O’DONEL (O’Donnell), JAMES LOUIS, Roman Catholic priest, Franciscan, and vicar apostolic; b. c. 1737 near Knocklofty (Republic of Ireland), son of Michael O’Donel and Ann Crosby; d. 1 April 1811 in Waterford (Republic of Ireland).
James Louis O’Donel and his brother Michael, the sons of a prosperous farmer, received their initial education from a private tutor. Both boys were then sent to Limerick to study the classics. There they expressed a wish to enter the priesthood, and were admitted into the Franciscan order. Some time about the mid 1760s James Louis was sent to the Irish Franciscan college of St Isidore’s at Rome (Italy), where he was ordained in 1770. After teaching philosophy and theology at Prague (Czechoslovakia) for several years, in 1777 he returned to Ireland, where he became prior of the Franciscan monastery at Waterford. On 19 July 1779 he was elected provincial of the Irish Franciscans, a position he held until 22 July 1781. While at Waterford he established a reputation as “a popular and pathetic preacher.”
It was this popularity that was to be partially responsible for O’Donel’s appointment to Newfoundland. For much of the 18th century the Roman Catholic population of that island had been prevented from freely exercising their religion, a series of decrees from naval governors such as Richard Dorrill* threatening fines and imprisonment for those found celebrating or attending Catholic services. Some priests arrived nevertheless, but they were forced to minister to the inhabitants secretly and under difficult conditions. By 1783, however, legal obstacles to religious liberty for Roman Catholics had been removed, and Governor John Campbell gave permission to the Roman Catholics of St John’s to build a chapel. Late the same year some merchants with Waterford connections, acting on behalf of the inhabitants of St John’s, applied to Bishop William Egan of Waterford for an authorized priest, who would have sufficient faculties and jurisdiction over all other priests on the island. The merchants’ choice was O’Donel. Not only was he popular in the diocese of Waterford, whence came the great majority of Newfoundland’s Roman Catholics, but he was also fluent in Irish, a distinct advantage for his proposed mission. Consultations followed between Egan, O’Donel, and Bishop James Talbot, vicar apostolic of the London district and the official responsible for Newfoundland, which resulted in Talbot’s conditionally authorizing O’Donel as vicar general for the mission. In the mean time the matter had been referred to the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda in Rome. By decrees of 17 and 30 May 1784 Pope Pius VI constituted Newfoundland as a separate ecclesiastical territory immediately subject to the Holy See, and named O’Donel its superior (prefect apostolic).
O’Donel had meanwhile sailed for St John’s, where he arrived on 4 July. Before he could effectively supervise his new mission, however, he had first to assert his jurisdiction. He attempted to send away all unauthorized clergy, but although some left quietly others were not so submissive. In 1785 O’Donel was forced to excommunicate Patrick Lonergan (Landergan), a Dominican who had come into conflict with Edmund Burke (fl. 1785–1801), the authorized priest at Placentia. Two years later a Franciscan, Patrick Power, likewise unauthorized, arrived in Newfoundland. O’Donel apparently allowed Power to function as a priest for a time, but then Power left for an out-harbour, seemingly without O’Donel’s permission, and he subsequently refused to acknowledge O’Donel’s authority to deny him jurisdiction in Newfoundland. Although excommunicated, Power was active at Ferryland until the counter-influence of Thomas Anthony Ewer* caused support for him to wane, and he apparently left the area in 1790. The dispute had taken on a personal dimension when Power, reviving Irish provincial quarrels, suggested that as a Munsterman O’Donel was hostile to priests from Leinster such as himself.
