Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850

By Fitzgerald, John Edward | Historical Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850


Fitzgerald, John Edward, Historical Studies


1 This essay is based on the author's "Conflict and Culture in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Ottawa, 1997. Research for this study was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Institute for Social and Economic Research of Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Ottawa, and the Government of Newfoundland.

In Newfoundland and Canadian Catholic historiography, it is well known that the episcopacy of Michael Anthony Fleming, the Franciscan Roman Catholic vicar apostolic and bishop of Newfoundland (1829-50) coincided with the tremendous growth of institutional Roman Catholicism in the island colony of Newfoundland. It is much less known that this expansion and cultural formation took place in the midst of a bitter intraethnic conflict which divided Fleming's St. John's congregation along Irish provincial Leinster-Munster lines, and that this dispute was exploited by the government of Britain in an attempt to control the Irish, and Roman Catholicism, in nineteenth-century Newfoundland. In good measure it was a dispute caused by Fleming's implementation of ultramontanism, the tendency to look towards Rome for centralized control and standardization of practices in the Roman Catholic Church. This conflict and its importance have been obscured by the new culture which had emerged by 1850, and by the historical attention lavished on sectarianism in Newfoundland politics.

The conventional wisdom about Fleming and the Newfoundland Irish was established in 1966 by Gertrude Gunn. (1) Her study, completed during a renaissance in Newfoundland historical scholarship, was based on and informed by perspectives found in Newfoundland governors' papers, and based on reports on Newfoundland sent to the British government's Colonial Office. Gunn's Irish were portrayed as Roman Catholic rabble rousers engaged in sectarian "war to the knife" with Protestant merchants, British governors, and the British government. A monolithic church, armed with an array of spiritual weapons which included excommunication and burial extra ecclesia, kept the Irish in a constant state of terrified subjugation. Unfortunately, this monochromatic and reductionist depiction promoted a political myth of Irish sectarianism. It excused the hegemony of British colonialism and obscured the ethno-religious texture of the Irish Catholic community.

More recently, Gunn's interpretation of the age has been superceded by R.J. Lahey, Philip McCann, and Terrence Murphy. Lahey has pointed out that while there was considerable in-fighting between Fleming and factions within his congregation, and while the British government went to great lengths to get rid of Fleming, his was the age of great social, cultural, and political gains for the Irish in Newfoundland under the aegis of church hierarchy in concert with a network of political allies and supportive congregations. (2) McCann and Murphy explored aspects of ethnicity, trusteeism, and class in Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, (3) but there has not been an exploration of the roots of the turmoil which gripped the St. John's Irish community, namely, Fleming's implementation of the principles of ultramontanism, and Wexford and British government discontent with his agenda.

Michael Anthony Fleming was born in 1792 near Piltown, Co. Kilkenny. As a boy he sold buttermilk "near old Russell's Crane" in Carrick, a busy entrepot of the Irish wool industry before the Union decimated the trade. As a youth Fleming studied classics with a Protestant clergyman at Stradbally, Co. Waterford, and with the permission of the Catholic bishops of Waterford and Kilkenny, he attended the Protestant grammar school at Clonmel. His uncle, the Franciscan priest Martin Fleming, persuaded him to join the Franciscans. He studied under Thomas Scallan, Henry Hughes, and Richard Hayes (4) at the Franciscan seminary at Wexford.

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