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SWEENY, JOHN, Roman Catholic priest and bishop; b. May 1821 in Clones, Ireland, son of James Sweeny and Mary McGuire (Macguire, Maguire); d. 25 March 1901 in Saint John, N.B.

John Sweeny was a native of Clones, but available evidence does not make clear whether he was born in the town or the parish. The matter is significant since the town is in the present Republic of Ireland whereas the parish lies mostly in Northern Ireland. In 1828 Sweeny moved to Saint John with his family. He studied at St Andrew’s College in Prince Edward Island and at the Grand Séminaire de Québec. Ordained to the priesthood in 1844, he subsequently served parishes in Saint John, Wards Creek, Chatham, and Barachois, N.B. While at Barachois, he was appointed vicar general to Bishop William Dollard*. Upon Dollard’s death in 1851, he became administrator of the diocese of Fredericton until Thomas Louis Connolly* was chosen as the new bishop. Connolly subsequently reappointed him vicar general. In 1859, when Connolly went to the archiepiscopal see of Halifax, Sweeny was named his successor as bishop of Saint John (as Fredericton had been renamed). He was consecrated on 15 April 1860. A few weeks later the diocese was divided to form the diocese of Chatham in the north and the diocese of Saint John in the south. James Rogers was named bishop of Chatham and Sweeny retained the see of Saint John.

Sweeny’s greatest accomplishments as a bishop lay in developing diocesan institutions. The missionary age for English-speaking Catholics in British North America was over by mid century, and in all the principal anglophone dioceses a process of consolidation and expansion had begun. This had been evident during the episcopate of Bishop Connolly, who founded the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception [see Honoria Conway*], recruited the Religious of the Sacred Heart for the diocese, and began construction of a cathedral. Sweeny completed the work on the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and obtained the services of additional religious orders, including the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Holy Cross Fathers, the Redemptorists, and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

This influx of nuns and priests enabled Sweeny to develop an extensive network of educational and charitable institutions, including two orphanages (one for boys, the other for girls), an industrial school, a home for the aged, a classical college, and numerous local schools. Meanwhile, he erected several new parishes and missions both in the city and in rural districts and greatly increased the complement of priests in the diocese. The number of clergymen more than tripled from 1860 to 1895, when 62 priests were serving a population of approximately 60,000 Catholics. Finally, Sweeny fostered the growth of a wide array of Catholic philanthropic and devotional societies in Saint John, here again reflecting a broad contemporary trend among Catholics in Canada and elsewhere. The Catholic Mutual Benefit Association, the Young Men’s Society of St Joseph, the Father Mathew Association, St Malachi’s Total Abstinence Relief Society, the Irish Literary and Benevolent Society, the Archconfraternity of the Holy Rosary, and the Sodality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were among the voluntary associations and pious confraternities active during his episcopate. Together with Catholic educational and charitable institutions, these organizations formed a self-contained social environment, providing for the spiritual and material needs of Catholics while protecting them from the pressures of proselytism and assimilation.

A particular concern of Sweeny’s was the welfare of the impoverished Irish immigrants who had arrived in New Brunswick in the 1840s and 1850s and who were making an uncertain living in the cities as day labourers. Convinced that poverty and urban life were undermining both the spiritual and the material well-being of these Irish peasants, Sweeny undertook to remedy the situation by encouraging city-dwellers to remove to the country and return to farming. In 1860 he founded and became president of the Emigrants’ Aid Society, which helped willing settlers to obtain land grants and furnished them with information on agriculture and animal husbandry. The objective was not only to lead them back to an agricultural way of life but also to create new rural settlements where several Catholic families would live together in cohesive communities served by a resident priest. Sweeny’s plan resembled colonization schemes launched by a number of other Irish prelates in North America, including Bishop John Joseph Lynch* of Toronto, who tried unsuccessfully to establish a “New Ireland” in the west. Sweeny’s settlement of Johnville (named in his honour) was by far the most successful undertaking of its kind in British North America. Founded in 1861, it became within five years a viable community of 130 houses, two schools, and a church. Although the settlers began with no resources other than their labour, by 1866, Sweeny estimated, their collective assets were worth $100,000. The community of Johnville has survived to the present day.

