FLEMING, MICHAEL ANTHONY, Franciscan, priest, and bishop; b. c. 1792 in Carrick on Suir, County Tipperary (Republic of Ireland); d. 14 July 1850 in St John’s.
As a youth, Michael Anthony Fleming was considered to possess “an agreeable person, engaging manners, an aptitude for learning, and a mild disposition,” traits not always ascribed to him in his more mature years. He was encouraged by his uncle Martin Fleming, a Franciscan priest, to enter religious life, and in 1808 was accepted by Thomas Scallan* as a Franciscan novice in the Wexford convent. Fleming received minor orders, subdiaconate, and diaconate in September 1814 and was ordained a priest on 15 Oct. 1815, apparently some months before the canonical age of 24.
Following his ordination, Fleming was assigned to the friary at Carrick on Suir, where his uncle was superior. He was associated with the removal of the dilapidated chapel there and its replacement by a fine new church, which was still unfinished when he left for Newfoundland. There were to be insinuations later that Fleming had misused funds collected for the building and that the ensuing scandal forced him to leave Ireland. The truth of such accusations is difficult to determine.
At the invitation of Scallan, now vicar apostolic of Newfoundland, Fleming went to the island in the autumn of 1823. It seems that he first had only temporary leave, to collect funds for the Carrick chapel. Through Scallan’s entreaties alone did the Franciscan authorities agree to his remaining longer. For six years he served as curate to Scallan in St John’s. An able and energetic assistant, he took considerable responsibility for parish affairs, especially as Scallan’s health worsened. By 1824 the bishop was calling him “a real treasure,” and later he declared that Fleming’s collaboration was “almost as that of an associate.”
Indeed, one of the most intriguing features of Fleming’s career was his relationship with Scallan, given the broad differences between them in temperament and outlook. Fleming subsequently described Scallan as “the most zealous prelate that ever sat, or perhaps ever will sit, in the episcopal chair of Newfoundland.” As early as 1824 the bishop had looked to Fleming as a possible successor. Yet Fleming was to note in 1835 their “repeated differences,” which in the main had revolved around a party of lay Catholics in St John’s termed “liberals” by Fleming. He mentioned three major conflicts. One, probably in 1829, had concerned whether he or a lay building committee should control funds collected for the enlargement of the church. The second had been over the refusal of the authorities of the Orphan Asylum Schools, where both teachers and students were Roman Catholics, to allow religious instruction by Fleming even after hours, “lest their Protestant neighbours should be displeased.” When Fleming on his own prepared over 500 of these children for communion, the bishop permitted only a private ceremony. Finally Fleming had challenged the practice of Roman Catholics, including Scallan, of attending Protestant church services which, he contended, countenanced “the worship of Heretics.”
Nevertheless, when Scallan petitioned the Holy See for a coadjutor in 1827 and submitted the required three names of candidates, Fleming was his clear preference: a man “gifted with all things necessary for a bishop who would be in charge of this mission.” The recommendation was accepted, and on 10 July 1829 Pope Pius VIII appointed Fleming titular bishop of Carpasia and coadjutor to Scallan. The new bishop was consecrated in St John’s on 28 October, Thomas Anthony Ewer* and Nicholas Devereux assisting Scallan in place of co-consecrating bishops. Scallan himself lived just seven months more, and Fleming automatically succeeded him as vicar apostolic on 28 May 1830.
One of his priorities, and a constant preoccupation throughout his episcopate, was the recruitment of clergy for his mission. Although he was later prone to claim that there had been only seven priests in Newfoundland upon his accession, in his report to Rome at that time he gave the number as nine (plus himself), distributed among five extensive parishes which had a total Catholic population variously estimated at 30,000–80,000. The clergy already on the island Fleming felt were both qualitatively and quantitatively unequal to its demands. He believed that the colony urgently required more priests, and that the financial resources were there to support them.
To secure additional clergy, Fleming several times journeyed to Ireland. He first went there before the end of 1830, obtaining four new priests, including Edward Troy*, Charles Dalton*, and Pelagius Nowlan, who had arrived by mid 1831, and two clerical students, Michael Berney and Edward Murphy, who were ordained in Newfoundland later that year. A second trip in 1833 garnered five more priests, among them James W. Duffy*. The infusion of a large group of younger clergy, coupled with the death or departure of four priests who had served under Scallan, suddenly changed the complexion of Newfoundland Roman Catholicism. Fleming’s clergy were different from their predecessors in several important respects. They were more numerous: during his régime he continued to bring over clergy – 21 in the 1830s alone, and no fewer than 36 in all. Most were secular priests and ordained specifically for Newfoundland, a change which brought stability to the mission. Unlike many earlier priests who had studied at colleges on the European continent, the majority had been educated in Ireland, largely in the diocesan colleges of the southeast. They were of a generation who could practise their religion openly, and they had seen the success of Daniel O’Connell’s movement for Catholic emancipation, a campaign in which the clergy had taken a significant part. They could be expected to take a more militant stance than their predecessors in asserting Roman Catholic rights and aspirations. It is notable that Fleming abandoned the practice of the earlier bishops, such as Patrick Lambert*, who had sent candidates for the priesthood to Lower Canadian seminaries. Even more significantly, fearing too close ties to the local community, he refused to accept native Newfoundlanders as candidates for the priesthood. This policy obviously gave the local church a strong Irish cast, and was changed only after Fleming’s death.
