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St. Patrick’s Day Tradition in Newfoundland and Labardor


March 17, 1851

The Executive and members of the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS) marched for the first time from their club rooms to the Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica) on St. Patrick’s Day 1851 and were welcomed by the Bishop. The tradition of the parade to the Basilica, followed by the celebration of the mass (the Feast of St. Patrick’s), is followed by a reception by the bishop in the Episcopal Residence. The tradition continues to this day.

Leaving  the company of the Archbishop  the tradition was for the  BIS to parade to  Government House to be received by the  Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador.

The members of the Executive have since the first visitation presented  their hosts with a  small basket of shamrocks.

The B.I.S. was formally established in St. John’s on February 5, 1806 as a non-denominational service club to help educate and improve the lifestyle of the poor Irish immigrant children of St. John’s. The primary requirement for membership was that the individuals be of Irish birth or ancestry. The constitution of the B.I.S. is based on three principles of charity, benevolence and philanthropy.

As the seal and motto the members of the BIS chose the figure of St. Patrick bearing the cross surrounded by the inscription – “he that gives to the poor, lends to the Lord.”

The Benevolent Irish Society was unique in that it was nonsectarian and offered assistance to the needy regardless of their religion. The founders of the Society were among the first generation of permanent residents in Newfoundland. They included politicians, businessmen and clergy who played significant roles in the political, economic and spiritual growth of the developing colony.

Membership continues to be open to adult residents of Newfoundland who are of Irish birth or ancestry, regardless of religious persuasion.

Recommended Archival Collection: At the Rooms Provincial Archives  take some time to look at MG 612  the BIS  collection  it consists of minutes of  the BIS (1822-1933, 1938-1970, 1973-1979); agendas (1964-1970); Centenary Volume (1806-1906); loan receipts (1905-1906); journal (1910-1920); cash book (1920-1931); ledger (1939-1944).

Recommended Museum Exhibit:  take some time to see : Talamh an Éisc – The Fishing Ground , an exhibition  at The Rooms, that introduces the Irish peoples who have been in Newfoundland and Labrador since the late 1600s, the exhibit explores the communities they built and celebrates the contributions they made to life here in Newfoundland and Labrador.


New Year’s Levee

JANUARY 1, 1859

“The Finest Room in the Colony”

The Basilica Museum Library. The “Finest Room in the Colony.”

There was a tradition in St. John’s that encouraged the leading citizens of the town to host a New Years Day Levee.  This levee was a reception that was held early in the afternoon of New Years Day, typically at the residence of the host.  Attending these levee’s was an annual ritual in the town.

The first recorded levée in Canada was held on January 1st, 1646 in the Château St. Louis by Charles Huault de Montmagny, Governor of New France (later Québec).  In addition to shaking hands and wishing a Happy New Year to citizens presenting themselves at the Château, the Governor informed guests of significant events in the Mother Country, as well as the state of affairs within the colony.  This tradition is carried on today within The Commonwealth in the form of The Queen’s New Year’s Message.

The Levée tradition was continued by British Colonial Governors in Canada, and subsequently by Governors General and Lieutenant Governors, and continues to the present day.

One of the leading citizens that was expected to host a levee was the Roman Catholic bishop. Typically citizens would call upon the bishop on New Years Day at the Episcopal Library (now the home of the Basilica Museum) to wish him a Happy New Year. Persons attending, dressed in their finest, would upon arrival stand in cue, sign a guest book and would then be introduced to the bishop.  The introduction would be followed by refreshments.

In 1859 Bishop John Thomas Mullock of St. John’s hosted his New Years Day Levee in the newly established Episcopal Library. Among the guests invited on this day was Lt-Col. R. B. McCrea, a Battery Commander and later Garrison Commander at Fort Townsend (now the site of The Rooms.)

McCrea was most impressed by the levee and the newly established library.   Ten years later in 1869 McCrea wrote a book about his experiences in Newfoundlandentitled “Lost Amid The Fogs: Sketches of Life in Newfoundland, England’s Ancient Colony.”  He wrote about the New Years Day levee

“Then to His Lordship (Bishop John Thomas  Mullock) we paid our respects and congratulations as was right and proper. A hearty reciprocation and a glass of champagne were his return for the compliments, to say nothing of taking us around his noble library, the finest room in the Colony.

McCrea was impressed by the library but he was not so impressed by the living quarters of the bishop and priests. He wrote:

This reception room was handsome, adorned with statuary from Italy, but for himself and the priests that lived with him, the little room below with its deal chairs and common delf would have been probably scorned by a layman. So strange is the contrast which presents in the attributes of his daily life and the profession he upholds.”

On Thursday, 01 January 2015 from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m., His Honour the Honourable Frank F. Fagan, Lieutenant Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador and Her Honour Patricia Fagan will welcome members of the public to the traditional New Year’s Levee at Government House.

Recommended Reading: “Lost Amid The Fogs: Sketches of Life in Newfoundland, England’s Ancient Colony.” 

Recommended Website: The History of the Basilica: http://www.museevirtuel-virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/expositions-exhibitions/basilique-basilica/en/index.htm