Even though bishop of an important Roman Catholic diocese for more than 40 years, Sweeny did not cut a very conspicuous figure in public. He avoided controversy and generally shied away from the political arena, preferring to concentrate on the internal consolidation of Catholic institutions and resources. In the 1860s he was known to be an opponent of the proposed union of the British North American colonies, like his friend Timothy Warren Anglin*, but he was not nearly so outspoken as Archbishop Connolly, a leading supporter of the scheme. When the confederate forces in New Brunswick, led by Samuel Leonard Tilley*, suffered a resounding defeat in the provincial elections of 1865, Sweeny was accused of having exerted undue influence on his flock by preaching sermons against confederation and by ordering his clergy to oppose the scheme. No solid evidence was ever produced to support these charges. In the 1866 elections, which resulted in a victory for the cause of confederation, Sweeny maintained an even lower profile, privately opposing union but refraining from public declarations against it.

The one occasion on which Sweeny became deeply involved in political controversy arose with the passage in 1871 of the New Brunswick Common Schools Act [see George Edwin King]. Hitherto education in the province had been governed by the rather vaguely worded Parish Schools Act of 1858. This legislation made no specific provision for separate or dissentient schools. All schools were organized under a provincial Board of Education. The initiative in establishing schools lay very much at the local level, however, which meant that Roman Catholics as well as members of other denominations were effectively free to establish their own schools and receive a share of the provincial allowance for education. By 1871, 160 Catholic schools were operating in the diocese of Saint John. A significant minority of these offered instruction in French. Some were staffed by religious, and Catholic educators enjoyed complete freedom in the choice of textbooks.

During the conference on confederation held in London in 1866–67, Archbishop Connolly had attempted to secure constitutional guarantees for denominational schools in all the colonies entering the projected union. His proposals failed, largely because they would have undermined provincial rights and thus jeopardized the control of Quebec over its educational system. Section 93 of the British North America Act of 1867 guaranteed, through federal powers of disallowance, the continuance of separate or dissentient schools only where these had been established by law at the time of confederation. In effect, Catholic schools in both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were left unprotected.

In the face of the 1871 act, which came into operation on 1 Jan. 1872, Sweeny, acting in concert with Bishop Rogers of Chatham and supported by Anglin and John Costigan*, Irish Catholic mps from New Brunswick, tried by both political and legal means to defend the right of Catholics to operate their own schools. Appeals were made to Ottawa, to the colonial secretary in London, and to the Supreme Court of New Brunswick. By the end of 1872, however, the federal government had managed to deflect demands for disallowance and the law officers of the crown had upheld the validity of the schools act; early in 1873 the Supreme Court also concluded that the legislation was within the powers of the provincial government. New Brunswick Catholics nevertheless continued their efforts. In the spring of 1873 Sweeny travelled to Ottawa twice to elicit support for the campaign against the legislation. This campaign culminated in the House of Commons on 14 May 1873 when Costigan, at Sweeny’s urging, successfully moved disallowance of the acts assessing taxes to support the new common schools. Five days later, in spite of this vote, Sir John A. Macdonald*’s government refused to carry out the disallowance. Costigan and Anglin thereupon prepared to move no-confidence. On 18 May, at the invitation of Bishop Ignace Bourget* of Montreal, Sweeny had attended the provincial council of the Quebec church, where he appealed to the bishops to endorse the cause of separate schools in New Brunswick. Led by Bourget and by Bishop Louis-François Laflèche* of Trois-Rivières, the French Canadian hierarchy prepared a statement opposing the schools act, which was released the following day. The effect of their intervention was to ensure that a number of Conservative mps from Quebec would break ranks with the government. Macdonald bought time by promising that the federal government would pay the cost of an appeal by New Brunswick Catholics to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In view of this gesture the Quebec bishops relented, and the no-confidence motion died before reaching the floor of the house. The appeal to the JCPC would, however, be lost in July 1874.