From his Irish visit of 1833, Fleming also brought back a community of Presentation nuns from Galway, the colony’s first religious sisters [see Miss Kirwan*, named Sister Mary Bernard]. The bishop was concerned about girls and boys being educated together, as he was about the lack of religious instruction in the Orphan Asylum Schools, and these sisters were to educate girls from poorer families. The sisters were enthusiastically received, and they opened the island’s first officially Roman Catholic school in St John’s in October 1833. The capacity enrolment of 450 encouraged the bishop, who within a year had organized the construction of a new schoolhouse for 1,200.
Fleming was a tireless traveller, both in his vicariate and abroad. In 1834, for example, he made an extensive visitation from Conception Bay to Fogo Island, covering 46 settlements and confirming more than 3,000 people. A great compensation for the considerable hardship of the journey was the warm reception received from local settlers, Protestant and Catholic alike. In 1835 he undertook a similar two-month voyage from St John’s to Bay d’Espoir. By this time he had arranged for the construction of a small schooner, the Madonna, for his travels. One of his principal reasons for this voyage was to visit the Micmacs at Conne River but through a misunderstanding the majority of the inhabitants had left the settlement. Upon his return to St John’s in September, Fleming found that a smallpox epidemic had broken out. When the disease appeared in the nearby community of Petty Harbour that November, the bishop, convinced of the ineffectiveness of the civil authorities, went there himself and spent the winter of 1835–36 ministering to the people, as well as building a new church and clearing a cemetery.
Despite his ecclesiastical accomplishments and his unquestionable pastoral solicitude, the first decade of Fleming’s episcopate was marred by political and sectarian factionalism. This led in turn to a rift between the Catholic Church and the civil authorities, the heightening of denominational fears and concerns, and deep divisions within Fleming’s own congregation. The roots of these tensions antedated Fleming’s episcopate. By 1830 two attempts to introduce marriage legislation prejudicial to Catholic interests, the absence of public funding for the Orphan Asylum Schools, the controversy about seating the Roman Catholic military commander on the Council, and above all the failure to apply Catholic emancipation to Newfoundland had already angered the Catholic population. Fleming himself wrote quietly to London regarding Catholic emancipation in 1831, as did Governor Thomas John Cochrane*, and although the justice of the Roman Catholic position was readily admitted, no immediate action was forthcoming. Approval was given, however, to Fleming’s request for a stipend as Catholic bishop, Colonial Secretary Sir Thomas Spring-Rice observing: “To buy a bishop for £75 is cheap enough.” Relief from civil disabilities came to Newfoundland Roman Catholics only on 27 Aug. 1832, together with representative government and widespread male suffrage.
In the ensuing election Fleming supported for the St John’s seats William Thomas, a respected merchant, and the “radical” candidates John Kent* and William Carson (as he later wrote, “an Englishman, an Irishman, and Scotchman, a Catholic, Protestant, and Presbyterian”). Significantly, he did not endorse Patrick Kough*, a government contractor and member of that group of Catholic laity with whom he had earlier had disagreements. Kent’s qualifications were questioned by Henry David Winton*, editor of the Public Ledger, a challenge Kent chose to regard as an aspersion upon his Irish Catholicism. Winton thereupon demanded Fleming’s dissociation from Kent. When the bishop answered by construing that the editor’s remarks reflected upon clerical participation in politics, Winton directly attacked Fleming in the Ledger as having forfeited all claim to consideration from Protestants and “respectable” Catholics alike. Newfoundland Catholics reacted in outrage, supporting their bishop in a series of public meetings. The inconclusive results of the election itself (won by Kent, Thomas, and Kough) were not nearly so important as the fact that the sectarian tone injected into it consolidated Irish Catholic disaffection into an anti-establishment party interest. Matters worsened in 1833 with a by-election to fill the vacancy created by Thomas’s appointment to the Council. Carson, a reformer detested by the local establishment, was now pitted against Timothy Hogan, another of the lay Catholic “liberals” supported by mercantile interests. Fleming gave Carson his full support, and when Hogan alleged improper clerical influence and withdrew, his business was boycotted and he was obliged to make a public apology.
