The Cathedral of St. John's

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER IX (5) start of chapter

The days of systematic discouragement had passed for ever. 'The English Government,' says Dr. Mullock, 'tacitly recognised the population of Newfoundland as having a right to live in the land they had chosen.' But there was hard work in store for the zealous missionary; and, indeed, it required all the efforts of the ministers of religion, Protestant and Catholic, to extirpate the poison of infidelity which the works of PAINE, then extensively circulated and read, had spread through the colony. The mission was a laborious and a rude one at best; and in the seventieth year of his age Dr. O'Donnell resigned his charge to Dr. Lambert, and sought repose in his native land, where he died four years afterwards, and was buried in the parish chapel of Clonmel. Drs. Scallan and Flemming succeeded Dr. Lambert, and preceded the present Bishop, Dr. Mullock, a man of great energy of character, highly cultivated mind, intense zeal for the promotion of religion and education, and ardently devoted to the material progress of his people. There is now a second Bishop in the island, Dr. Dalton, whose cathedral is at Harbour Grace.

The population, being chiefly engaged in the fisheries, are necessarily scattered along the sea coast. The labours of the missionaries are consequently very arduous, they being often compelled to travel by water in small boats at the most inclement seasons; while in many parts of the island, owing to the imperfect nature of the roads, land travel imposes on priestly zeal penalties no less severe. Still, so great and increasing are the efforts made by the clergy, that there are few of their flock beyond the reach of their ministrations. The devotedness of the pastors is thoroughly responded to by the fidelity of their flocks. It is no exaggeration to say that in no part of the world is there a more complete union of clergy and people than exists between the Catholic people and clergy of Newfoundland. If we consider the vast undertakings which have been brought to a successful termination by a Catholic population not much exceeding 60,000 souls in all, we cannot but be surprised at the wonderful liberality and zeal of the people, and at the influence exercised over them by the Bishop and his clergy. The value of the Church property, including churches, parochial residences, convents, &c., is little short of 200,000l. In St. John's alone the value of their property is estimated at over 150,000l. In this is included the cost of the cathedral, one of the noblest structures to be found at the other side of the Atlantic. To raise this magnificent temple, the generous colonists subscribed the enormous sum of 120,000l. Were Governor Milbank now in the flesh, and were he to stand on the floor of that great cathedral, glance up to its lofty roof, cast his eyes round at the beautiful works of art brought from the most famous studios of Rome, and then remember his famous letter to Dr. O'Donnell—so coolly insolent and so haughtily contemptuous—he might well feel ashamed of himself and the Government whose miserable policy he represented; and also learn how impossible it is to destroy a living faith, or crush a genuine race.

It was only fifty years after that letter was written that the idea of erecting this stupendous cathedral was conceived by the Bishop of that day, the Right Rev. Dr. Flemming. Few save the Bishop himself dared to hope that anyone then living would ever worship within its walls; but, strange to say, from the commencement of the work its progress was never interrupted from want of funds, and in the comparatively short space of ten years it was so far advanced as to admit of the Holy Sacrifice being offered up under its roof. Dr. Flemming lived long enough to see all doubts removed—not from his mind, for he never entertained one on the subject—as to the ultimate accomplishment of his object; and in leaving the completion of the great work to his successor, he knew that in the piety and indomitable zeal of Dr. Mullock there was the best guarantee for its speedy and splendid completion. Dr. Mullock received it a mere shell—a magnificent exterior, it is true, but nothing more; everything within remained to be done. Taking hold of the work, as it were, with a strong hand and a determined will, Bishop Mullock went forward with such vigour that in the year 1855 its completion was inaugurated by a solemn consecration, at which several of the most eminent prelates of the American Church were present. The Bishop not only completed this grand edifice, but, in the true Catholic spirit, he enriched it with the choicest works of art, rightly thinking that the efforts of human genius cannot be more fittingly employed than in doing honour to the Creator of man—the Author of his power, and strength, and genius; and that by the aid of the productions of the painter and the sculptor the mind may be lifted, or assisted to rise, above the worldly cares and vulgar thoughts which are too often brought to the very porch of the temple.

Within the area of the ample space on which the cathedral stands, are erected the Presentation Convent and the schools attached, the Orphanage, the Convent of Mercy, the College of St. Bonaventure, and the Episcopal Palace—all worthy of being associated with the noble structure which is the centre of the whole. These institutions, now entirely free from debt, have been erected during the spiritual rule of Dr. Mullock, who thus completed the great design of which the cathedral was only the practical commencement.

At River Head another imposing church, only second in grandeur to the cathedral of St. John's, is now in progress of erection; and at Harbour Grace, Dr. Dalton is engaged in the serious undertaking of enlarging his cathedral, which has long since been too small for his increasing congregation. In his diocese, and with smaller resources and a more limited field of action, this zealous prelate is rivalling the successful energy of his distinguished brother of St. John's. Besides the two convents in the capital, there are twelve branch houses in other parts of the island, and these are in a great degree devoted to the training of the female children of the Catholic population. The Catholics of St. John's have no educational grievance to complain of. The principle on which the system is based is that of allowing to each religious denomination the education of its own youth—an arrangement which marvellously simplifies matters, and removes every possible excuse for mischievous meddling, or collision of any kind. More than one hundred students are receiving a first-class collegiate education in the College of St. Bonaventure, such as to prepare them to maintain an honourable position in the various walks of life for which they may be destined; and in the same institution the candidates for holy orders are prepared for the priesthood, the design of the Bishop being to recruit the ranks of the clergy from amongst the natives of the colony, Ireland having hitherto supplied all the priests for the mission.

The zeal and fidelity of the Irish Catholics of Newfoundland may be estimated by the great things they have done for their Church, notwithstanding limited resources and original discouragement. Whenever a great work is to be done, every one assists according to his means; and where money cannot be subscribed, the full equivalent is freely given in work and labour. So thoroughly identified are the people with the cause to be promoted that in a whole parish a single defaulter is rarely to be met with! But if the Bishop calls on his flock to assist him in one of those useful undertakings in which he is so constantly engaged, he himself is the first to afford a signal example of liberality, having contributed the munificent sum of 10,000l. out of his own resources towards the works of his promotion.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

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