Meanwhile, New Brunswick Catholics, led by their bishops, had been resisting the implementation of the Common Schools Act by refusing to pay school taxes. The government responded by seizing the property of those who adopted this tactic, and by making a few arrests. Joseph Michaud (1841–1903), priest of the cathedral in Saint John, was twice imprisoned, and Bishop Sweeny’s carriage was seized in 1874. Eventually, however, as the result of negotiations that started with Sweeny and John Boyd*, chairman of the Saint John school board, an accommodation was reached in 1875 which allowed Catholic schools to operate under the new law. Catholic school buildings would be leased to the school board; members of religious orders would be examined by provincial authorities but would not have to attend the teachers’ training college; children would be allowed to attend schools outside their own district where such a course was necessary for them to receive a Catholic education; textbooks would be edited to remove passages offensive to Catholics; and religious instruction for Catholic children would be allowed outside school hours. Sweeny had in fact suggested a similar compromise as early as 1871, but the authorities had rejected it.

In 1869–70 Sweeny had been in Rome to attend the first Vatican Council, where the main item of business was the proposed definition of the dogma of papal infallibility. Like his colleague Thomas Connolly, he was opposed to the definition; unlike Connolly, however, he played no active part in attempts to prevent it. He made no speeches and when the final vote was taken he declined to be present, his absence perhaps intended as an expression of disapproval. After returning to Saint John, he, like most other opposition bishops, openly submitted to the council’s solemn definition.

The last years of Sweeny’s episcopate coincided with the emergence of Acadian nationalism in the Maritime provinces. An important aspect of this movement, in which French-speaking clergy played a prominent role, was the attempt on the part of Acadians to gain control over their own ecclesiastical institutions. Their efforts were met with resistance or at least indifference on the part of the anglophone bishops who controlled the five Maritime dioceses. The population of the diocese of Saint John was approximately one-third Acadian. Acadian leaders accused Sweeny of various injustices, including refusal to provide opportunities for French-speaking Catholics to confess in their own language. His policies toward the education of Acadians also proved controversial, especially with respect to the College of Saint Joseph in Memramcook.

In the 1850s François-Xavier-Stanislas Lafrance*, a Lower Canadian priest who served many years as a missionary among the Acadians, had acquired land at Memramcook and erected a building in which he operated a secondary school until 1862. He handed over this property to Sweeny in 1863 on the condition that it be used to establish a classical college principally for Acadians. Sweeny recruited Holy Cross Fathers from Montreal to staff the college [see Camille Lefebvre*] and transferred the property to the newly established institution. His efforts to support Saint Joseph’s were publicly praised by at least some Acadian spokesmen, but others close to the scene, including one of the professors, were sharply critical of his policy of making the college “bilingual,” which in their judgement meant that it was effectively English-speaking. Acadian nationalists were so dissatisfied that in 1874 Father Marcel-François Richard*, one of their leading figures, established the short-lived Collège Saint-Louis, at Saint-Louis-de-Kent in the diocese of Chatham, as an alternative.

By the end of the 19th century, mounting demands by Acadians for control of their own ecclesiastical and religious affairs had begun to focus on the need for an Acadian bishop or possibly even an Acadian diocese centred on Moncton. In 1899, conscious of his failing health, Sweeny applied to Rome for the appointment of a coadjutor with right of succession. The Acadians, having learned of this initiative and knowing that Rogers of Chatham was also seeking a coadjutor, tried to secure the nomination of at least one French-speaking candidate. Late that year, however, on the recommendation of the Maritime bishops, Rome selected priests of Irish descent for both dioceses, Timothy Casey* for Saint John and Thomas Francis Barry for Chatham. In 1900 Acadian spokesmen petitioned the New Brunswick episcopate to support the creation of an Acadian diocese; on this occasion Sweeny did not deign to reply. It was not until 1912, when Édouard-Alfred Le Blanc* was named bishop of Saint John, that Acadians met with success in their endeavours.

