BURKE (Bourk, Bourke, DeBurgo), EDMUND, Roman Catholic priest, Dominican, and vicar general; b. in Ireland, apparently in County Tipperary; fl. 1785–1801.
Edmund Burke arrived in Newfoundland on 15 June 1785 as a young priest recommended to the Newfoundland mission’s first superior, James Louis O’Donel, by the bishop of Waterford. O’Donel himself had come to St John’s just a year earlier, as had the island’s only other authorized priest, Patrick Phelan at Harbour Grace. Burke became parish priest of Placentia, a district with a substantial Roman Catholic majority.
The circumstances of Burke’s appointment disclosed O’Donel’s difficulties in asserting authority over the vagrant clerics in his jurisdiction. Also at Placentia in 1785 was Father Patrick Lonergan (Landergan), another Dominican, who had come to Newfoundland from France that same year. Lonergan, a man “of very violent and turbulent spirit,” not only exercised his spiritual functions in competition with Burke, but also endangered the church’s standing by assaulting a Protestant and by “tumultuously” assembling a party of Catholics. O’Donel excommunicated Lonergan, and complaints about him went from Placentia to Governor John Campbell, who ordered his removal from Newfoundland the same year. Although Lonergan remained, he died wretchedly on Fogo Island shortly thereafter.
Burke, however, had considerable initial success at Placentia. With the cooperation of Saunders and Company, which collected money from its Roman Catholic servants, he obtained both a house and land for a chapel in 1785 and, with the governor’s permission, construction of the chapel began almost immediately. In the mean time, Burke was allowed to hold services in the court-house. Even in his first year he made a number of converts from the Church of England.
Burke’s status brought him to the attention of the new surrogate, Prince William Henry, who arrived in Placentia in 1786 as captain of the Pegasus. The prince soon noted that “more Respect and Regard tis shewn him . . . , than either the Surrogate himself or any of the Justices of the Peace.” Confronted by this indication of priestly power, William Henry took immediate steps to counteract it. He decreed that Roman Catholics were to be especially attentive to the magistrates and that no Protestants were to be married or have their children christened by the priest. He forbad use of the court-house for Catholic services and, indeed, called into question Burke’s authorization to build a chapel. Apparently at O’Donel’s request, Governor John Elliot intervened to ask that William Henry be more moderate in his dealings with Catholics, but this resulted only in the prince’s wrath being redirected towards Burke’s superior. Arriving in St John’s, he threatened to burn the chapel there and went so far as to throw an iron file at O’Donel, slightly wounding him. With the prince’s departure the affair subsided, but it showed how tenuous was the footing of the Catholic clergy – in Newfoundland.
Nevertheless, Burke’s mission flourished. By 1788 he had three chapels in his district, including a “very neat” one at Placentia itself. His parishioners numbered more than 3,000 and Burke, who was engaged in the fishing business, had an estimated annual income of £300. That same year Placentia’s newly arrived Anglican clergyman, John Harries, noted with alarm that so strong was Roman Catholicism that it was effectively “the establish’d religion, and our own Church within the limits of Toleration.” Conversions from the Church of England continued; in 1791 Burke was reported to have made many converts as far away as Fortune Bay.
Late in 1791 Burke became ill, and he was obliged to spend several months in England before he recovered. From 1795 he appears to have had an interest in an appointment in the United States; he even visited there in that connection. Finally he left Placentia for Boston, probably in 1798, but then declined a good appointment. The next year he went instead to Halifax, N.S., which he had visited several times before. So extensive was the migration of Newfoundland Irish from Placentia to Halifax in this period that they now constituted the majority of Halifax Catholics. James Jones, the superior of missions in the Maritime colonies, asked Burke to replace him, convinced that the Dominican was the fittest person to manage his unruly congregation. Burke assumed this responsibility upon Jones’s departure in August 1800. Although it was not then clear that Jones would not return, Bishop Pierre Denaut officially appointed Burke parish priest of Halifax and vicar general of Nova Scotia on 25 September.
Immediately after Jones’s leaving, Burke faced a major crisis. The committee of seven elders elected to administer parish temporalities became dominated by John Stealing, who thought the parish had been “priest-ridden” under Jones. Burke had given the committee a free hand with finances, but Stealing went farther in asserting his authority. He had the committee accept his own set of rules for parish government, which included the removal of the priest at pleasure and the denial of Christian burial to non-contributors. The latter regulation provoked a confrontation with the congregation, who believed the committee to have exceeded its authority and who in May 1801 protested to Bishop Denaut. Denaut’s coadjutor, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, felt that Burke had blundered in his dealings with the committee, although Burke claimed that he had first seen the new rules only several months after their adoption and that in the mean time he had had to contend with a serious smallpox epidemic and with an attack of rheumatism which had left him bedridden for some months. The dispute was settled only by a pastoral letter of Denaut in September, which censured several of the committee’s rules. By May 1801, when Jones’s intention not to return to Nova Scotia had become apparent, Burke felt himself relieved of any commitment to Halifax. He asked Plessis to replace him so that he could return to Europe and left Halifax that autumn, apparently for England. Nothing is known of his subsequent career. He was succeeded at Halifax by a secular priest, also named Edmund Burke.
Burke could be innovative. At Halifax he read the Epistle, Gospel, and Collect of the day in English before the sermon, so as better to instruct the people; he used English hymns and anthems before and after mass. He introduced a catechetical program for children, as he had probably done also in Newfoundland. His achievements at Placentia were impressive; so was his increase of parish income at Halifax by £150. Despite a drinking problem, which he apparently overcame, Burke was well regarded. The events of his career reflect the difficulties of others of the first generation of English-speaking Catholic priests in Canada.
AAQ, 12 A, G: f.2; 210 A, III; 30 CN, I. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Halifax, Edmund Burke papers (mfm. at PANS). Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritturi riferite nei Congressi, America Antille, 2 (1761–89); 3 (1790–1819). Nfld. Public Library Services, Provincial Reference Dept. (St John’s), Nfld., Court of Sessions and Surrogate Court, “Records of Placentia,” 2 (8 Aug. 1786–29 Dec. 1803); 3 (5 July 1805–5 July 1806). PANL, GN 2/1, 10. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., 1. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). Johnston, Hist. of Catholic Church in eastern N.S.