In reprisal for the Public Ledger’s support of Hogan and its criticism of the clergy, a Catholic mob surrounded Winton’s house on Christmas night. The magistrates called out the garrison, and several persons were bayoneted. Fleming called for obedience to the law, but he protested what he thought was undue force to Governor Cochrane, and then publicly declared that the governor had not authorized use of the military. To Cochrane this was a deliberate misrepresentation of some conciliatory remarks, and he presented the affair to London as but another sign of Fleming’s determination to achieve Roman Catholic political ascendancy.
Cochrane was further outraged by a series of pseudonymous letters in the Newfoundland Patriot early in 1834 accusing him of bigotry, and instructed Attorney General James Simms* to proceed against their author for libel. He was astonished when Father Troy admitted responsibility, for he felt that the priest dared not have written such letters without Fleming’s approval. These proceedings were quashed only after Cochrane’s removal in November 1834, by his successor Henry Prescott* in an attempt to diminish tension.
Acting upon Cochrane’s dispatches, the British government had taken steps in 1834 to have Fleming censured by Rome for his political activism. In the Vatican the matter went to Cardinal Capaccini, under-secretary of state. He judged it inopportune to involve the pope, but he wrote a personal letter to Fleming in November, sending it through London for approval. He told Fleming that the accusations against him would certainly incur the pope’s disapproval, and asked him to prevent activities “which debase the sacerdotal character.” Fleming was outraged by the complaints, which he thought to have come from Chief Justice Henry John Boulton*’s wife, a new member of the anti-Fleming Catholic faction, whom the bishop considered lax in her religious practice. In two letters to Capaccini in June 1835 Fleming documented his efforts, including 1,200 conversions to Catholicism, and defended his actions. He spoke of the religious laxity prevalent in Scallan’s day, and said that he had “determined to tear up with a strong hand those vices which had been so long rankling & festering in the Bosom of the Community.” Fleming named as his main antagonists Kough, Hogan, Mrs Boulton, and Joseph Shea, whom he painted as Catholic “liberals,” a persuasion for which the pope had no liking. He said that politically he had supported those whose election would be “advantageous to the Country,” and that the press had given “burlesque versions” of anything said from the altar. Capaccini acknowledged Fleming’s defence by stating that he meant no reproof, but was simply conveying a warning; he was pleased that the charges were misrepresentations. He forwarded Fleming’s letters and his own reply to London.
Cochrane’s departure from Newfoundland had had little effect in dissipating sectarian tensions. Indeed, the actions of Boulton, the new chief justice, inflamed them. A legal rigorist, Boulton introduced new procedures and harsh sentences, seen by many as prejudicial to Catholics. By June 1835 protests against the chief justice were being presented in the House of Commons by Daniel O’Connell, undoubtedly with Fleming’s concurrence.
The deterioration was evident after an attack upon Winton on 19 May 1835 between Harbour Grace and Carbonear. Although the assailants are unknown, the crime was commonly attributed to the “religious fanaticism” created by the Public Ledger’s attacks on the Catholic clergy. (An equally plausible motive, however, was revenge for Winton’s denunciation, as “rabble,” of the sealers who had met in 1832 on the very site of the assault to unite against the merchants.) The columns of the local newspapers were filled with abusive attacks on both sides, and the Anglican archdeacon, Edward Wix*, went so far as to keep loaded pistols in his bedroom.
Meanwhile in March 1835 Governor Prescott had received a formal protest from Michael McLean Little, a Catholic shopkeeper. Because he had supported Hogan and was a Public Ledger subscriber, said Little, he had been denounced as an enemy of Catholicism, and his business had suffered. Little quoted Troy as saying that “untill McLean Little becomes a beggar he cannot become a good Catholic.” Without a public apology, he faced ostracism and ruin. Other Catholics in St John’s had had similar experiences. Prescott was advised that legal action against Fleming was useless, but so, in his opinion, was any attempt by Rome to curtail the bishop’s political activities. In May the governor told London that he saw the speedy removal of both Fleming and Boulton as the only remedy for Newfoundland’s troubles.
The new colonial secretary, Lord Glenelg, unwilling “to invoke the authority of the Pope in a Dependency of the British Crown,” and with the understanding that denunciations from the altar had ceased, now made representations about Fleming to Bishop James Yorke Bramston of London, who, it was thought, could have some influence. Bramston wrote to his colleague as requested, but Fleming’s reply, in January 1836, argued the impossibility of defending himself without seeing any charges, which Prescott had refused to show him.
Then, in February, Glenelg received word of resistance at St Mary’s to constables sent to arrest those accused along with Father Duffy (who had already been apprehended) of wilful destruction of property. There was no evidence that Fleming, or even Duffy, had countenanced defiance of the law. Still, the incident was influential in prompting Glenelg to seek contact with the Vatican. The substance of his complaints against Fleming, as reported to the Foreign Office, seemed to be that the bishop did not control his priests, and that the Catholic population of Newfoundland was “driven to the most atrocious extremes by . . . [his] conduct and language.” Rome, he concluded, should be asked to remove both Fleming and Troy, or at least to admonish the bishop.