Sweeny’s legacy to the Roman Catholic Church in New Brunswick was a vastly expanded network of diocesan institutions. His achievements in this respect were typical of those of bishops throughout British North America at the time. As an ecclesiastical administrator he was businesslike and occasionally shrewd. As a spokesman in political and theological affairs, however, he was a man of quite ordinary abilities, who was overshadowed by his more able predecessor and metropolitan Thomas Connolly.

Terrence Murphy

Arch. du Diocèse de Bathurst, N.-B., Groupe II/1 (fonds James Rogers) (photocopies at UNBL). Arch. of the Diocese of Saint John, N.B., Sweeny papers. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Acta, 1859, 223: f.446; Nuova serie, 75: f.354; 195: f.65. Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Rome), Delegazione apostolica del Canadà, 178: 23–29. NA, MG 26, A; MG 27, I, D15. N.B. Museum, Tilley family papers. Le Moniteur acadien, 4 sept. 1894. Morning Freeman (Saint John), 7 June 1860, 27 Nov. 1866. New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser, 2 Dec. 1870, 17 Dec. 1873. New Freeman (Saint John), 26 Sept. 1942 [clipping in the Sweeny papers at the Arch. of the Diocese of Saint John]. StJohn Daily Sun, 26–27 March 1901. T. W. Acheson, Saint John: the making of a colonial urban community (Toronto, 1985). W. M. Baker, Timothy Warren Anglin, 1822–96: Irish Catholic Canadian (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1873, no.44. D. B. Flemming, “Archbishop Thomas L. Connolly, godfather of confederation,” CCHA Study sessions, 37 (1970): 67–84. Jacques Grisé, Les conciles provinciaux de Québec et l’Église canadienne (1851–1886) (Montréal, 1979). W. P. Kilfoil, Johnville: the centennial story of an Irish settlement (Johnville, N.B., 1962). Roberto Perin, “Clerics and the constitution: the Quebec church and minority rights in Canada,” CCHA Hist. studies, 56 (1989): 31–47. Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, ed. G. D. Mansi et al. (53v. in 60, Paris, etc., 1901–27; repr. Graz, Austria, 1960), 49–53. M. S. Spigelman, “Race et religion: les Acadiens et la hiérarchie catholique irlandaise du Nouveau-Brunswick,” RHAF, 29 (1975–76): 69–85. G. J. Stortz, “Archbishop Lynch and New Ireland: an unfulfilled dream for Canada’s northwest,” Catholic Hist. Rev. (Washington), 68 (1982): 612–24. Léon Thériault, “The Acadianization of the Catholic Church in Acadia (1763–1953),” The Acadians of the Maritimes: thematic studies, ed. Jean Daigle (Moncton, N.B., 1982), 271–339. P. M. Toner, “The foundations of the Catholic Church in English-speaking New Brunswick,” New Ireland remembered: historical essays on the Irish in New Brunswick, ed. P. M. Toner (Fredericton, 1989), 63–70; “The New Brunswick schools question,” CCHA Study sessions, 37: 85–95. K. F. Trombley, “Thomas Louis Connolly (1815–1876): the man and his place in secular and ecclesiastical history” (phd thesis, Katholieke Univ. Leuven, Belgium, 1983; photographic copy privately issued by the author, Saint John, 1983).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Terrence Murphy, “SWEENY, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 16, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sweeny_john_13E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sweeny_john_13E.html
Author of Article: Terrence Murphy
Title of Article: SWEENY, JOHN
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1994
Year of revision: 1994
Access Date: September 16, 2014