Tag Archives: Basilica cathedral

Consecration of the Basilica


September 9, 1855

The Basilica Cathedral, St. John’s, NL was consecrated on September 9, 1855.

Four Roman Catholic bishops arrived in St. John’s for the consecration of the new Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica)  early in the night of Monday, September 3, 1855, and proceeded immediately to the Cathedral, amid the tumultuous welcome of a large and enthusiastic throng of spectators. Every available space along the route of the procession was densely packed. The great bells of the Cathedral, together with those of the Old Roman Catholic Chapel on Henry Street and of the convents, pealed forth. The windows of the houses along the route were brilliantly lighted and the streets were illuminated not only by the gas lights but also by flaming torches, giving a most picturesque appearance to the town.

The procession wended its way to the recently completed Cathedral, where the bishops knelt in prayer. After a blessing was given to the congregation, Bishop John Thomas Mullock of St. John’s spoke to the crowd, thanking them for the warm reception they had given the visitors. All then dispersed for the night.

During the next few days, the prelates were entertained at various functions, and received addresses of welcome from the Benevolent Irish Society, and other groups.


On September 9 the day of Consecration, great crowds of people flocked into St. John’s, from remote as well adjacent settlements. It appeared that the entire Catholic population of the island had come to participate in the ceremonies. The Consecration of the Cathedral was carried out by Bishop Mullock, with all the solemnities prescribed in the Roman Pontifical. Twenty-two of the thirty priests in Newfoundland were present, as well as the Secretary-Chaplain to Archbishop Hughes, and the Chaplain to Bishop MacKinnon.

The celebrations with which the day of Consecration came to a close were truly impressive. That night, the entire frontage of the Cathedral and adjacent buildings was decorated with 1500 coloured lamps, while the Catholic people in every quarter of the town vied with one another in illuminating the windows of their houses. Tar barrels blazed in the streets, firearms were discharged, and sky rockets streamed through the air. Every available means was employed to proclaim the prevailing joy and thanksgiving that the great work, which was truly a labour of love, was at last accomplished.

The four visiting Roman Catholic Bishops were: Most Rev. John Hughes, Archbishop of New York; Bishop Armand-Francois de Charbonnel, of Toronto; Bishop Thomas Louis Connolly of New Brunswick; Bishop Colin Francis MacKinnon of Arichat (Antigonish),Nova Scotia.

Archbishop John Hughes of New York was so impressed that such a substantial cathedral could be built in a town of the size of St. John’s (approximately 25,000) by sealers and fishermen that he resolved when he returned to New York that he would commence the construction of his cathedral that we now know as St. Patrick’s Cathedral on  Madison Avenue in New York.

The Basilica has undergone many revisions since its completion in 1855,  its very existence represents something more durable even than stone, as this simple verse describes:

“The fishermen who built me here
Have long ago hauled in their nets,
But in this vast cathedral
Not a solitary stone forgets
The eager hearts, the willing hands
Of those who laboured and were glad
Unstintingly to give to God
Not part, but all of what they had.”

Recommended Website: History of the Basilica Cathedral, St. John’s, NL: http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/basilique-basilica/en/index.html

Recommended Reading: Fire Upon the Earth: the Life and Times of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, O.S.F.  by J.B. Darcy, C.F.C.: Creative Publishers, 2003.

Recommended Reading: The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist by Susan Chalker Browne;  Flanker Press, 2015  


“More money than Dan Ryan”

Archival Moment

July 6, 1934

“The House”
(Rennie’s Mill Road and Monkstown Road, St. John’s)

Daniel Ryan was born in 1851, the son of Michael Ryan and Mary Ellen Fleming   and was at the time of his death on July 6, 1934 considered one of the wealthiest men in Newfoundland.  The other person of considerable financial wealth was his brother James.

Dan and his older brother James established a salt fish firm at King’s Cove in 1875 under the masthead, James Ryan & Company. Dan moved there to manage the operation and eventually became sole proprietor. James also established a separate firm at Trinity in 1906 in partnership with Dan known as Ryan Brothers.  The firm’s chief goal was to profit from supplying Trinity   involved in the Labrador fishery.

In 1895 the two firms known as James Ryan, Bonavista, and James Ryan and Company, King’s Cove, exported nearly 100,000 quintals of codfish, approximately ten percent of Newfoundland’s total exports for the year.

Dan Ryan’s wealth has given rise to the Newfoundland expression “more money than Dan Ryan” or some variation.

Over the years fishing methods changed and ways of preserving the catch improved. As the quick freezing of fish became more popular in the 20th century, the salt fish trade declined. In the years following the Second World War, the Ryan family continued to take fish, but decided to put more emphasis on other aspects of their business, primarily the retail store. The company took its last salt fish in 1952 and eventually closed its doors in 1978, ending an era.

In St. John’s, the Ryan Brother’s are remembered for the construction of a property known simply as “The House,” built between 1909 -1911.  It was considered to be the most extravagant and modern for its time, theRyan Mansion featured the first telephone switchboard system, a fresh air exchange system, a main floor kitchen, and a carriage house built to house the first motor vehicle inSt. John’s. Oral tradition has it that this motor vehicle contraption arrived 3 months before there was fuel in the city to power it so James and family would sit in the vehicle while neighbours looked on.

