Wednesday, 5 May 2010



Catholics who settled in Newfoundland suffered under the harsh Penal Laws, that body of discriminatory and oppressive legislation focused chiefly against Roman Catholics, but also against Protestant nonconformists.

Followers of Catholicism in English Canada faced great adversities in their efforts to establish their faith in the new country. This was partly due to the religious disdain of the English majority towards those who refused to conform to the tenets of the Protestant Reformation but also from animosity towards the ethnicity of those who professed Catholicism, particularly to the Irish. This antagonism was most intensely found in Newfoundland where, unlike in Canada, the Penal Laws were strictly applied. However, in spite of the influence the Irish had in English-speaking Canada, it is in Newfoundland that Irish Catholic mores run deepest.

Newfoundland’s rich resources of fish needed people to work in the expanding industry. In the seventeenth century, people from many parts of Ireland, especially Waterford, Wexford, Kilkenny and Tipperary, rose to the challenge and became seasonal visitors to the Island, working in the fisheries during the summer and returning home at the end of the fishing season in the Autumn. The English Merchants, who reaped the immense profits of the Newfoundland fishery, seldom paid these Irish workers so their financial lot was not improved. However, the fishery did provide them with cheap passage to America and the opportunity of eventually migrating to the American Colonies, where they hoped to find better conditions! Nonetheless, many Irish stayed and created a large and permanent Catholic presence in the Colony of Newfoundland. Under the Penal Laws, the Irish settlers stood little or no chance of either justice or mercy when accused of a crime. Irish Catholics were denied a defence counsel and had no way of knowing an indictment until it was read in court.

In Newfoundland at that time, the Catholic Church was an illegal institution and had great difficulty assisting the Irish in the Colony. Since it operated as an underground organization, its spiritual and religious role was restricted. Under the English Penal Laws, enacted from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to that of King George III, when they were repealed in 1783, it was hoped to eliminate "Popery" by rendering it impossible for a Catholic to exist, except in the most degraded conditions imaginable. Catholics were barred from holding public office, from operating schools or sitting in parliament. Neither could they own property nor own a horse worth more than $5 and the practice of their religion was forbidden. As well as the Penal Laws, local orders were applied. Catholics could not bury their dead; only an Anglican minister was permitted to read the service of burial and collect a fee for doing so.

Rome was not unaware of its responsibility to the Catholic population and from 1535 to 1784, Newfoundland was under the administration of the Bishop of Rouen, then the Bishop of Quebec and then under the Vicariate of London. A number of itinerant priests were sent to Newfoundland and, at considerable risk, they traversed the rough terrain, covertly said Mass, and then moved on. Aware that Catholics were practising their religion by stealth, the local authorities hunted the itinerant priests who came to the Island disguised as fishermen. These priests hid, said Mass and fled. Punishment for participation in the Mass was severe. One account refers to a Michael Keating of Harbour Main who, in 1755, was fined $50 for allowing Mass to be celebrated in his fish store; his house was demolished, his goods were seized, and he was deported from the Colony. These men were under the constant threat of surveillance by Protestants who felt obliged to report their activities. One example, documented in 1755, stated: “ I am informed that a Roman Catholic priest is at this time at Harbour Grace, and that he publicly read mass which is contrary to the law and against the peace of our sovereign Lord, the King.”

Conditions for Newfoundland's Catholics, predominantly Irish, gradually improved as the laws changed. In 1784, "liberty of conscience" was proclaimed in Newfoundland, the first Catholic chapel was built, and an Irish Franciscan, James Louis O'Donel, was appointed the first Roman Catholic Bishop of St. John's, Newfoundland. More priests came from Ireland and, in 1833, the Presentation Sisters arrived from Galway. The Presentation Sisters were followed by The Sisters of Mercy in 1842 and the Irish Christian Brothers in 1857. Advantages were gained when Catholics received the vote and were able to sit in the assembly and on the Legislative Council. For these early Catholic settlers to the Colony of Newfoundland, the struggle to obtain their religious rights was long and difficult. Be that as it may, the Newfoundland Irish expressed a unique culture in various dialects, crafts, and traditions which are still identifiable. The Irish language was commonly spoken among the Newfoundland Irish until the beginning of the nineteenth century, creating an Irish pattern of speech and vocabulary that is evident even today in Newfoundland English. The Catholic Faith, which was sown in suffering, perseverance and faithfulness, flourishes today and the many churches built with the pennies and free labour of poor Irish fishermen are their memorials.


