In the 150 years since the Cathedral’s consecration in 1855, several legends have emerged surrounding the construction of the Basilica and the acquisition of its land by Bishop Fleming. Despite having little or no historical basis, these legends play an important role in the oral history of Catholicism in St. John’s.

One story tells of how Bishop Fleming obtained permission from Queen Victoria to build on "The Barrens". Supposedly, if he were to go to Hyde Park in London where the Queen rode by in her carriage, she would stop to greet him. The Bishop did just this, and the Queen stopped and asked him back to Buckingham Palace for tea. After a discussion, the Queen offered her support and approval for the project, and later the land was officially granted. In 1901, when Bishop Howley gave a sermon for the death of Queen Victoria, he described the granting of the Basilica land as "the gracious gift of Queen Victoria".

It is also said that once the land was obtained from Governor Henry Prescott, the exact amount of land allowed for the project was to be determined by how much land the parishioners could fence in one day. This gav Read More
In the 150 years since the Cathedral’s consecration in 1855, several legends have emerged surrounding the construction of the Basilica and the acquisition of its land by Bishop Fleming. Despite having little or no historical basis, these legends play an important role in the oral history of Catholicism in St. John’s.

One story tells of how Bishop Fleming obtained permission from Queen Victoria to build on "The Barrens". Supposedly, if he were to go to Hyde Park in London where the Queen rode by in her carriage, she would stop to greet him. The Bishop did just this, and the Queen stopped and asked him back to Buckingham Palace for tea. After a discussion, the Queen offered her support and approval for the project, and later the land was officially granted. In 1901, when Bishop Howley gave a sermon for the death of Queen Victoria, he described the granting of the Basilica land as "the gracious gift of Queen Victoria".

It is also said that once the land was obtained from Governor Henry Prescott, the exact amount of land allowed for the project was to be determined by how much land the parishioners could fence in one day. This gave rise to the story that hundreds of Catholics showed up offering help with picks and shovels. In actual fact, the land acreage had been clearly defined in the terms of agreement. Allegedly, many were fearful the British Governor may have a sudden change of heart and revoke the decision, and several Catholics decided to secure the site by burying a corpse on the land. However, there is no evidence to support the story. Nevertheless, many parishioners and tourists often inquire about the location of the corpse and the validity of this popular story.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006

Queen Victoria - 1840.

Queen Victoria - 1840.

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


Close-up of a piece

Close-up of a piece of statuary found in the Basilica.

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


The involvement of Catholic parishioners in the Basilica’s construction is a testament to the perseverance and spirit of nineteenth century immigrants to the New World. The building of a massive cathedral overlooking the town created an optimism that encouraged both Catholics and non-Catholics alike to assist in the construction. Bishop Fleming foresaw this project not only as an opportunity to build unity between Catholics and Protestants, but also to dissolve differences between Catholic factions within different parts of Newfoundland.

There are remarkable stories recounting scenes of the Cathedral’s construction - teams of men unloading stone from boats in St. John’s harbour to be hauled up the steep hill to the construction site, women carrying bricks and mortar in their aprons; even Bishop Fleming himself, waist deep in water at Kelly’s Island, loading stone to be carried to St. John’s. Clearly, this long and arduous process played an important role in the town’s gradual transition from a colonial fishing station to what would become Canada’s youngest capital a century later.
The involvement of Catholic parishioners in the Basilica’s construction is a testament to the perseverance and spirit of nineteenth century immigrants to the New World. The building of a massive cathedral overlooking the town created an optimism that encouraged both Catholics and non-Catholics alike to assist in the construction. Bishop Fleming foresaw this project not only as an opportunity to build unity between Catholics and Protestants, but also to dissolve differences between Catholic factions within different parts of Newfoundland.

There are remarkable stories recounting scenes of the Cathedral’s construction - teams of men unloading stone from boats in St. John’s harbour to be hauled up the steep hill to the construction site, women carrying bricks and mortar in their aprons; even Bishop Fleming himself, waist deep in water at Kelly’s Island, loading stone to be carried to St. John’s. Clearly, this long and arduous process played an important role in the town’s gradual transition from a colonial fishing station to what would become Canada’s youngest capital a century later.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006

Sketch

Sketch of the proposed site of the Basilica-Cathedral land grant, adjacent to the Fort Townsend military site.

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


'Fools and Mummers'

In the 19th century in St. John's, it was customary in Newfoundland during the Christmas festivities for people to dance through the streets dressed in outlandish costumes and disguised in various ways. On their way they would engage in rough horseplay, slapping at passers-by with whips or inflated bladders. The St. John's artist John W. Hayward depicts such a scene in St. John's during the 1850's, with the "fools" chasing and threatening those nearby, with the Basilica-Cathedral as a background

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


In the summer of 2005 was the production of the sacred musical Miracle in Stone, written and directed by Brother J.B Darcy of St. Bonaventure’s College. The production, described as "a musical tribute to the builders of the Cathedral", was by far the largest cultural event planned to mark the 150th anniversary celebrations.

The musical is a story of the building of the Cathedral with an emphasis on the events around the blessing and consecration of the cathedral in 1855. The performance also featured costumes taken from the liturgical garment collection in the Basilica Cathedral Museum.

The response to the production was overwhelmingly positive, and with a seating capacity of roughly 1500, the Basilica was recognized not only as a place of worship, but as an extraordinary venue for theatre arts events.
In the summer of 2005 was the production of the sacred musical Miracle in Stone, written and directed by Brother J.B Darcy of St. Bonaventure’s College. The production, described as "a musical tribute to the builders of the Cathedral", was by far the largest cultural event planned to mark the 150th anniversary celebrations.

The musical is a story of the building of the Cathedral with an emphasis on the events around the blessing and consecration of the cathedral in 1855. The performance also featured costumes taken from the liturgical garment collection in the Basilica Cathedral Museum.

The response to the production was overwhelmingly positive, and with a seating capacity of roughly 1500, the Basilica was recognized not only as a place of worship, but as an extraordinary venue for theatre arts events.

© Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's 2006

Michael Anthony Fleming

Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, Bishop of Newfoundland 1830-1850.

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


Commemorative Coin

Coin commemorating the laying of the cornerstone of the Basilica by Bishop Fleming in 1841.

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:
  • discuss stories related to the construction of the cathedral

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