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Born, Cork City, Ireland, 1815. Died Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1876.

Author: Mark McGowan

Thomas Connolly was a pioneer cleric who possessed a life-long affinity to the poor and marginalized. Left fatherless at the age of three, he assisted his widowed mother in the family retail business before coming under the wing of Father Theobald Mathew, Ireland’s famous temperance crusader. Connolly joined the Capuchin friary in Cork, under the mentorship of Mathew, and subsequently continued his education in Rome, and was ordained at Lyon in 1838. His linguistic talents included fluency in English, Italian, Latin, and Irish. He never lost a sense of his Irish roots, even though he spent much of his life away from Ireland. He was an accomplished fiddle player and was noted for his musical entertainment at social gatherings throughout his life. William Walsh of the Irish College in Rome became a second mentor to him, and in 1842, Connolly accompanied Walsh to Halifax, where the latter was to become bishop. Having served as Walsh’s Vicar General, Connolly would eventually become recognized as an outstanding administrator with a special vocation to serve the poor of Halifax. When the See of Fredericton, New Brunswick, became vacant, Walsh nominated Connolly as “outstanding in character, genuine, intelligent, sufficiently learned in Theology, expert in manner and generous to the poor.”

In 1852, Connolly was appointed to Fredericton, but he spent much of his time in the Province’s largest and most important port, Saint John. There he recruited two religious orders, the Sacred Heart Sisters from Halifax and the Sisters of Charity of New York, to build a social and educational infrastructure so lacking for the Irish Catholic population of the town. When the New York sisters refused to send their own members to Saint John, Connolly arranged that local women be sent to New York for training and then return to serve his diocese. In 1854, a cholera epidemic killed 1,000 people in Saint John and left Connolly in charge of 70 orphans. Avoiding the fate of the Catholic Famine orphans of 1847, and their placement in Protestant homes by civic officials, Connolly founded the first Catholic orphanage in the city. He also introduced the first pension plan for the struggling priests of his diocese and ordered the construction of a cathedral, with the intention of moving the centre of ecclesiastical power from Fredericton to Saint John. His pioneering efforts attracted the attention of Pope Pius IX, whom he visited in 1857, and Pius appointed him Archbishop of Halifax, upon the death of Walsh in 1858.

Connolly’s elevation to Halifax, in 1859, allowed him to become the most influential Catholic prelate in the three Maritime provinces. Locally he expanded the network of Catholic schools and, with the passage of the Education Act in 1865, he skillfully arranged a “gentleman’s agreement” with Conservative Premier Charles Tupper, that Catholic schools in Halifax could seek financial assistance from the Board of Public Instruction. He invited the DeLaSalle Christian Brothers from Montreal to join the Sacred Heart Sisters, and Sister of Charity, to teach in the Halifax Catholic schools. He restructured the diocesan offices, founded new parishes, and expanded St. Mary’s Cathedral. He even visited Bermuda, which was part of his diocese.

Connolly was a consummate politician and was later given the title “Godfather” of Canadian Confederation. As politicians from Canada and the Atlantic colonies of British North American engaged in discussions over a formal union between the provinces, in 1864, Connolly became the most outspoken Catholic prelate in favour of the proposed Confederation. Allied with Charles Tupper, Connolly public spoke about how the Confederation of provinces would bring commercial benefits and a collective colonial defense against the USA. When Irish republicans under the banner of the Fenian brotherhood made plans to invade the British North American Provinces to “free Ireland,” Connolly boldly denounced them as “wretched, deluded, and Godless.” In 1866, as delegates from the provinces attended the London Conference, to prepare the bill that would become the British North America Act, Connolly himself attended the London meetings and worked behind the scenes to secure rights for Catholic schools. His wining and dining (he did not emulate his mentor, Father Mathew!) and frequent conversations with British officials helped to secure section 93 of the bill, which constitutionally protected separate denominational schools as they existed in law. While Connolly secured a major victory for Catholic schools, section 93 would not apply to Nova Scotia because Catholic school rights were attained by a gentleman’s agreement, not by an act of the legislative assembly. Despite their friendship, he could not secure such protection from Tupper. Before leaving London, Connolly was also able to undercut anti-Confederates led by Joseph Howe, whom the Archbishop denounced to Lord Carnarvon in a twenty-three page letter. On Confederation, Connolly wrote: “let that great measure be carried by all means and it will help to establish a mighty and kindred Nation, where friends are most needed, it will materially strengthen, if not save the Empire when the time comes. It will be an additional fulcrum to that balance of power which is indispensable to the safety of Nations, the peace of the World, and the liberties of Mankind.”

Connolly’s eloquence was also witnessed at the Vatican Council in 1869-70. He was openly critical of the document on materialism and rationalism, and it was subsequently overhauled. He thrice opposed the declaration of papal infallibility as inopportune and lacking “all rational foundation.” He was one of 88 bishops who voted against the declaration, but left the Council before the final vote, so as not to embarrass his friend Pope Pius IX. Upon arrival in Halifax, he declared to a colleague that he was “done with Councils” and “useless travels.” Connolly was proud of his Irish heritage, but fully embraced Canada and its potential it for his fellow Irishmen. With his ally Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Connolly was an Irish midwife to the birth of Canada. He died suddenly in Halifax in 1876.


Further Reading

David B. Flemming, “Archbishop Thomas L. Connolly, Godfather of Confederation,” in Canadian Catholic Historical Association, Study Sessions 37 (1970): 67-84.

J. Brian Hannington, Every Popish Person: The Story of Roman Catholicism in Nova Scotia and the Church in Halifax, 1604-1984. Halifax: Archdiocese of Halifax, 1984.

K. Faye Trombley, scic. Thomas Louis Connolly [1815-1876]: The Man and His Place in Secular and Ecclesiastical History. Leuven: Published Doctoral Dissertation, KUL, 1983.

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