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Born, Carrick on Suir, County Tipperary, Ireland, 1792. Died St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada, 14 July 1850.

Author: Eamonn McKee

The monumental Basilica of St John’s, the Taj Mahal of the Irish in Canada, is the legacy of Bishop Michael Fleming.  Son of a tenant farmer in Kilkenny, Fleming was educated and ordained in Wexford at a time of growing Catholic mobilization. Fleming modelled his episcopal leadership in Newfoundland on Daniel O’Connell's campaign for Catholic emancipation and the Catholic Church’s Ultramontanism. He transformed the Irish Catholic community, colonial politics, and Newfoundland itself in a lasting way.

From the 1680s Irish fisherman had joined in the annual migratory cod fishery to Newfoundland, the only place outside of Ireland bearing an Irish name, Talamh an Éisce, land of the fish.   The resident Irish Catholic population grew in parallel with its English Protestant counterpart. With Newfoundland under the Penal Laws, each occupied different ends of the socio-economic scale.

Arriving in 1823, Fleming found Newfoundland grimly familiar: a comfortable mercantile Anglican elite led by the Crown-appointed Governor that discriminated, disenfranchised, and marginalized the Catholic Irish from all offices of influence. Lives were brutishly hard fishing, seal hunting, or scrimping a living from smallholdings Catholics were debarred from owning. When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Petty Harbour in the winter of 1835-36, Fleming lived with the poor, tended to their sick, and built a church. That was what he had done everywhere he travelled, leaving a trail of churches and newfound pride in his wake.

Fleming treated Newfoundland as if it were Ireland and determined to reverse Catholic humiliation and poverty.  On trips home, he recruited 36 priests, forged like him in O’Connell’s Ireland of politically mobilized Catholics. Fleming opened a school for young girls in 1833 run by Presentations Sister from Galway. The Sisters of Mercy from Dublin established a girls’ school for the small Irish middle-class, while Franciscans were brought to teach boys.  For Fleming, the students were future leaders.

Pastoral work paralleled fearless engagement in politics.  O'Connellite mobilization, fundraising, boycotts, and even excommunications were deployed. Support was offered to Liberal candidates who endorsed Fleming's agenda.  Governor Thomas Cochrane and a handful of ‘respectable’ Irish Catholics (dubbed "Mad Dogs") resisted, prompting sectarian tensions and, on occasion, riots. By 1832 Fleming and his reformers had won Catholic Emancipation. Formidable Catholic voter support for the Liberal Party, and state funding for Catholic schools soon followed.

Crown vexations over this ‘troublesome priest’ led to protests to Rome. In response, Fleming cultivated the cardinals. Through St. Isidore's Irish Franciscan College in Rome, he sent them smoked Newfoundland salmon. He visited the Holy See and in 1837 submitted his report, Relazione, an impressive account of his travels and pastoral work along with counter-allegations of persecution by the colonial authorities. By 1840, fresh complaints from Newfoundland's new governor, Henry Prescott, prompted Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell to ask Rome to remove Fleming.  Rome summoned Fleming.  The bishop ignored it. When British mandarins let Fleming see the secret inflammatory correspondence of Prescott, it was Prescott who packed his bags.

A factor in Fleming’s strong position was his ambitious cathedral. In Relazione, Fleming cleverly alluded to obstacles put in his way to securing land for this project, five years of “vexation and annoyance”. By 1838 Fleming had secured the Barrens, formerly site of the garrison overlooking St Johns, informally a location of Irish faction-fights and hurling matches. He put his formidable organizational and fundraising skills into top gear.  Small donations from low-income Catholics and some sizeable ones from the wealthy, including Protestants, flowed.  The larger Newfoundland community marshalled as a workforce, cutting timber and fencing land. In two days during May 1839, thousands of men, women, and children excavated over 4,250 tonnes of soil, women hauling it away in their aprons. 

Construction of the cathedral took fourteen years and 35,000 tons of granite.  In wintertime, up to his waist in water on the beach at Kelly's Island in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, Fleming loaded cut stone into small boats for transport to the building site. Limestone from Galway was used on exterior walls, and granite from Dublin was used for the quoins, mouldings and window frames. Five

 times he scoured Europe for materials.  By 1847 he was too ill to travel. Financial setbacks and a great fire in St John’s the previous year did not deter him, even as the fire consumed his papers.  Frail and failing with tuberculosis, Fleming whispered the first mass within the cathedral in January 1850, its chill cavernous shell a glimpse of future grandeur beyond the dust, scaffolding and exposed rafters. He knelt in prayer, occasionally helped, but finished the Mass.  That was his last public rite. He was sequestered until July when he died and was interred in his cathedral’s vault.

The cathedral, finished by Fleming’s successor Bishop John Mullock of Limerick, was a triumph of Ultramontanism and neoclassicism, embellished with statues by the best Irish artists. Fleming's cathedral was the largest architectural and cultural achievement of Ireland's pre-Famine diaspora, a statement of faith in the future. At its consecration in 1855, Archbishop John Hughes of New York left determined that his city should have a cathedral to match the achievement of Newfoundland’s poor fishermen.

Fleming’s achievements were extraordinary.  Fired by injustice and inspired by his hero O’Connell, he used his determination, guile and talents to advance the status of Newfoundland’s Catholic Irish.  In the Franciscan tradition, he eschewed the fine living and clothes customary of many bishops.  Fleming devoted his life to the young and the poor through the provision of opportunity and pride. His cathedral (named Minor Basilica in 1955) was designed to instil that pride, its grandeur hardly out of place had it been built in Rome itself.  Just as enduring was Fleming's political legacy which forged the politics of his Irish community and of the island, orienting Newfoundland away from Canada and towards Ireland and Europe. If Fleming had had his way, Newfoundland might well have become Ireland’s fifth province. Newfoundland only officially joined Canada in 1949.


Further reading:

Susan Chalker Browne, The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, (St John’s, 2015).

J.B. Darcy, Fire Upon the Earth - The Life and Times of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming  (St. John's, 2003).

"Michael Anthony Fleming", Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. VIII, at www.biographi.ca

J.E. FitzGerald, "Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850,  CCHA Historical Studies 64 (1998): 27-45.

J.E. FitzGerald, "Conflict and Culture in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850" Ph.D. thesis, Univ. Ottawa, 1997.

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