The British agent in Rome warned the Vatican that “extraordinary measures” might be taken were something not done about Fleming. He was informed that Cardinal Fransoni, the prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, would write to Fleming. This Fransoni did on 31 March 1836, in a letter again forwarded to Fleming through the British government. Fleming was obviously well regarded in Rome, and Fransoni simply informed him that the Propaganda had been made aware of the divisions provoked by clerical involvement in politics, and reminded him of Capaccini’s earlier letter. Avoiding political entanglement, advised the cardinal, could only contribute to the peace of Fleming’s mission and to greater attention to pastoral duties. Glenelg wrote to Prescott that he hoped Fransoni’s letter would have a “salutary effect” upon Fleming, and that if Fleming were to desist from his behaviour, the past would be forgotten. The colonial secretary warned, however, that if the bishop persisted, measures would have to be taken to restore tranquillity on the island.
It is paradoxical that during this period Fleming was seeking land for a cathedral in St John’s from the British government. Very soon after receiving Fransoni’s letter, he left for England to defend himself, and to press his request anew. The bishop had first sought this land in November 1834, when he petitioned the king for a parcel of six or seven acres of Ordnance land called “the Barrens,” no longer needed since the garrison was moving. He suggested that while Newfoundland Protestants had received many favours from government, which he did not begrudge, the claims of the Catholic majority, who had received none, were equally legitimate. In his correspondence about the land he repeatedly emphasized the wretched condition of the existing church, “little better than a stable badly built,” and proposed to construct instead a “handsome building of stone,” with a residence, and a school for 1,500–1,600 pupils. The land he wanted, he wrote to O’Connell, though “bleak,” was a superb site overlooking the town, and a church built on it would be a commanding symbol of the Roman Catholic presence in the colony. In his determination to obtain this property Fleming was to endure, in his words, “nearly five years of vexation and annoyance.”
Prescott was told to say that consideration of the request would have to be “postponed,” and to add that any further request should go through the governor. He made this reply in August 1835, and Fleming did not renew his application until June 1836, about the time of Cardinal Fransoni’s admonition and Prescott’s instructions from Glenelg to ignore past grievances, and on the eve of Fleming’s own departure for England. He noted recent Roman Catholic churches in the Newfoundland outports; just as these were assets to their communities, so would his new church be “a real and substantial improvement to St. John’s.” Obviously anxious to be conciliatory, Fleming asked for the governor’s support at the Colonial Office and gave an extended explanation of why the original appeal had gone directly to London. This approach was wise, for meanwhile Prescott had proposed that any land vacated by the military should revert to the Newfoundland government.
No doubt Fleming’s presence in England in 1836 prompted consideration of the matter by the Board of Ordnance that August. No conclusion was reached, however, and it was not until June 1837 that the bishop, now back in St John’s, received notification of the British government’s decision to grant him “so much of the land in question as may be necessary” for his intended buildings. Careful perusal of the documentation might have persuaded Fleming that there was real doubt as to just what was “in question”: no specific reference was made to the land for which he had applied.
The difficulties stemmed largely from the authorities in Newfoundland, who now advocated that this same site be used for a court-house and a jail. Their negative attitude may have intensified with events in the colony during his absence. Troy had been named administrator of the vicariate, with limited powers, until Fleming’s return. In July 1836 Fleming had asked Troy to ensure that the newspaper controversies ceased, and in September he instructed him that “should an election take place before my return, I hope you will not interfere in any public manner with it.” Still, in the turbulent general election of November, the Catholic clergy, especially Troy and Dalton, were very much in evidence. Indeed their support probably helped secure the overwhelming return of “radical” candidates. Possibly Troy had not received Fleming’s letter before the elections took place; when these were invalidated and new elections were held in June 1837, there was less overt clerical involvement, although the outcome was unchanged. Simultaneously, the judicial handling of Duffy’s and other cases was causing growing Catholic opposition to Boulton. Prescott himself remained intent on Fleming’s removal and had assembled a dossier of accusations against him.
Fleming became aware of difficulties about the land only when he met with Prescott in September 1837. At first Fleming thought that the governor agreed with him on the unsuitability of other sites, but he was recalled the next day and told that then and there he would have to select one of these properties and commit himself to building upon it. Fleming flatly declined and, irate, sailed again for London that winter. In March 1838 he wrote to Sir George Grey, under-secretary for the colonies, of all that had transpired, saying that he had acted as if the Catholics of Newfoundland should “be led to consider themselves as not under a political ban: that they should not regard themselves as Political Parias.” It was the principle, he asserted, which was at stake. If the government could not see fit to grant the land, he would be willing to purchase it at full value. A month later Grey sent a terse reply that the British government had directed Prescott, “if no insuperable objection should exist,” to put Fleming in immediate possession of the site. Within weeks, under Troy’s direction, nine acres were fenced in less than 15 minutes.
