December 16, 1852
On December 16, 1852 the prominent Waterford, Ireland born merchant Richard O’Dwyer who had established himself as one of the more wealthy businessmen in St. John’s was in mourning over the loss of his infant daughter Mary Wilhelmina. The infant child was baptized immediately after birth with Reverend Kyran Walsh serving as both godfather and priest at the baptism.
The loss of his daughter was compounded five days later on December 21 by the death of his young wife Mary Frances McKenna O’Dwyer.
It is believed that the young mother (Mary Frances, age 26) and infant child (Mary Wilhelmina) are both buried in the Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica) that was still under construction at the time of their deaths.
There were in the 1850’s few public memorials in St. John’s but being a wealthy citizen of the town Richard O’Dwyer had the financial resources to commission a memorial to celebrate the life of his wife and child. On the west wall in the Basilica Cathedral is a memorial that O’Dwyer commissioned that depicts an angel carrying a young mother and child to heaven.
With the death of his wife and child all of Richard O’Dwyer’s energy was directed to his business interests. He is also responsible for at least three significant architectural contributions to the town (now city) of St. John’s.
He was responsible for the construction of the O’Dwyer Block of Buildings at (295-301 Water Street, St. John’s. Built in the mid-nineteenth century, the stone and mortar O’Dwyer Block was one of St. John’s earliest major merchant buildings, not made of wood. The structure is a classical commercial block constructed after the St. John’s fire of 1846. Richard O’Dwyer built the block of buildings for his offices and retail stores with sufficient space to accommodate other merchants.
O’Dwyer also built the nearby Murray Premises as a warehouse storage area.
He is also credited for building The Thompson Building at (303-305 Water Street) For decades, the Thompson family owned the building and ran their family jewellery store business there until it closed in the mid-1990s. A store specializing in Newfoundland merchandise and the offices of the popular Newfoundland magazine The Downhomer, now operates in the building.
Recommended Reading: Robert Mellin: A City of Towns: Alternatives for the Planning and Design of Housing in St. John’s, Newfoundland (CMHC Canadian Housing Information Centre, 1995: Ca1 MH 95C37), Residential Heritage Conservation in St. John’s (Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2005.