Michael Anthony Fleming
Irish Nationalist/Church Leader
Michael Anthony Fleming (c. 1792 – July 14, 1850) was Catholic bishop of St. John's, Newfoundland. He was principally responsible for changing a small mission with several priests in four parishes into a large diocese with over 40,000 congregants and was the single most influential Irish immigrant to come to Newfoundland in the 19th century.
Michael Anthony Fleming was born about three miles from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary, Ireland. As a boy, Fleming studied the classics for two years at Stradbally, Co. Waterford and entered the Franciscan seminary at Wexford. Fleming was ordained on October 15, 1815 and assigned to a friary at Carrickbeg. His experience in helping to rebuild the Franciscan chapel there marked him at an early age as a "builder", and stood him in good stead for his later work in Newfoundland.
In 1823, at the invitation of Bishop Thomas Scallan and the Benevolent Irish Society, Fleming was recruited to come and work as a priest in St. John's. From the outset, Fleming proved to be of a very different temperament from Scallan. His ideas about the place of the Irish and Catholicism in Newfoundland were informed by his experience of his close friend Daniel O'Connell's nationalist politics in Ireland. Soon after he was consecrated coadjutor bishop in the Chapel in St. John's in 1829, Fleming implemented his Ultramontanism ideology; he embarked on a systematic expansion of institutional Catholicism in Newfoundland. This included the construction of new parish churches, the subdivision of existing parishes into new parishes, the recruitment of Irish priests, and the introduction of two religious orders of Irish women to teach young female children. He took pains to visit outport Newfoundland, and during the winter of 1835 lived in a fishing room at Petty Harbour, administering smallpox vaccine to the whole community of Catholics and Anglicans, and remaining in quarantine with them when no physician or other clergyman would go there.
Fleming’s influence was not limited to the religious sphere. As Vicar Apostolic, and later as Bishop, he promoted the interest of the Irish Catholics in Newfoundland’s political sphere. Through petitioning the governor and the Colonial Office, Fleming was instrumental in enforcing the Emancipation Act for Irish Catholics in Newfoundland in 1832. In addition, with the parallel granting of Representative Government for the colony, Fleming was outspoken in the political process, lending support to candidates, both Catholic and Protestant, who furthered the rights and privileges he felt were important for the Irish Catholic population in the colony. Whether in church administration, education or political activities, Fleming’s bold actions and attitude marked a significant departure for the Catholic clergy in the Newfoundland colony.
Because of his deliberate political influence, Fleming, himself an “Irish nationalistic”, was viewed by many as a disruptive force in Newfoundland politics. He saw himself as the leader of the Irish community and was not shy about taking on the local British establishment, much as his friend and countryman Daniel O'Connell was doing at home, especially since he felt threatened by the Church of England's attempts to counteract growing Catholic influence. The struggle spilled over into inflammatory newspaper editorials, and lawsuits between increasingly bitter rivals. Tensions were made worse by the actions of partisans on both sides of the divide. Fleming intervened to get particular men elected, raising in the Tory minds the specter of a “priests' party” dominating the Assembly. From this point, church influence remained a dominant factor in Newfoundland politics from the 1830s onward.