union). As the first Newfoundland-born bishop, Howley exuded the strength of the island church. He wore his Catholicism as a garment without any perceptible seam: an unfailing obedience to Rome, a great loyalty to Great Britain, and a deep love for Newfoundland.

Archbishop Roche, whose episcopate lasted from 1915 to 1950, represented Newfoundland Catholics as a "Prince of the Church", with independence of temperament and action. His chronic ill health (he suffered from tuberculosis) added to the public perception of being remote and regal. In 1947-48 Roche was cast into the role of defender of Newfoundland's traditional political and ecclesiastical independence. In 1932 Newfoundland had resigned independent "responsible" government as a consequence of a severe economic crisis, and the British Colonial Office established an administrative rule known as "Commission of Government." When after World War Two, and under the agitation of Joey Smallwood, the question of Newfoundland's self-determination and political status was reopened, Archbishop Roche became one of the ardent defenders of Newfoundland's self-rule and the voice of opposition to any effort of joining Newfoundland with Canada. Roche continued the anti-Confederate tradition of the Roman Catholic church championed in the second half of the nineteenth century and used the considerable institutional powers of his church, including the Diocesan paper The Monitor, in the service of his case. In the end a mix of motives, ranging from maintenance of power and opposition to social change to a genuine pastoral concern over a rapid integration of insular Newfoundland into a larger North American culture, can be held responsible for his opposition. But the defence of the Catholic ethos by the archbishop always took place upon the background of the social and ecclesiastical achievements of the nineteenth century.

Roche's opposition to confederation was loyally but less ardently supported by the bishop of Harbour Grace and even opposed by his colleague on Newfoundland West Coast, the Diocese of St. George's, Bishop O'Reilly, whose many French and Scottish parishioners looked westward and could not readily identify with the Irish ethos and political achievement of the Catholics on the Avalon peninsula. Bishop O'Reilly, a native-born Irishman, was motivated exclusively by a concern for the economic well-being of his impoverished parishioners and supported William Keough's, the West Coast representative's, argument for confederation. The election results bore out the West-East split of the Roman Catholic populace. The concern of the Smallwood governments to secure a fair representation of Roman Catholics in ministerial posts after its narrow victory at the referendum reflects not only a concern over healing political wounds and defusing potential future opposition but also an acknowledgement of the abiding and stable presence of the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland society.

Father Patrick J. Skinner, an Eudist Father and former Rector of Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, succeeded Archbishop Roche to the see of St. John's after only a brief period as auxiliary bishop. His Canadian experience, so it was hoped, might redress tensions created by Archbishop Roche's stand on confederation. His spiritual and reflective personality was mitigated socially by an organizational and academic approach to church government, which drew on the administrative and managerial skill of his Vicars-General.

The major event of his 29-year term was the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which called for ecclesiastical change and spiritual renewal at a pace, scope, and level hitherto unprecedented. As an interview with the retired Bishop shows, Archbishop Skinner was opposed to several, notably the liturgical, changes discussed at Vatican II but in the end voted for them out of a strong sense of maintaining unanimity among the episcopal leadership. His subsequent efforts at implementing this change in the life and ministry of the church took on the following forms. He established the Communications Office and Catholic Information Centre, the Family Life Bureau (to complement the health care and community service work already provided by St Clare's Hospital and St Patrick's Mercy Home), the Liturgical Commission, the Senate of Priests (now called the Council of Priests), the Denominational Education Committee (subsequently renamed the Denominational Education Council), the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the Administration Board, Finance Committee (with an Archdiocesan Budget), the Catholic Women's League and others. But the success of these changes, the Winter Commission was told, hardly extended beyond the structural and administrative level. The losses that occurred as a result of the exodus of many talented priests during the 1970s, for example, could only be met partially and inadequately through a reorganization of parishes. While the council fathers as a collegium in Rome had probed the role of the church in modern society, the parish priests, so the Commission was informed, were later left to implement the far-reaching changes at the local level without adequate directions from the Archdiocesan leadership. Not unlike in other Roman Catholic contexts, the liturgical language and theological idiom changed by leaps and bounds, but the new ethos and collective experience grew merely by inches. During the 15 years between the close of the Council and the coming of Archbishop Penney, the communication and translation of the Vatican II vision of the church was realized only selectively.

An assessment of the history of the diocese brings into relief the following points:


1. This overview was written in connection with The Report of the Archdiocesan Commission of Enquiry into the Sexual Abuse of Children by Members of the Clergy (St. John's: Archdiocese of St. John's, 1990) and appeared in a shorter form as "Appendix B." in volume 1, pp. 175-9.

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