EWER (Yore), THOMAS ANTHONY, Roman Catholic priest, Franciscan, and vicar general; b. c. 1750 in Dublin, son of John Ewer and his wife Catherine, and brother of William Yore (Ewer), later vicar general of Dublin; d. 5 Feb. 1833 in Harbour Grace, Nfld.
Thomas Anthony Ewer’s parents “enjoyed a considerable degree of affluence” and could send him to a Latin school at an early age. Inclined towards religious life, Thomas eventually entered St Isidore’s College, Rome, and was ordained a priest on 19 Jan. 1776. His next years were spent at Franciscan houses in Bohemia at Prague, and in France at Nimes and Avignon; for a time he was lecturer in philosophy at St Isidore’s. In 1782 he returned to Dublin to become curate of Rathfarnham, and in 1787 he was made guardian of the friary of Clane, in County Kildare.
That same year, having volunteered for Newfoundland, Ewer was sent for by the prefect apostolic, James Louis O’Donel*. Upon arrival in 1789, he was appointed to the new parish of Ferryland. This was a difficult assignment, since Ewer was expected to counteract the activities of Patrick Power, also resident at Ferryland, one of several Irish priests in Newfoundland who had refused to recognize O’Donel’s authority. Power had won support by reviving the Irish provincial quarrels of several years before and by suggesting that O’Donel, a Munsterman, was biased against priests from the province of Leinster.
As a Leinsterman, Ewer was the obvious choice to challenge Power, although he was hampered by his inability to speak Irish, the only language of most of his people. By the time of the new pastor’s appointment Power had been suspended by several Leinster bishops and excommunicated by O’Donel. With prudence and patience (despite being accosted and threatened by Power during a service), Ewer was able to master the situation quickly. By 1790 Power’s influence seemed to have waned, and he apparently left Ferryland shortly afterwards.
However, Ewer’s troubles had not ended. Governor Mark Milbanke*, unlike his predecessors John Campbell and John Elliot, was hostile to Catholicism. Ewer’s request in 1790 to construct a chapel at Ferryland was rejected summarily, with Milbanke using the occasion to threaten the restriction of church activities. The situation remained perilous until the arrival the next year of chief judge John Reeves, who was able to assure O’Donel that the Catholic Church in Newfoundland would not be harassed by the local authorities.
The danger of persecution removed, Ewer was free to attend to the needs of a large parish. In 1791 O’Donel sought an Irish-speaking priest for the Trepassey–St Mary’s section, but without success, and Ferryland continued to include “near 2,500 people . . . in ten different harbours in the space of about seventy miles.” By 1796 Ewer had completed an elegant chapel and house at Ferryland, built largely at his own expense. At Bay Bulls he had much success in bringing Anglicans to Roman Catholicism. In fact, so strongly Catholic did the entire district become that in 1796 the Anglican clergyman, Samuel Cole (with whom Ewer was on good terms), had to leave Ferryland for lack of support.
In 1806 Ewer exchanged parishes with Father Ambrose Fitzpatrick, moving from Ferryland to Harbour Grace (where he had temporarily served in 1800). There, too, Ewer showed himself to be an enterprising pastor. He is regarded as the founder, in 1814, of the Harbour Grace Benevolent Irish Society, a charitable association. In his time chapels were built throughout the parish – at Bay de Verde, Port de Grave, Carbonear, Harbour Main, Northern Bay, Cupids, and Brigus. The assistance of able curates from 1817 onwards, notably Nicholas Devereux from 1819 to 1830 and Dennis Makin from 1822 to 1832, meant that better service could be provided. Liberally supported, in the 1820s Ewer spent over £5,000 in erecting at Harbour Grace a new house and a magnificent wooden church, probably then the colony’s largest building. No religious strife disturbed the area; indeed Lewis Amadeus Anspach, the Church of England rector, once wrote that “no part of the world could possibly enjoy a greater degree of peace and tranquility.”
In 1796 O’Donel had become Newfoundland’s first bishop and vicar apostolic. Ewer, previously vice prefect, thereupon became vicar general, an appointment he held until his death. He thus administered the vicariate (usually from St John’s) during several prolonged absences of the bishops, notably in 179697, 1811–12, 1815–16, and 1823–24. In this role Ewer handled the final negotiations with government in 1811 for a cemetery in St John’s, the first grant of public land to the Catholic Church in Newfoundland. Similarly, in 1823–24 he shouldered much of the responsibility for organizing opposition to proposed marriage legislation [see Thomas Scallan].
Ewer actively supported various educational projects. In 1812 he was a leading proponent of a non-denominational Sunday school in St John’s for poor children. He personally founded a school at Harbour Grace in 1814 and for 12 years supported it from his own pocket. In 1826 he had this school put on a more permanent footing as St Patrick’s Free School, wherein there was to be “no distinction of clime, country or creed,” with clergy of all denominations invited to care for their own charges. Ewer’s great dream was to see a local seminary for the training of priests, to him an essential need if Newfoundland was to have a sufficient and stable clergy. He initiated such a project in 1817 but had to abandon it, probably because of the poverty of the times. (His will, however, provided a major bequest for the education of priests for Newfoundland.)
By 1830 Ewer’s health was faltering, and three years later he died after a short, though painful, illness. His 44 years in Newfoundland had witnessed Roman Catholicism’s growth from the religion of a barely tolerated minority to that of a powerful and well-organized majority. Ewer was an intelligent, effective, and dedicated church leader, who made his own substantial contribution to this progress, all the while retaining universal respect. An obituary spoke of his greatest quality as “the boundless benevolence of a truly catholic spirit.” It was an apt summation.
AAQ, 210 A, I: 8; 30 CN, I. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Dublin, Troy papers, I–III. Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, Fleming papers; O’Donel papers; Scallan papers. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America Antille, 2 (1761–89)–3 (1790–1819). Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), Reg. of baptisms. PRO, ADM 80/121; CO 194/46, 194/49, 194/67, 194/78. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., 1–3; X 145. M. A. Fleming, Relazione della missione cattolica in Terranuova nell’America settentrionale . . . (Rome, 1837). Patrick Morris, Remarks on the state of society, religion, morals, and education at Newfoundland . . . (London, 1827). Newfoundlander (St John’s), 28 Oct. 1829, 14 Feb. 1833. Newfoundland Indicator (St John’s), 17 Feb., 18 May 1844. Newfoundland Mercantile Journal, 4 April 1822, 3 Nov. 1825, 6 July 1826. Public Ledger, 8 Feb., 1 March 1833. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906?]). George Conroy, “The first bishop of Newfoundland,” in his Occasional sermons, addresses, and essays (Dublin, 1884), 315–27. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). “The old graveyards of St. John’s,” The book of Newfoundland, ed. J. R. Smallwood (6v., St John’s, 1937–75), 5: 108–10. Philip O’Connell, “Dr. James Louis O’Donnell (1737–1811), first bishop of Newfoundland,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record (Dublin), 103 (1965): 308–24.