Remarkably, Fleming made little effort to diminish the opposition to himself in government circles; convinced that Newfoundland Roman Catholics were systematically excluded from official influence and appointments, he was not about to cease his protests. He was aware, too, that his opponents within the church had the governor’s ear and, as he later wrote, he felt that Prescott had “a deep and unquenchable hatred” of him. Probably little could have been done to change the governor’s conviction that replacement of the vicar apostolic by one “truly pious, enlightened, upright and benevolent” was “the greatest of our wants.” The Colonial Office too was intent upon pressing the Vatican authorities to keep the bishop in check. Although there were no new substantive charges against Fleming himself, during his absence in 1836–37 Troy had certainly harassed Roman Catholic opponents, in one or two cases even denying baptism and Catholic burial.
However lax he may have been in defending himself in London, Fleming took considerable pains to protect his standing in Rome. He spent some time there in 1837 and was well received. Indeed, he attributed something of the attention accorded him to the attacks of his enemies. Already in 1836 he had procured publication in Rome of his account of his mission, Stato della religione cattolica. The following year he prepared for the Holy See a more extensive report, his Relazione. In it he spoke of being persecuted and calumniated by a small group of rich and “indifferent” Catholics supported by “two or three” priests, mentioned that the government had accused him of improprieties but had refused to provide him with specific charges, and gave an impressive account of his travels and work in Newfoundland. He described his recent trials in obtaining the land for the cathedral and his future plans.
Still, some of the accusations being made against Troy involved ecclesiastical order, and Rome could not ignore them. In fact Pope Gregory XVI wrote personally to Fleming on 5 Jan. 1838, stating that on the basis of unquestionably true reports about Troy’s activities he deemed it necessary that the priest be removed from office. “Take care, therefore Venerable Brother, that . . . you restore the peace which has been disturbed, avoid scandal, and ensure that nobody is given opportunity for any justified complaints about a priest committed to your authority.” It appears that Fleming complied to the extent that shortly thereafter (probably upon his return from Europe in October 1838) he removed Troy from St John’s and transferred him to the remote parish of Merasheen Island. Fransoni wrote from the Vatican that Fleming had acted as he thought best and that the Holy See had not altered its good opinion of him.
There followed a period of relative calm in Fleming’s relationship with London. A major source of controversy had disappeared with Troy’s transfer. A Newfoundland delegation made up of Carson, Patrick Morris, and John Valentine Nugent* had, with Fleming’s help, secured Boulton’s dismissal. The land issue had been settled. The government made one further conciliatory move. Fleming had repeatedly asked, in vain, to be allowed to examine the charges against him, since he was put in the untenable position of preparing a defence without knowing of what he stood accused. Eventually, in August 1838, Sir George Grey wrote that the events referred to were remote in time and that Glenelg thought any further discussion “inexpedient.” Glenelg, aware that he had no authority to judge Roman Catholic clergy in the performance of their duties, realized moreover “the injury which a further agitation of this matter must cause to the public tranquillity of the Island.” Accordingly he proposed to drop the matter, and expressed the hope that Fleming would do likewise.
This interlude lasted until 1840, when Fleming and the St John’s clergy made a successful effort to procure the election of Laurence O’Brien*, a Roman Catholic, over James Douglas*, a staunch liberal but a Presbyterian. Prescott judged Fleming’s intervention to have come from “a pure love of dissension” and he again pressed the colonial secretary, now Lord John Russell, for a more moderate bishop. In turn, it was intimated to Rome by the Foreign Office that unless Fleming were removed all grants to Catholic clergy in the colonies would cease. Through the Austrian foreign minister, Prince von Metternich, Rome was attempting to arrange for a vicar apostolic for Corfu (Kérkira, Greece), then under British control. Metternich was told that this matter would be attended to if Rome would see to the Newfoundland bishop.
Fleming learned of this effort to depose him in August 1840, while he was in England in connection with the cathedral, and immediately he wrote to Rome about this “new persecution.” On his return in November, he sent a letter to Russell, complaining again about the old charges and accusing Prescott. To Rome he wrote of his efforts for the cathedral and designs against him by one of his priests, Father Timothy Browne*. The British government’s failure to admit a bishop to Corfu had great impact in Rome, and so, without committing itself definitely to removal, the Vatican informed Metternich that Fleming would be called to Rome. On 24 November Fransoni wrote to tell Fleming of the pope’s express wish that he come immediately, through London, if possible, where there might be an opportunity to settle the contention. Fleming claimed never to have received this letter. Still, he was aware of reports current in St John’s, probably of government origin, that he had been recalled by the Holy See. He kept up his defence in letters to Rome telling of progress on the cathedral and refuting Browne’s allegations.
