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FENELON, MAURICE, teacher, bookseller, politician, and office holder; b. 1834 in County Carlow (Republic of Ireland); m. Ellen Kitchen of St John’s, and they had one son; d. 31 Jan. 1897 in St John’s.

In 1856 Maurice Fenelon, the holder of a first-class teacher’s certificate from the Irish Board of National Education, sailed to St John’s to become master of English and mathematics at St Bonaventure’s College, a Roman Catholic boys’ school founded that year. One of his pupils later described him as “a strict disciplinarian, [who] insisted upon having every rule of the Institution carried out to the letter” but who nevertheless “could crack a joke or make a pun.” He left the college in 1867 and moved to the United States, where he remained for perhaps three years. By 1870 he had returned to St John’s and by the following year had resumed teaching, at the St John’s Academy. By this time, too, he had applied his knowledge of literature to the more lucrative book and stationery trade. As proprietor of the “Catholic and General Book-Store, Cheap Stationery Warehouse and News Depot” he would continue to sell, amongst his other wares, “musical instruments, walking sticks, religious items, pictures and beads,” until the great fire of 1892 razed his Water Street premises and much of St John’s.

Fenelon’s interests seem to have been as varied as his inventory. In an 1871 St John’s West by-election the book-selling schoolmaster was elected by acclamation to the Newfoundland legislature as a supporter of Charles James Fox Bennett*, a Protestant. (Fenelon would be returned in the next three elections.) In the 1869 general election Bennett had achieved, despite the sectarianism that haunted Newfoundland politics, a precarious coalition of Protestants and Roman Catholics united in their opposition to confederation with Canada, espoused by Frederic Bowker Terrington Carter. Fenelon was carried on the tide of anti-confederate sentiment in 1871, but by the general election of 1873 the crisis was past and, with the votes falling along more traditional denominational lines, Bennett’s crumbling alliance was barely successful. Bennett resigned early the next year after defections from his party, and in the fall Carter’s Protestant party was returned.

By the 1878 election both Carter and Bennett were gone, and the new issue of a transinsular railway again united Protestants and Roman Catholics on the government side of the house. Fenelon found himself in the uncomfortable position of sitting in opposition to a party, led by William Vallance Whiteway*, now becoming identified with traditional Roman Catholic Liberal causes. Before the year was out Fenelon had resigned his seat, and in May 1879 he was appointed Roman Catholic inspector of schools., succeeding Michael John Kelly*. This position, his business, and his involvement with the Benevolent Irish Society (as president 1874–79 and as an active member until his death) occupied him as he watched the smouldering fuse of colony politics for the next seven years.

In 1882 Whiteway’s party was elected in a landslide victory that crossed religious lines and defeated the Protestant-aligned New party, led by James J. Rogerson*. But in December 1883 sectarian violence exploded in the town of Harbour Grace; an encounter between Protestants and Catholics during an Orange parade left five dead. The British Admiralty was asked to send a warship in case of further trouble, and the nervous Protestant majority in the colony united against the Catholics and against Whiteway. They held him responsible for the acquittal in 1884–85 of all 19 defendants [see Robert John Kent]. Whiteway resigned in October 1885 and Robert Thorburn* pulled together a coalition of Protestant members which, as the Reform party, formed the government. In the ensuing general election, amid strong religious animosity, the Reformers beat the Liberals under Sir Ambrose Shea*; the resulting assembly was divided along strict religious lines, with not a single Roman Catholic member on the government side. On the verge of further religious antagonism and perhaps more bloodshed, Premier Thorburn called upon Maurice Fenelon as the right man, at the right time, and – most important – of the right religion.

In an attempt to repair the religious division in the government and colony, Thorburn asked Fenelon and Liberal co-religionist William J. S. Donnelly to join his administration. Fenelon, who did not have a seat in the house, was sworn in to the important office of colonial secretary on 26 July 1886 and appointed to the Legislative Council. The new governor, Sir George William Des Vœux*, in a report to the Colonial Office, saw the choice of these “eminently qualified” men as signalling the abatement of religious tensions and portending “the conclusion of the extreme Sectarian bitterness which has of recent years characterized the politics of this Colony.” Not only did the appointment appease the Roman Catholics (a measure of the respect for Fenelon in the community), but by the time the house opened all except three of the Catholic members had joined Thorburn, and a precedent of denominational representation had been established that would become a modus vivendi for nearly all administrations thereafter.

As colonial secretary, Fenelon was involved in the delicate international negotiations over the Bait Act, which took effect in 1888 [see Robert Stewart Munn]. But the following year new issues and old politicians combined to defeat Thorburn’s party. Whiteway left retirement to lead the refurbished Liberals in the general election and to level familiar accusations of corruption against the incumbents, and the Reformers were all but annihilated. Fenelon, running in Harbour Main, was out-polled nearly ten votes to one by both of his Liberal opponents.

Fenelon returned to his books only briefly; the fire destroyed his premises in 1892, and the following year he was enticed to run once more, this time under the tory banner in St John’s East. The Liberal party was again successful, but charges of corrupt election practices led to Whiteway’s resignation. While the courts investigated, Augustus Frederick Goodridge, the Conservative leader, was asked to form a government in April 1894, and Fenelon, who had been defeated in the election, was invited to reassume a seat on the Legislative Council. He did so on 7 August. Whiteway eventually returned as premier, but Fenelon remained on the council. In December, on the heels of the fire of 1892 and the political crisis, came the crash of the colony’s major banks, and Fenelon, now a respected elder statesman, was appointed a trustee of the defunct Commercial Bank of Newfoundland. When he died in 1897, still a legislative councillor, the newspapers of the day remarked that this pioneer educator and political peacemaker had been accorded virtually a state funeral.

Robert D. Pitt

PRO, CO194/209: 151–52; CO199/83–90 (copy at PANL). Nfld., Legislative Council, Journal, 1886–94. Daily News (St John’s), 1, 3 Feb. 1897. Evening Herald (St John’s), 31 Jan. 1895, 1 Feb. 1897. Evening Telegram (St John’s), 1 Feb. 1897. Encyclopedia of Nfld. (Smallwood et al.), 1: 679–749. Nfld. men (Mott), 59. Nfld. year book and almanac, 1870–92. Whos who in and from Newfoundland . . . (St John’s, 1927), 224. Centenary volume, Benevolent Irish Society of St Johns, Newfoundland, 1806–1906 (Cork, [Republic of Ire., 1906]), 134–35. Hiller, “Hist. of Nfld.” F. W. Rowe, A history of Newfoundland and Labrador (Toronto, 1980). Harvey Mitchell, “The constitutional crisis of 1889 in Newfoundland,” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (Toronto), 24 (1958): 323–31. ParsonsXmas Annual (St John’s), 1907: 13–16.

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Cite This Article

Robert D. Pitt, “FENELON, MAURICE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 18, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fenelon_maurice_12E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fenelon_maurice_12E.html
Author of Article:   Robert D. Pitt
Title of Article:   FENELON, MAURICE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   May 18, 2024