  1. This is SO interesting! I had no idea. Thanks very much for using your blog in this way. It's an excellent way of getting the information out and stimulating interest in the history of our faith and the heroic sacrifices of our forebears.
    Very humbling indeed to think at what cost they practised and spread the faith.
    How long are you in Newfoundland? Is that where you are from? Have a great visit!

  2. Very interesting! Makes me extra proud of both my Catholic and Irish heritage. I would love to visit Newfoundland some day!

    Hope all is going well for you. You and your family remain in my prayers.

  3. Good morning Clare
    It is great to hear from you and I thank you for your most encouraging comment. As Catholics, we have some wonderful examples to follow, don't we. Yes, this is where I am from and most of my family is still here. My Welsh husband & I were married in that church in the picture I posted here. (It is, of course, St Patrick's Church!) I am here because several members of my family are seriously ill but we return to Wales on 13th May. It hasn't been a terribly joyful time but it has been nice to be with my family and spend some time with them. None of us are getting any younger. However, God is indeed good. Thanks again and God bless you, Clare.

  4. Good morning Sister
    Thank you so much for your comment and your pryers. Yes, we have loads to be proud of don't we. Also, we have a lot to live up to, I think. The sick members of my family are certainly not improving and, unfortunately, aren't expected to, but I feel blessed to have had this time here with them all. Thank God for families, I say. I hope you and your family are doing O K. I keep you in my prayers, too. God bless you Sr Ann Marie.

  5. Praying for you and your family.

    God bless.

  6. Hello Victor
    Thank you so much. Two of my brothers are in hospital (one on the fourth floor and one on the seventh floor of the same hospital). Both are very ill and one is drawing close to death, so your prayers are greatly appreciated. God bless you Victor.

  7. Dear Lord hear our prayers. Amen.

    God bless you Breadgirl and may He be with you and your family.

  8. Victor
    Thank you. One of my brothers died yesterday, 14th May, and another today, 15th May. I hope you will continue to keep us in your prayers.

    God bless you, Victor.

  9. May they rest in Peace in the love and care of our Lord Jesus. Amen.

    I pray that you are well Breadgirl. May God bless you always.

  10. I really came back to this post for something else but let me first express my condolences at the loss of your brother. My own brother died three weeks ago and I know the pain of that loss. You are all in my prayers.

    This probably is not of interest to you now but I have listed you as one of my Sunshine Award recipients. The details are on my blog.

    Again, Know that you and your family will be held in prayer.

  11. I’ve enjoyed looking over your blog. I came across it through another blog I follow, and I’m glad I did. I am now a follower of yours as well. Feel free to look over my blog and perhaps become one as well.

  12. Victor & Sr Ann Marie
    Thank you both for your thoughtfulness and prayers. I lost two brothers in two days and that is very hard so your support and prayers - especially prayers - are of great help. I am heading back to Wales on 2nd June after two months with my family here. Now the funerals and everything are over we will all have to get back to normal life. My brothers will be missed terribly by all of us but they were both very ill so we are grateful that they are now at peace and with the God whom they both loved and served to the best of their ability. Again, I thank you both for your great kindness.

    I hope to be back posting about St David Lewis very soon.

    May God bless you and all those whom you love.

  13. Hello covnitkepr1
    Welcome to this blog, dedicated to the last Welsh martyr, St David Lewis. Thank you for becoming a follower and I hope you will look in often. I will certainly have a good look at your blog as soon as I get back to Wales and resume my more regular blogging. God bless you.

  14. Sr Ann Marie
    Thank you very much for the Sunshine Award! I am very pleased to accept it and your thoughtfulness has given me a much needed lift. Thanks and God bless you.


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