By the 1780s, the Irish had become the dominant ethnic group in and around St. John’s, which had a population of about 3,200. A few Irish were tradesmen and shopkeepers, some were merchants, but most were fishermen with little formal education.

Central to their lives and culture was their religious faith. The majority of Irish were Roman Catholics, seeking to create in the New World the institutional Roman Catholicism that had served as a cradle for their culture, identity, and politics in Ireland. During the 18th century, the British Government enforced strict Penal Laws, outlawing the practice of Catholicism in Newfoundland. Roman Catholics were permitted to erect small chapels in Ireland, but this was forbidden in Newfoundland until Liberty of Conscience was proclaimed in 1783 effectively lifting these laws. Soon after, the Franciscan friar James Louis O’Donel came to St. John’s from Waterford, Ireland after an invitation by several

Waterford-based merchants who had business interests in Newfoundland. The Church that emerged over the next 50 years became the single most important ethnic, social and cultural benefactor for the Irish in N Read More
By the 1780s, the Irish had become the dominant ethnic group in and around St. John’s, which had a population of about 3,200. A few Irish were tradesmen and shopkeepers, some were merchants, but most were fishermen with little formal education.

Central to their lives and culture was their religious faith. The majority of Irish were Roman Catholics, seeking to create in the New World the institutional Roman Catholicism that had served as a cradle for their culture, identity, and politics in Ireland. During the 18th century, the British Government enforced strict Penal Laws, outlawing the practice of Catholicism in Newfoundland. Roman Catholics were permitted to erect small chapels in Ireland, but this was forbidden in Newfoundland until Liberty of Conscience was proclaimed in 1783 effectively lifting these laws. Soon after, the Franciscan friar James Louis O’Donel came to St. John’s from Waterford, Ireland after an invitation by several

Waterford-based merchants who had business interests in Newfoundland. The Church that emerged over the next 50 years became the single most important ethnic, social and cultural benefactor for the Irish in Newfoundland. Its bishops and clergy became the de-facto leaders of the Irish community, and the Church’s buildings the heart of the community.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006

James Louis O'Donel

James Louis O'Donel, first Bishop of Newfoundland, 1784-1807.

Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006


St. John's, 1800

One of the oldest known sketches of St. John's Harbour, approx.1800.

Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006


Between 1750 and 1830 Newfoundland received large numbers of Irish immigrants. Many settled permanently, while many engaged in an annual seasonal migration between Ireland and Newfoundland due to fisheries and trade. As a result, the Newfoundland Irish remained in constant contact with news, politics, and cultural movements back in Ireland. Indeed, as cultural geographer John Mannion has pointed out, Irish migrations to Newfoundland are unique: never before in human history had such a large group of people migrated from such a local area in the Old World (within 60 miles of Waterford) to such a local area in the New World (within 100 miles of St. John’s) over such a long period of time.

By the mid-1830’s, there were over 10,000 Catholics in St. John’s, but the old wooden chapel was only capable of seating several hundred. Bishop Fleming described it as "a wretched building little better than an extensive stable, badly built and badly ventilated and now tottering in danger of falling". To replace it, Fleming wished to build "a temple superior to any other in the island, at once beautiful and spacious, suitable to the worship of the Most H Read More
Between 1750 and 1830 Newfoundland received large numbers of Irish immigrants. Many settled permanently, while many engaged in an annual seasonal migration between Ireland and Newfoundland due to fisheries and trade. As a result, the Newfoundland Irish remained in constant contact with news, politics, and cultural movements back in Ireland. Indeed, as cultural geographer John Mannion has pointed out, Irish migrations to Newfoundland are unique: never before in human history had such a large group of people migrated from such a local area in the Old World (within 60 miles of Waterford) to such a local area in the New World (within 100 miles of St. John’s) over such a long period of time.

By the mid-1830’s, there were over 10,000 Catholics in St. John’s, but the old wooden chapel was only capable of seating several hundred. Bishop Fleming described it as "a wretched building little better than an extensive stable, badly built and badly ventilated and now tottering in danger of falling". To replace it, Fleming wished to build "a temple superior to any other in the island, at once beautiful and spacious, suitable to the worship of the Most High God". On a political level, an outstanding Cathedral intended to solidify a place for Irish Catholics within the community.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006

Irish Immigration

Between 1750 and 1830 Newfoundland received large numbers of Irish immigrants. In the graph above, the squares represent the numbers of emigrants coming from different counties in Ireland. The circles represent numbers of emigrants from individual towns in Ireland.

Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006


Chapel and Palace

Bishop O'Donel's Old Chapel and Palace, built around 1784.

Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • identify what was the dominant ethnic group in Newfoundland
  • stipulate why by the 1830s there was a need for a Cathedral

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