In England, the state of Newfoundland was the cause of concern. Prompted by reports of denominational strife, in May 1841 the government permitted a select committee of the House of Commons to examine the whole situation. Although the committee received only incomplete evidence and made no report, much of the testimony that was entered concerned divisions within the Catholic Church. Further, the impartial evidence of Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle suggested that whatever his faults Fleming might have been ill treated by local officialdom. Against this background, Russell decided a new governor was needed and chose Sir John Harvey*, an appointment which created a different climate in the colony. When Fransoni wrote on 12 July 1842 to ask why Fleming had not acted as instructed, pressure for the bishop’s removal had subsided. Rome no longer appeared to be insisting on Fleming’s appearance and although Browne’s representations took longer to counteract, by 1843 Fleming seems to have exonerated himself.
Serious though they were, these troubles were only distractions from Fleming’s great preoccupation and chief work, the building of a cathedral that would command attention and respect. Upon acquiring the land in 1838, he immediately obtained a design from John Philpott Jones of Clonmel (Republic of Ireland), and detailed plans from an architect named Schmidt in Hamburg (Federal Republic of Germany), and on his return home that autumn the bishop went personally to Kellys Island to supervise the cutting of the stone. In the spring he toured the nearby outharbours, enlisting the aid of shipowners, Catholic and Protestant alike, in getting the stone to St John’s. The fencing of the land, the cutting of timber for the scaffolding, and the hauling of stone onto the site involved multitudes of volunteers. Thus in May 1839 thousands of men, women, and children turned out for two days to excavate over 79,000 cubic feet of earth for the foundations, the women dragging away the clay in their aprons.
A serious set-back occurred in 1840, with the failure of the bank in London which held the funds of the Newfoundland vicariate. This loss of £4,700 did not deter Fleming, and he was generously supported by his flock: when the cornerstone of the cathedral was laid on 20 May 1841 over £2,300 was given or pledged. Yet his grandiose plans did not have universal support. Henry Simms, a member of the congregation, complained to Rome in 1843 that the project “is condemned by every thinking man – it is not suited to our condition.” Probably more widely held was the view expressed by the Newfoundland Vindicator: “The people see it with wonder – they watch its progress each week with interest – they look upon the very walls with a species of veneration.” Undeterred by reaction that he was attempting the impossible, Fleming threw himself into the work heart and soul, acting as the project’s chief overseer and encouraging his flock to even greater efforts. He visited Europe to secure building supplies four times in the years 1840–45. When he left Newfoundland on the last occasion he was fatigued and ill. Construction had effectively stopped in 1841, with expenses even then of more than £21,000. It was Fleming’s plan to amass sufficient materials on site to ensure completion of the exterior in one season. When he returned home in September 1845 the building was ready to be roofed and was finished within weeks. Nor was the cathedral the only focus of the bishop’s building efforts. He had built a convent adjacent to it for the Sisters of Mercy immediately after their arrival in 1842, and a large new residence for the Presentation nuns was completed in 1845.
On 9 June 1846, however, a fire swept through St John’s, destroying the Presentation school and residence, and with them most of Fleming’s own valuables and papers, which had been brought there for safe keeping. (Fleming was again in Europe on cathedral business.) The bishop estimated the losses at more than £6,000, which could hardly be replaced by a populace reduced to destitution. Fleming was irate that he received no assistance from a fire relief fund started in Britain and administered by the government. The only other ecclesiastical building destroyed in the fire was the old Anglican church which had been intended for early replacement. Nevertheless £14,000, or half the amount collected, was devoted to construction of a Church of England cathedral, and Fleming was left entirely to his own resources. Yet popular enthusiasm was undiminished and within weeks of the fire parishioners pledged support for the cathedral. Fleming returned to Europe in April 1847 to procure materials for its interior and for rebuilding the convent.
Though unfinished, the cathedral was opened for worship on 6 Jan. 1850. Ill and exhausted by his labours, the bishop celebrated mass; it was his only service in the new church. His death later that year was widely attributed to his exertions in its regard. As the Patriot & Terra Nova Herald put it, “The Cathedral . . . has been that building upon which he seems to have staked all.” It was as much a statement about Fleming’s belief in Newfoundland’s future as it was an affirmation of his Roman Catholicism.
His dedication to the cathedral was closely paralleled by his attention to the education of the young. Under his care the Presentation school flourished; by 1846 there were eight sisters, a new convent, and a school accommodating 2,000, to which girls came from almost every part of the island. Nevertheless the “laxity” of middle and upper class Catholics was always on Fleming’s mind, and so he resolved to establish a second institution where “respectable Catholic ladies could receive a good and religious education.” This time he turned to the Sisters of Mercy in Dublin, who established a community of three in 1842, including Sister Mary Francis [Marianne Creedon*]. They opened their school in St John’s in May 1843 and, although there was some initial difficulty in sustaining their community, the school was maintained for some 30 paying pupils with good results.
