McPHELIM, FRANCIS, merchant and politician; b. 1811 in Donegal (Republic of Ireland), son of Peter and Catherine McPhelim; m. in 1839 Rosanna McGuirk of Saint John, N.B.; d. 14 Oct. 1866 in Buctouche, N. B.
Francis McPhelim immigrated with his family to Buctouche in 1821. Like his father he entered the mercantile and shipping business of that community. As a prosperous Irish Catholic, he soon assumed a position of leadership for his people in New Brunswick. In 1850 he was elected to represent Kent County in the assembly, and although he was pledged to the principle of responsible government, like most of his north shore colleagues he supported the “compact” party. During the first administration of Charles Fisher* and the “smashers” (1854–56), McPhelim became a leading Conservative, apparently because of his opposition to temperance. His role is uncertain in the political crisis which developed in May 1856 when Lieutenant Governor John Henry Thomas Manners-Sutton* forced the resignation of the “smashers” for their failure to repeal the Prohibition Act of 1855, but McPhelim was appointed postmaster general in the “compact” government which was formed at that time to support the governor’s position. He thus became the first Roman Catholic appointed to the Executive Council, a recognition both of McPhelim’s abilities and of the rising political power of the Irish in New Brunswick. Although the summer elections of 1856 were primarily concerned with temperance and the governor’s prerogative, in parts of New Brunswick the contest was seen as one against “Rum and Romanism”; this emphasis helped to propel the Irish vote to the “compact” party and increased McPhelim’s importance in the government. By July 1857 he and his “compact” colleagues were back in the opposition [see John Hamilton Gray*], where he spent the remainder of his political career.
McPhelim established a reputation as a moderate in religious matters, and, refusing to use Irish political power as a club, he sought instead to win concessions with a minimum of bitterness. He defended King’s College, an Anglican institution, against the assaults of the Baptists and Methodists, and in turn won Church of England support in the matter of lower education. In 1858, when, during discussion of the Public Schools Act, a debate developed concerning the reading of the Scriptures in the parish schools, Protestant opinion was divided between fear and appeasement of the Catholics. The options seemed to be either Protestant schools or schools without religious instruction. But McPhelim proposed an amicable solution to the impasse, whereby the Scriptures would be read in the schools, but Catholic children would use the Douay Bible. When combined with the responsibility of teachers to inculcate Christian principles, the McPhelim amendment in effect gave legal status to Catholic denominational schools in New Brunswick; it was a small but significant victory for Catholic schools.
McPhelim’s later career was marked by the same moderation. He supported the Intercolonial Railway continuously during the 1850s and 1860s, but preferred construction of the western extension of the European and North American Railway to the United States. When confederation was proposed, he refused to support the plan, but was too restrained in his condemnation to retain favour with his strongly anti-confederate constituents. He lost his seat in 1865, and later that year was appointed high sheriff of Kent County; he died the next year.
In a period not remembered for ethnic and religious tolerance, McPhelim’s moderate leadership of the Irish was at least in part responsible for the relative social stability of New Brunswick.
N.B. Museum, Observer [E. S. Carter], “Linking the past with the present” (clippings). Gleaner (Chatham, N.B.), 1864–66. Morning Freeman (Saint John, N.B.), 1851–66. Morning News (Saint John, N.B.), 1853–66. Morning Telegraph (Saint John, N.B.), 1863–66. G. E. Fenety, “Political notes,” Progress (Saint John, N.B.), 1894 (collected in a scrapbook in N.B. Museum and PAC). Hannay, History of N.B. Lawrence, Judges of N.B. (Stockton). MacNutt, New Brunswick.