POWER, JOHN, Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan; b. in the province of Munster (Republic of Ireland), probably in County Tipperary or County Waterford; d. between 14 June and 12 Sept. 1823 at Twenty Mile Pond (Windsor Lake), near St John’s.
John Power, a Franciscan priest in Ireland, was guardian (superior) of the convents of that order in Bantry from 1785 to 1787 and in Clonmel from 1787 to 1797, and it is quite possible, but not certain, that he was the Franciscan priest who later resided in Newfoundland. This John Power came to Newfoundland from Ireland, apparently in 1808. He did so without the required ecclesiastical permissions and without the approval of Bishop Patrick Lambert*, the vicar apostolic of Newfoundland. Despite these irregularities, Lambert may have made use temporarily of Power’s services. The priest’s name appears as that of a Catholic clergyman at St John’s on the government’s list of Newfoundland clergy for 1810.
However, on 8 June 1812 Lambert suspended “the Reverend, or rather Irreverend Father John Power” from all his priestly functions, for “conduct unpriestly, immoral and scandalously criminal.” The specific charge was that the priest had formed a liaison with a woman who followed him to St John’s from Bonavista or one of the other northern harbours. Power accepted his suspension “with an ill-grace,” and in 1813 Governor Sir Richard Goodwin Keats sought to have him quietly removed from Newfoundland. A close working relationship then existed between the Catholic bishops and the Newfoundland administration, and his disfavour with the bishop automatically made Power suspect. Although Keats had no evidence that Power was disloyal to the crown, he feared the priest’s influence, describing him as “of manners plausible and taking with the Lower Classes.” Keats even used the case to seek to have the British government take measures that would prevent any priest from emigrating to Newfoundland without the formal approval of the Roman Catholic bishop. However, no action was taken by the government on that suggestion or on the request to have Power removed.
Throughout this period, both fish prices and wages had been high, and Irish immigration substantial. In the spring of 1815, however, with the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the market became depressed. Nevertheless, swayed by reports of the booming fishery of previous years, thousands of Irish immigrants, many of them passengers on overcrowded vessels and near starvation, still streamed into St John’s. They faced only disappointment, with massive unemployment and wages far below those of the past year. The workers formed into rival county gangs, with secret oaths to be true to each other and compacts not to hire out to merchants or planters at less than agreed wages. As had happened in the early 1780s, quarrels soon broke out between factions from Leinster and Munster, the two Irish provinces mainly represented among the immigrants. In St John’s there were regular fights and disturbances along provincial lines, with the Leinster gangs – Wexford “Yellowbellies” and Kilkenny “Doonanes” – pitted against those from the province of Munster – Waterford “Whey-bellies,” Tipperary “Clear-airs,” and the less numerous Cork “Dadyeens.”
The quarrels were heightened by the dispute between Lambert and Power. Lambert’s suspension of Power had offended many of the Irish from Munster, who continued to pay the priest, one of their own, “every demonstration of Respect and attention.” Although at least half the Newfoundland Irish came from Munster, Lambert and almost all his clergy were Leinstermen from County Wexford; this gave further offence. In 1815 these factors created a body of support for Power and undermined the bishop’s preaching against the oath-taking and fighting. The troubles continued until the early summer, but they appear to have subsided thereafter. The incipient unionism was a complete failure. The “combinations” against the merchants collapsed, and servants were obliged to accept what work there was at half the wages of the year before.
Although not a great deal is known of Power’s activities in subsequent years, his troubles continued under Lambert’s successor, Thomas Scallan. In 1820 Power went secretly to Labrador and, despite his suspension, celebrated mass there. On 29 October Scallan, who felt that the priest had been “generally in a state of rebellion against his ordinary” and who had previously given him a canonical warning, publicly excommunicated him. In his explanation to Rome, the bishop accused Power also of being prone to drinking, of having taken another priest to court in a dispute over a debt, and of having struck a priest who was saying mass. In his turn, Power soon afterwards sued the bishop himself in the Supreme Court, claiming that Scallan had deprived him of certain funds due to him. Chief Justice Francis Forbes* and a jury, however, found in the bishop’s favour.
By 1822 Scallan could refer to Power as an “old reprobate” and note that he had few followers. He lived at Twenty Mile Pond, where he supported himself by using his house as a tavern, selling spirits to travellers. His death took place while Scallan was absent from Newfoundland, but the bishop was informed upon his return that Power had died “truly penitent” for his past deeds.
Almost all that is known of John Power comes from his opponents, and the picture that emerges is consequently one-sided. He must have been a talented man. In his prime he held great sway with the public, and even in the midst of the troubles of 1815 Chief Justice Cæsar Colclough noted that “some very respectable people speak very favourably of him.” Power’s differences with Lambert and Scallan partially reflect the social and economic pressures brought about by the wave of Irish immigration between 1810 and 1816, as well as the faction-fighting which constantly plagued the Newfoundland Irish in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Perhaps in other circumstances Power’s role might have been considerably different.
AAQ, 30 CN. Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, Lambert papers, suspension of John Power, 8 June 1812. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America Settentrionale, 2 (1792–1830): ff.350–51. PRO, ADM 80/151: 16–19; CO 194/49: 119; 194/55: 233 et seq.; 194/56: 24, 26, 45–46, 51–52, 105–13, 173–75, 179–80, 211. Liber Dubliniensis: chapter documents of the Irish Franciscans, 1719–1875, ed. Anselm Faulkner (Killiney, Republic of Ire., 1978). Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 29 Nov. 1821. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979).