In 1836 the local legislature had passed the colony’s first Education Act, which provided funding for the existing religious schools and for the establishment of non-denominational elementary schools to be administered by public school boards. Fleming, perhaps reluctantly, accepted this legislation. Where Roman Catholics predominated, religious instruction could be ensured through a board by-law providing for the withdrawal of students for this purpose. Most areas with Protestant majorities, however, passed by-laws enshrining the King James version of the Bible as a school text, although it would be read without comment after hours to those whose parents desired it. This model was opposed by Roman Catholics and vetoed by Prescott. Conversely, Protestants in general could not accept exclusion of the Bible, and boards in Protestant areas refused to allocate funds for the new schools. The judgement of the Public Ledger that the new system “would utterly fail” was amply borne out.
In 1843 a new act established separate Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards. The foundations of denominational education in the colony were now laid, and a system of Roman Catholic elementary instruction was ensured throughout the island. Oddly enough, the bishop found himself in the position of opposing separate Protestant and Roman Catholic secondary schools in 1843–44. He felt that the Roman Catholic character of the latter was not ensured by the legislation, nor was the superintendence of the bishop recognized. In the face of this opposition a non-denominational institution was established in 1844, which lasted until 1850.
The longest-standing educational difficulty Fleming faced was resolved in 1847. Although the Orphan Asylum Schools still had only Roman Catholic pupils and received annually a portion of the Catholic educational grant, they had retained non-denominational status. Fleming had never challenged this arrangement, but he was delighted when the Benevolent Irish Society, the schools’ sponsors, approached him about their future direction. He had hoped, he said, to introduce religious brothers for the education of boys but did not wish to interfere with an established institution. With the society’s consent, four Irish Franciscan brothers arrived in St John’s in September, and henceforth the character of the schools was not in question. By the bishop’s death Catholic education had become a generally established principle in Newfoundland.
Both politically and ecclesiastically Fleming gave the Roman Catholic Church in the colony a clear Irish orientation. He was a consistent supporter of Daniel O’Connell, and on several occasions enlisted the Irish patriot’s help in dealing with the British government. He permitted the collection at the church doors of funds for O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the legislative union between Britain and Ireland, and was a generous personal subscriber. In church affairs also, Fleming’s outlook was transatlantic. Unlike his predecessors, he did not maintain contact with the church on the North American mainland, although he did have occasional correspondence with Bishop William Walsh* in Nova Scotia, also an Irishman, and had some influence on Rome’s decision in 1844 to divide the Nova Scotia diocese into two. It was Walsh who had alerted him in 1843 to a proposal to unite the dioceses of British North America under an archbishopric in Montreal. Fleming forestalled this proposal by protesting to Rome, but without giving the real reason for his opposition, the dependence of the Canadian bishops for so much of their revenues on “British Protestant bounty.” For similar reasons, Fleming in 1847 successfully opposed Walsh’s plan for the establishment, with government assistance, of a seminary in one of the anglophone colonies.
On 4 June 1847 the vicariate of Newfoundland was raised to the status of a diocese by Pope Pius IX. It was a mixed honour, because the diocese was annexed as a suffragan to the archdiocese of Quebec. Fleming objected to this provision on the grounds of the difficulty of access to the mainland. (At the same time he observed that the inclusion of Labrador in the Newfoundland see was “unwise,” since it was more easily served from Quebec.) Only under his successor, however, did Rome accept the Newfoundland position and make the diocese instead immediately subject to the Holy See.
On 18 Nov. 1847 Fleming, only 55, wrote that his “constitution [was] so broken” that he could no longer contemplate any further travel. Earlier that year he had applied to Rome for a coadjutor bishop, recommending John Thomas Mullock*, guardian of the Franciscan house in Dublin, who had been a friend and adviser for many years. Despite reservations, in that the nomination had not come from the new ecclesiastical province of Quebec, and that the episcopacy of Newfoundland should not simply be passed on within the Franciscan order, Rome approved the request and Mullock was appointed later that year. Mullock arrived in St John’s in May 1848, and proceeded to take much of the responsibility for diocesan affairs. In the spring of 1850 an ailing Fleming, in semi-retirement, moved from the episcopal residence to Belvedere, the Franciscan house. There he died a few months later. Thousands turned out to pay their last respects as his body was interred in the cathedral he had struggled so hard to build.
Whatever his shortcomings Fleming was a tireless and devoted pastor. The social status of the episcopate meant nothing to him; he was more at home “living weeks together at Kelly’s Island assisting the labourers quarrying building stone” than he was at dinner in Government House. The young and the poor always had his special attention, and he remembered them generously in his will. Fleming was also an able leader, far-seeing and decisive. He had a single-mindedness that refused to be compromised or to be deflected by less important matters. His writings abound in errors and inconsistencies in dates, numbers, and amounts; these were of no particular concern. What was important always was his overriding purpose of the moment. Considering its often heated nature, Fleming’s correspondence is relatively free of personal rancour. He dealt in causes, not personalities, and before his death had sought reconciliation even with his great adversary Winton. Sometimes characterized as ignorant, Fleming was in reality a good organizer and an adept communicator.
