HERRON (Hearn), WILLIAM, Roman Catholic priest; b. 11 Jan. 1784 in St Bridget of Killaly, near Blackwater (Republic of Ireland), son of James Herron and Mary Coughlin; d. 5 Oct. 1838 in Placentia, Nfld.
William Herron came to the Newfoundland mission from Ireland in the spring of 1811 as a candidate for the priesthood. Almost immediately, the vicar apostolic, Patrick Lambert*, whose practice it was to send clerical students for training in Lower Canada, assigned Herron to the Séminaire de Nicolet. Faced with a shortage of priests, Lambert sought to have him return to Newfoundland as early as September 1813, but Herron was judged not yet sufficiently advanced in his studies. His ordination to the priesthood took place in the chapel of the Ursuline convent in Quebec City on 21 Aug. 1814. He was the second priest ordained for the Newfoundland vicariate.
The bishop of Quebec, Joseph-Octave Plessis*, was eager to have Herron serve among the Irish in his own diocese and in February 1816 proposed exchanging him for Father Alexander Fitzgerald, a Dominican priest then in Newfoundland but destined for Quebec. Lambert was absent from Newfoundland at the time, but the request was turned down by Thomas Anthony Ewer*, his vicar general. Despite this refusal, Herron appears to have remained in Quebec for some time after his ordination.
Herron’s first known appointment in Newfoundland was as curate to Ewer in Harbour Grace from February 1817 to October 1818. It is probable that he went directly from there to the district of Placentia, where he served for the remainder of his life. Although technically curate to the parish priest of Placentia, Andrew V. Cleary, Herron appears to have been primarily responsible for the Catholics scattered throughout the outports of Placentia Bay and along the south and west coasts. One of Herron’s first accomplishments was the building of a chapel at Burin in 1819. Remarkable for the method of its construction, this chapel had been prefabricated by a Nova Scotia carpenter and shipped to Newfoundland for assembly. Thereafter, Herron made his residence in Burin, although officially he remained curate of Placentia.
In the first years of his priesthood, Herron was, according to Lambert’s successor, Thomas Scallan*, “indefatigable and zealous, an excellent missionary.” Stories are told of his constant journeys by sea and land, and of his frequent camping in makeshift tilts in the woods. Although Herron’s pastoral charge encompassed a vast expanse of coastline, he appears to have visited even far-flung places regularly. His marriage returns for October 1826, for example, show marriages celebrated from Little Placentia (Argentia) to Burgeo. Among Herron’s pastoral responsibilities was that of caring for the spiritual needs of the Micmacs at St George’s Bay on the west coast. Despite the distance involved, Herron apparently gave them regular attention. Indeed, his labours among the indigenous people of Newfoundland earned him the title “apostle to the Micmac Indians.”
In this connection Herron is sometimes credited with being the first white man to have traversed the interior of Newfoundland, a recognition which is usually given to William Eppes Cormack* for his journey in 1822. Herron is said to have made a similar journey in 1820, proceeding from St John’s to Notre Dame Bay by sea and crossing overland on foot to the west coast, a walk of some 200 miles. Like Cormack, he is supposed to have been accompanied by a single indigenous guide. However, the earliest documentary reference to Herron’s trip seems to be in a missionary report on the west coast prepared by Mgr Thomas Sears in 1877. The only known reference by Herron himself concerning travel to St George’s Bay speaks of voyaging by sea.
Herron had an interest in church affairs in Nova Scotia and Lower Canada not uncommon among the Newfoundland clergy under Lambert and Scallan, and indicative of the closer ecclesiastical relationship which existed between Newfoundland and the mainland prior to the episcopate of Michael Anthony Fleming. From 1822 to 1824 Herron carried on a correspondence with Plessis in which he offered to obtain Newfoundland and Irish candidates for the priesthood to serve in the Quebec diocese. Herron also pointed out the danger of proselytism in the case of Catholic youth attending a free school recently established in Halifax, a jurisdiction without a bishop at the time.
Herron seems to have remained at Burin until after the death in 1829 of Father Cleary, when he succeeded to the office of parish priest of Placentia. However, by 1830, Herron’s powers were failing. Fleming described him still as “indefatigable” but noted that he lacked prudence. Later the bishop said that Herron already had been afflicted by a mental illness. This condition allowed him to fulfil his duties only rarely, and for several years he had to be assisted by a curate, Edmond Doyle. In 1833 Burin became a separate parish, and in 1835 Father Pelagius Nowlan took effective control of the Placentia area. Herron’s death came three years later.
Unfortunately, few details of Herron’s missionary activities appear to have survived. Even by the standards common among Newfoundland clergymen of that day, however, his efforts in caring effectively for so large a territory for over ten years were nothing short of heroic. There can be little doubt that his zeal and activity contributed to his untimely illness and death.
AAQ, 12 A, H; 210 A, VIII; 30 CN. Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, Return of marriages, 1825–27. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritture riferite nei Congressi, America settentrionale, 2 (1792–1830). Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Harbour Grace, Nfld.), Reg. of baptisms. PRO, CO 194/61, 194/64, 194/66, 194/70. M. [A.] Fleming, Relazione della missione cattolica in Terranuova nell’America settentrionale . . . (Rome, 1837). Newfoundlander, 20 Aug. 1829, 18 Oct. 1838. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). Prowse, Hist. of Nfld. (1895). Thomas Sears, Report of the missions, Prefecture Apostolic, western Newfoundland, [ed. M. Brosnan], ([Corner Brook, Nfld., 1943]). J. A. O’Reilly, “Priests and prelates of the past (a few of many incidents),” Nfld. Quarterly, 2 (1902–3), no.4: 10–11. Kevin Whelan, “County Wexford priests in Newfoundland,” Past (Wexford, Republic of Ire.), 1985: 55–67.
Revisions based on:
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Newfoundland Supreme Court, estate files, 1814–1930; index to estate files, 1830–1996,” Estate files 1836, H–W estate files 1837, B–W estate files 1838, A–N: images 1084–92; Estate files 1841, A–W estate files 1842, A–W estate files 1843, A–E: images 633–89: www.familysearch.org/search/catalog/788690 (consulted 4 May 2021).