Catholicity in St. John

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER IV (10) start of chapter

We now turn to St. John, the centre of a great and growing diocese. There are men still living—I have spoken with some of them—who remember the time when they could name every Catholic then in that city. One of these, a Catholic magistrate, informed me that when he arrived from Ireland, in the year 1818, there was but 'a mere handful' of the faithful in the town; and he well remembered how 'one Andy Sullivan, a tailor from Bandon,' had to read prayers for them in the church of St. Malachy—a little timber structure, which the poor congregation were years trying to cover in from the rain and the wind, and had no means of warming for fourteen bitter winters, until their numbers and their resources were increased. There was another reader besides the worthy tailor from Bandon—'one Flanagan, a college-bred man;' and the visits of a priest being then of only occasional occurrence, the congregation were glad of the services of one who could read with befitting impressiveness the Epistle and Gospel of the day, such prayers as were suitable to the occasion, with perhaps a chapter from the work of some pious divine, or a sermon from one of the lights of the Church. From a dozen, or at most twenty Catholic families, the number gradually increased, though to a still scanty congregation and feeble community; but from the year 1820 the tide of emigration commenced to flow in, slowly at first, eventually with greater strength and a fuller current, until, in a few years after, Catholics began to feel themselves to be an important portion of the population.

Slowly, laboriously, and amidst much difficulty and marked discouragement, the Irish Catholics grew year by year into a position both prominent and influential. The early Catholic settlers carried with them the impress of their civil and religious degradation; and even for a considerable time after the passing of the Emancipation Act the newcomers were regarded with aversion and mistrust by the old colonists, who likewise, and not unnaturally, looked upon them as interlopers and intruders. But, manfully and steadily, the Irish Catholics won their way, though not without many a hard fight and many a keenly-felt mortification, to political influence and social consideration. Now they kneel beneath the lofty roof of their magnificent cathedral, 200 feet in length, of solid stone, and built at a cost of 30,000l.; and among them, white-haired and venerable, a few of those who, in the wind-scourged shanty of 'the church of St. Malachy'—for which a stove could not be procured for fourteen long North American winters —listened with devout attention to the voice of Andy Sullivan, the tailor from Bandon, and to the more skilful elocution of 'one Flanagan, the college-bred man.' Forty years since, an ordinary room would have afforded sufficient accommodation to the Catholic worshippers of that day: now congregations of 2,000 or 3,000 pour out on Sundays and holidays through the sculptured portals of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. On All Saints' Day I beheld such a congregation issuing from an early Mass, filling the street in front of the splendid building; and from the appearance of the thousands of well-dressed, respectable-looking people, who passed before me, I could appreciate not only the material progress of the Irish in St. John, but the marvellous development of the Catholic Church in that city.

On a plot of land, four acres in extent, and right in the heart of the town, are clustered the Cathedral, the Palace of the Bishop—of cut stone, and one of the finest structures of the kind in the British Provinces, indeed in America—the Convent of Charity, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an Asylum for Orphans, and a Classical and Commercial Academy under the patronage of the Bishop. There are other churches, convents, and schools in the city, including the admirable schools of the Christian Brothers.

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:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

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