Tag Archives: Clara Fisher

Nuns at home in a tavern


September 21, 1833

Presentation School, Patrick Street, St. John’s, NL date unknown

On September 20, 1883 there was much excitement in St. John’s with religious and civic officials gathering to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the arrival of the Presentation Sisters to the colony of Newfoundland

The Irish nuns (Sister’s Bernard Kirwin, Magdalen O’Shaughnessy, Xavier Maloney and Xaverius Lynch) reached St John’s harbour on 21 September 1833 –  the first nuns to serve in Newfoundland. With no account of their arrival being received in Galway, Ireland,  until four months later,  they were given up for dead  at home  and as was the custom in the convent, a Solemn Requiem Mass was celebrated for them, and copies of their vows were burned. They were presumed dead.

The four Galway women came to Newfoundland at the invitation of the Catholic Bishop, Michael Fleming to establish a school that would offer improved educational opportunity for girls and young women in St. John’s.

Upon arrival in St. John’s the nuns were agreeably surprised by the appearance of Newfoundland.

“This country,” Sister Mary Bernard  Kirwin wrote in her first letter home, “is by no means as dreary as we heard. The bay is beautiful and so is the country as far as we can see.”

Within a few weeks of their arrival in St. John’s the sisters had gathered  approximately 450 studenets that they divided into classes. They began teaching in a room at the rear of an old tavern, the “Rising Sun” that also served as their home. The curriculum included grammar, literature, arithmetic, French, music, needle work, and Christian doctrine.


One of the observers of the 50th Anniversary celebrations in 1883 was Henri de la Chaume , attaché to the French Consul in St. John’s . On his return to France, he published a book about his experiences in the colony

The French attaché admired the good works of the Irish born nuns but he was not very kind about their musical ability, he wrote:

 “During this, (the 50th Anniversary Pontifical Mass) they (the nuns) most disgracefully skinned alive the Mass of Saint Cecelia and, not content with this first crime, they went on to profane the “Inflammatus” of the “Stabat Mater.”   (Latin hymn “the Mother was standing.”

He was, however, happy to report that:

 “The ceremony finished with a hymn where at last they did us the grace to give us an “0 Salutaris” by Miss (Clara) Fisher composed by Cherubini.”

One of the women kneeling in the chapel for the 50th Anniversary mass was

 “The Superior of the Convent, (90 year old, Sister Mary Magdalen O’Shaughnessy (1793-1888), one of the four sisters who came here fifty years ago, (she) was there bent over a prie-Dieu.”

Sister O’Shaughnessy  was never to return her beloved Ireland- in her first letter home in 1833 –  she wrote that she was struck by the evident prosperity of St John’s, Newfoundlandand the fondness of the children in the school for “dress-wear, necklaces, ear-rings, rings etc.”

From their appearance,  she wrote,

 “you would scarcely think you are teaching in a poor school. No such thing as a barefoot child to be seen here, how great the contrast between them and the poor Irish!”

Recommended Publication: Hammered by the Waves: A Young Frenchman’s Sojourn in Newfoundland in 1882-83:  Henri De La Chaume (Author), Robin McGrath (Editor), James M. F. McGrath (Translator) Creative Book Publishers, St. John’s, 2006.

Recommended Archival Collection: The Archives of the Presentation Congregation, St. John’s has a wonderful collection of archival documents relating to the lives of the women of the Presentation Congregations and their work in education in Newfoundland.

Recommended Activity: Visit the Presentation Convent at Cathedral Square, St. John’s home of the exquisite statue – The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza. Also home of an altar designed of pure marble, with carved motif’s documenting the first 50 years of the sisters work in Newfoundland.  (By appointment only)

Opera tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador


September 8, 1879

Photo Credit: The Rooms Provincial Archives: VA 35-24.7 The Opera Theatre in the Total Abstinence Hall,St. John’s, 1894.

There was much excitement in St. John’s on (8 September 1879) with the debut performance of Clara Fisher in St. John’s.  Miss Fisher was the American star of the Josie Loane Opera Company; the young soprano was starring in the opera the H.M.S. Pinafore.  The performance marked the emergence of an amateur and semi-professional operatic tradition in St John’s.

Miss Fisher appreciated her reception – she was so impressed that she moved to Newfoundland, staying for over a decade, becoming one of the most popular actresses and singers in St. John’s.

She worked extensively with (Sir) Charles Hutton appearing in several of his adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Foremost among these productions were Patience in 1883, The Mikado in 1886, The Sorcerer in 1887, and Trial by Jury and Cox and Box in 1894. Numerous other operettas followed, several directed by the Englishman Peter LeSueur just after the turn of the century, or by Gordon Christian in the 1930s, but the majority was under Hutton’s direction.

The operatic movement almost ended with Hutton’s retirement from public life in 1939, his protégé, Ignatius Rumboldt, sustained the tradition for another decade.

Much of the operatic tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador for the past 40 years has been fostered by the School of Music at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The School produces either one full opera or a series of one act operas, fully staged, annually. The School of Music has also supported undergraduate and graduate training in opera, developing high profile, active careers in the field.

Memorial has also developed the Opera Road Show is a professional touring option for students that has been running for 13 years and has reached thousands of children across the province with its operas specially tailored for young children.

The new incarnation has been ‘Opera on the Avalon’ establishd in 2009. It has become a leader for invigorating the opera scene and increasing a following for it in Newfoundland and Labrador, producing everything from Baroque to modern operas.

Opera first came to Newfoundlandin 1820, when local amateurs in St. John’s performed the “Duenna” by Thomas Liney.

All of the buildings in St. John’s designed for theatre and opera were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892. In rebuilding public buildings after 1893 consideration was given to opera, the Total Abstinence Hall, The Benevolent Irish Society Hall (BIS) and the Star of the Sea all established theatres.

Recommended Archival Collection:  At the Provincial Archives Division at The Rooms see MG 343.1 this item consists of an opera “given in aid of the poor by a number of amateur ladies and gentlemen”  at the Star of the Sea Hall, St. John’s, 1883.

Recommended Action:  Enjoy concerts by Memorial University School of Music faculty, visiting artists and students together. http://www.mun.ca/music/

Support the work of the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra.  www.nsomusic.ca

We also have “Opera on the Avalon”  http://www.operaontheavalon.com/ 

Take some time to explore these sites.