The Basilica of St. John the Baptist was borne by two things: the collective sacrifice and hard work of the people of St. John's and its surrounding communities, and through the singular vision, persistence, tireless efforts and faith of Bishop Michael Fleming. Because of his religious, social, political and cultural outreach, including developing the Roman Catholic institutional presence and improving the lives and rights of the Roman Catholic majority of the time, Bishop Fleming is considered one of the most important Newfoundlanders of his century.
Born in County Tipperary, Ireland, Bishop Fleming began his work in St. John's as a priest in 1823, and in 1830 was consecrated Vicar Apostolic. In 1847, Newfoundland became a Roman Catholic diocese, and Fleming assumed the title and role of the first Bishop of Newfoundland
Bishop Fleming evaluated the needs of the Catholic population of the colony and took bold actions to meet them. For example, believing more priests were needed, he actively and successfully campaigned for additional clergy, often journeying to Ireland to secure them. He also brought the first religious sisters (ie, nuns) to the island, and furthered education opportunities for both young girls and orphans.
Bishop Fleming also traveled the island, as far away as Fogo Island and Bay d-Espoir, to meet and survey the local Catholic populations. When a smallpox epidemic hit Petty Harbour between 1835-1836, he spent the winter in the community, ministering to the people and building a new church and cemetery there. Indeed, he was a devoted pastor, especially concerned with the plight of the young and the poor and with improving education, and when he died in 1850 thousands came to pay respects.
Of course, one of the most visible and lasting testaments to Fleming's tireless efforts is the Basilica of St. John the Baptist, still the site of worship for over 1000 each week. The old, wooden Chapel of St. John's provided so little protection that worshipers were often exposed to pelting rain, freezing winds and drifting snow, and Bishop Fleming saw great need for a more proper place of worship. He spent five years, facing great obstacles, securing the land on which to build. The Roman Catholic population, overjoyed with the news, assembled to help clear the land. Even women and children pitched in, the women pulling away clay in their aprons. Construction involved the entire surrounding community, Catholics and Protestants alike.
Such a big project required persistence, collaboration and great oversight. Bishop Fleming not only secured funding, but also traveled extensively to help secure materials and talent, even doing manual labour alongside his local citizens.
That the Basilica of St. John the Baptist stands as it does today is a testament not only to Bishop Fleming's great faith, but to his great belief in the people and the future of Newfoundland. He did not live to see its completion, but in 1850, it was complete enough for him to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Construction was continued by his successor, Bishop John Thomas Mullock, and the Cathedral was consecrated on September 9, 1855.
Image artist unknown. From M.F. Howley, Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland (Boston: Doyle and Whittle, 1888)