"Pregnant with Perils": Canadian Catholicism and Its Relation to the Catholic Churches of Newfoundland, 1840-1949

By McGowan, Mark G. | Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

"Pregnant with Perils": Canadian Catholicism and Its Relation to the Catholic Churches of Newfoundland, 1840-1949


McGowan, Mark G., Newfoundland and Labrador Studies


The history of the Catholic Church in Canada bears a stunning resemblance to the evolution of Canada itself. Upon first glance, one might assume a certain degree of unity, perhaps even uniformity, in Canadian Catholicism before 1965. After all, this Catholicism shared a common institutional structure, a universal acquiescence to a well-entrenched hierarchical form of governance, doctrinal formulations and liturgical language as laid down by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the enthusiastic embrace of ultramontane piety and devotionalism of the nineteenth century, and, finally, a view from Rome that, until 1908, essentially lumped the mission territories of British North America together as the Vatican monitored the activities of Catholics in the New World. As one scrutinizes Canadian Catholic history more closely, however, one is likely to discover that eminent historian J.M.S. Careless's idea of limited identity has as much application to Canadian Catholicism as it does to the nation as a whole. (1) Regionalism, ethnicity, language, immigration, class, gender relations, and politics have all helped to shape distinctive Catholic communities from sea-to-sea. This principle is particularly accurate when one compares the development of the Catholic Church in Newfoundland to its counterparts on the mainland.

Considerable evidence suggests that these branches of the Catholic Church in British North America evolved quite independently and distinctly from one another in the 400 years that elapsed from first European settlement to Confederation between Canada and Newfoundland in 1949. Great distances --confounded by rudimentary means of transportation, language differences, dissimilar political structures, competing colonial empires, and varied levels of dependence on specific economic staples--help account for how communities and their churches evolved differently on the opposite shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Even when united under a common English Crown in 1763, Catholics in the Diocese of Quebec, its suffragans, the Maritime dioceses, and the western frontier demonstrated little more than cordial interest in the emergent Catholic communities located in "the land of fish." Recently, the work of Dr. John FitzGerald has argued persuasively that the predominantly Irish Catholic institutions of eastern Newfoundland, in what would become the Archdiocese of St. John's and the Diocese of Harbour Grace-Grand Falls, looked to the east, forging both ecclesial, trade, and civil relationships with Ireland, Great Britain, and Continental Europe. From the 1840s, Newfoundland's Catholics had little interest in Canada, nor did they desire any Canadian ecclesiastical sovereignty over their distinctive Irish Catholic communities, served by Irish priests and Irish women religious, whether the Sisters of Mercy or Irish Presentation Sisters. (2) Even ties of kinship and Irish culture with other regions of Canada failed to strengthen relations between the two churches, particularly in the nineteenth century, giving credence to Cecil Houston and William Smyth's contention that there was no typical Irish community in Canada, but regional Irish communities that evolved according to the rhythms of the place and timing of settlement. (3)

The contention that the Catholic churches in Newfoundland and Canada lived at arm's length, insulated from one another, holds true particularly in the history of the island's east coast dioceses and for the nineteenth century. Here the notion of "A great Gulf makes good neighbours" is a reasonable hypothesis. Nevertheless, such a contention only explains part of the history of ecclesiastical relations between Canada and Newfoundland to 1949. This paper argues that by the late nineteenth century, Newfoundland-Canadian relations within the Church could be characterized as bifocal. On the one hand, the two easternmost dioceses of Newfoundland (Harbour Grace and St. John's) lived in relative isolation from the development of the Canadian churches; they inhabited an "Irish world" with a focus on the North Atlantic triangle that was central to the development of eastern Newfoundland as Britain's fishery and nursery of sailors. …

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