Dan Ryan who left a portion of his estate to the Roman Catholic Church has his memory preserved  on a column in the west transept in the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.   A tablet to the memory of the Hon. Daniel A. Ryan.

The inscription reads as follows:

to the memory of
Hon. Daniel A. Ryan
Knight Commander, Order of St. Gregory
A Benefactor of the Cathedral
Died July 6, 1934
Requiescat in Pace

Recommended Archival Collection:  James Ryan Limited (Bonavista) fonds, Maritime History Archive, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Architectural  History: Ryan Premises National Historic Site of Canada, Bonavista; Lester-Garland Premises Provincial Historic Site,  Trinity, purchased in 1906 by the Ryan Brothers from the Lester-Garlands.  http://www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/PlacesToGo/RyanPremisesNationalHistoricSite

Architectural History: For more information on The House:  http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/rhs/rs_listing/196.html

Are you in my pew?


October 8, 1991

Basilica Cathedral Parish receipt for pew rent. Pew #28.

In the 1800’s because voluntary offerings in Sunday collections were unpredictable, pastors introduced pew rents to stabilize parish finances.  Originating in Germany, the pew rent system was common place in North America by the 1840’s. In the new churches it was used to secure a steady income from which the debt on new buildings could be paid.

Parishioners could literally “rent a pew”.  It was reserved for their use during one or all of the Sunday Masses and other devotions and events.  Typically in most churches a  brass plate  was inserted with  a card holder where the name of the family “renting” the pew  was inserted.

The pews were also in demand.  Every Sunday notices were read reminding parishioners if they had not paid their “pew rent” that they should pay immediately or forfeit the right to claim the pew!

The practice was so prevalent that for certain celebrations in St. John’s that the Archbishop of St. John’s had to make a special plea that the “pew holders”  in the Basilica Cathedral give up their pews for special occasions. For example when Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Archbishop Roche requested:

“Pew holders in the upper centre section are requested to give their pews on that day (February 19, 1939)  for the use of those who desire to attend the ceremony ….

The same notice would go to pew holders when the  Basilica Cathdral hosted sacred  concerts.  One such notice read:

“On Wednesday Evening next at 8:00 o’clock a Sacred Oratorio will be held in the Cathedral on the occasion of the opening of the new organ. A small charge will be made for admission – the proceeds to go towards the expenses of the Organ which will be over eight thousand dollars. Pew holders will please understand that they must not expect to claim their pews on that occasion as they will be occupied by ticket holders.”

In some diocese the practise was so prevalent that regulations ensured that a proportion of pews (at least one sixth) always remained free to insure that the poor would have a seat in the church. The seats of renters who had not arrived before a certain point in the celebration were also regarded as free for occupation by others.

The idea  of “pew rents”  was  for some a great source of scandal, it was inevitable that it was the poor  that were edged out to perch on benches and stools at the back or middle of the church.

To an outsider the effect of rented pews in church could be off-putting.  A vistor to a church in Monmouthshire, Wales wrote in 1882:

“I did go once  (to the church) but the people were all shut in, and the folk in the pews  looked at me as if I had got in without paying: so after walking up and down several times, like a man in a station trying to get a seat when the train is full, I went home.”

In most churches in Newfoundland the idea of “pew rents” was allowed to fade away quietly. In place of pew rents for a particular pew, in some churches, a general pew  collection or second collection was held every Sunday. In the Basilica Cathedral Parish this general offering was seen by some parishioners as a way to hold on to the pew that they saw as “their family pew.”  To this very day older parishioners continue to sit in what was “their family pew.”

The pew collection, previously the pew rent, was officially ended by a decision of the Basilica Cathedral Parish Council on October 8, 1991.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese see “The Pew Rent Receipt Books” these books  identify the particular pew that was assigned to a family.

Recommended Reading:The English Anglian practice of pew renting, 1800-1969. Bennett, John Charles (2011) Ph.D. thesis, University of Birmingham, England.

One man’s journey to build the Basilica

Archival Moment

Recommended Tour:  Join Paul Rowe  in  his  special Tour and Play  “Fleming”  One Man’s Journey to Build the Basilica and Unite a Nation.    Time: Tuesday – Saturday  at Noon   from  July 5 – August 27, 2016.  All Welcome:  $12 Admission; $10 Students and Seniors. Cash Only Please. Tickets Available 30 Minutes Before Showing.

Basilica Interior - Rooms Exhibit 016Journey back to 1843 and experience an unforgettable one-man play and guided tour of the Basilica – Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Join Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, interpreted by actor Paul Rowe, as he guides you through the Basilica.

One of the most influential Newfoundlanders of his time, Bishop Fleming is brought to life as you witness his tireless efforts to construct the largest cathedral to date in the New World. As Bishop Fleming recounts the early days of the Basilica, you’ll learn about its social and cultural significance, and about the formative and often turbulent history of the young Colony of Newfoundland.

See how citizens of all faiths came together to construct this National Historic Site as you explore its remarkable halls.