Fleming was occasionally spoken of as a bigot who exploited religious divisions for political power. This comment was neither just nor accurate. What he was, rather, was a combination of Roman Catholic theological rigorist and determined opponent of Protestant (Anglican) ascendancy. He refused payment of burial and marriage fees which supported the Church of England, but he freely petitioned the legislature that Methodists should enjoy equal privileges with Anglicans and Roman Catholics in solemnizing marriages. Even in their politics, Fleming and his clergy supported Protestant liberals and opposed Roman Catholics close to the establishment. It genuinely angered him that not one Roman Catholic was appointed to the Council from 1825 until 1840, and that Catholics had nowhere near their rightful share of public appointments. Fleming was prepared to accept a politically divided colony before he would endure a flagrant injustice.
The principal source of opposition to Fleming was a group of Roman Catholic laity and clerics, and those, such as Winton, closely aligned with them. This opposition was hard for Fleming to accept, for he saw as necessary to the interests of the church a unified Catholic front under the guidance of the bishop. The majority of his flock welcomed and supported clerical leadership. The main criticism of Fleming’s episcopate is usually the clergy’s treatment of those who did not. Injustices and excesses undeniably occurred, but the extent of Fleming’s personal responsibility remains unclear, and there are indications that he did not automatically support Troy’s conduct. Nor were the issues only those of party politics; Catholics who differed from Fleming on how to vote were likely also to be at odds with him on ecclesiastical matters.
Bishop Fleming was a pivotal figure in Newfoundland history, in his own way perhaps more responsible than any other individual for its transition to a colony with institutions akin to those of Europe and the rest of British North America. Indirectly too he probably did more than any other to challenge the mercantile domination of the colony and to assure its eventual replacement by a form of government responsible to the whole community. Admittedly his episcopate left Newfoundland a legacy of division; it certainly contributed also to the coming of age of a people.
Michael Anthony Fleming’s published works include Letters on the state of religion in Newfoundland, addressed to the Very Rev. Dr. A. O’Connell, P.P. . . . (Dublin, 1844); “Religion in Newfoundland” and “Newfoundland” [two letters to the Very Reverend John Spratt, Dublin, 24 Sept., 8 Oct. 1834], Catholic Magazine and Rev. (Birmingham, Eng.), 6 (1835): v–xii, lxxii–lxxxi; Stato della religione cattolica in Terra-Nuova . . . (Rome, 1836); and Relazione della missione cattolica in Terranuova nell’America settentrionale . . . (Rome, 1837).
Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, Fleming papers; Howley papers, transcripts of docs. in the Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome). Archivio della Propaganda Fide, Acta, 1847; Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America settentrionale, 2 (1792–1830); 5 (1842–48). Basilica of St John the Baptist (Roman Catholic) (St John’s), St John’s parish, reg. of baptisms, 1823. PRO, CO 194/80, 194/82, 194/85, 194/87–93, 194/96–97, 194/99, 194/102; CO 195/18; CO 197/1. Gentlemen-bishops and faction fighters: the letters of bishops O Donel, Lambert, Scallan, and other Irish missionaries, ed. C. J. Byrne (St John’s, 1984). Newfoundlander, 29 Oct. 1829; 26 May, 2, 9 June, 28 July, 25 Aug., 27 Oct. 1831; 30 Aug., 13, 20, 27 Sept., 4 Oct. 1832; 14 Feb., 26 Sept. 1833; 25 Oct. 1838; 12 Jan. 1846; 24 June, 16, 23 Sept. 1847. Newfoundland Indicator (St John’s), 16 March, 20 April, 1 June, 20, 27 July, 17 Aug. 1844. Newfoundland Vindicator (St John’s), 27 March, 3 July 1841. Patriot & Terra Nova Herald, 26 July 1843; 29 July 1847; 20, 27 July 1850. Public Ledger, 24 Aug. 1827; 14 21, 25 Sept., 13 Nov. 1832; 9 Feb., 18, 25 May, 19 Aug., 9 Sept., 22, 29 Nov. 1836; 25 May 1841. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). Gunn, Political hist. of Nfld. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). R. J. Lahey, “The building of a cathedral, 1838–1855,” The Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1855–1980, ed. J. F. Wallis et al. (St John’s, 1980). F. W. Rowe, The development of education in Newfoundland (Toronto, 1964). Hans Rollman, “Gentlemen-bishops and faction fighters . . .” [book review with corrections], Nfld. Quarterly, 81 (1985–86), no.4: 12–14.