Equally troubling to O’Donel were the obstructions he encountered from those in authority. Campbell’s successor, Rear-Admiral John Elliot, had as one of his captains Prince William Henry, who arrived in Newfoundland in 1786. While stationed at Placentia he came into conflict with Father Burke, and O’Donel apparently asked Elliot to have the prince moderate his anti-Catholic attitude. William Henry’s anger was accordingly redirected towards the superior. The prince came to St John’s, and O’Donel reported that he had been slightly injured by an iron file thrown by William Henry. The affair subsided with the prince’s departure. Two years later another of Elliot’s captains spoke out strongly against Roman Catholics and, in particular, asked Elliot to have priests removed from the island. O’Donel claimed that Elliot was about to acquiesce when his personal appeal changed the governor’s mind. O’Donel’s troubles continued in 1790 under Governor Mark Milbanke. Milbanke was hostile to Catholicism and was also determined to reduce the winter population by forcing fishermen to return home at the end of the season. Using the excuses that O’Donel encouraged residency among his parishioners – a charge which the superior admitted in letters home – and that facilities for absolution were too readily available in Newfoundland, Milbanke took action by refusing Ewer permission to erect a chapel at Ferryland. When O’Donel protested, the governor indicated that he intended to lay existing chapels “under particular restrictions” the following year. O’Donel spent an anxious winter, but with the arrival of judge John Reeves* in 1791 these plans were dropped. Although the superior had good relations with the governors thereafter, these incidents serve to show the vulnerability of the early Roman Catholic church in Newfoundland.
The mission flourished under O’Donel’s care nevertheless. By 1790 he had three priests, Patrick Phelan at Harbour Grace, Burke at Placentia, and Ewer at Ferryland. All had considerable success in proselytism at the out-harbours in their districts, making many converts to Catholicism, in particular among the Anglicans. O’Donel himself seems to have had some success at conversions in St John’s, where in 1786 William Henry had claimed that “many thousands” attended services in the chapel erected two years previously. Chapels were also built in Placentia, Harbour Grace, and Ferryland. The successes of O’Donel and his clergy were alarming to the Anglican ministers in St John’s, Walter Price and his successor John Harries, and doubtless for that reason they were somewhat hostile to the superior. On the other hand, O’Donel seems to have enjoyed good relations with John Jones*, the Congregational preacher. Since Newfoundland was separated both geographically and administratively from the mainland, O’Donel had little contact with the bishops of Quebec, although he did maintain a friendly correspondence with Joseph-Octave Plessis* and sent him likely candidates for education in Lower Canadian seminaries.
By the mid 1790s the success of the Newfoundland mission had stimulated some of its priests and laymen to seek improvement in its status, and in November 1794 they addressed a petition to the pope which asked that O’Donel be elevated to the episcopacy and given the powers of a vicar apostolic. Their request was granted, and on 23 Dec. 1795 O’Donel was elected bishop of Nilopolis in partibus. On 5 Jan. 1796 he was transferred to the diocese of Thyatira, and then on the 22nd he was appointed vicar apostolic of Newfoundland and the captured French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. The ceremony of consecration was performed at Quebec on 21 Sept. 1796 by Bishop Jean-François Hubert*. O’Donel thus became the first English-speaking Roman Catholic bishop in what is now Canada. Immediately afterwards O’Donel left for Ireland, and did not return to Newfoundland until the following year.
One of O’Donel’s main concerns during his tenure of office, and especially after the outbreak of the French revolution and the Irish rebellion, was the maintenance of peace and order among ttie Irish of St John’s. Early in 1800 a potentially dangerous situation developed when evidence was uncovered of a mutiny planned within Thomas Skinner’s Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment, which was composed mainly of Irish Catholics. Rumours persisted that the plotters meant to join with the inhabitants in a general uprising, intelligence given weight by information that some soldiers and inhabitants had taken the oath of loyalty to the radical Society of United Irishmen. Thanks to O’Donel’s exerting his influence in favour of loyalty and obedience among the civilian population, the juncture did not occur, and in the event the would-be mutineers were forced to abandon their plans [see John Skerrett]. O’Donel’s strongly loyal disposition was evident in his horror at the excesses of the French revolution. When in 1801 he set down a body of diocesan statutes, his priests were ordered to “inculcate a willing obedience to the salutary laws of England, and to the commands of the governor and magistrates of this Island.” Public prayers were to be offered every Sunday for the king and the royal family, and the priests were to oppose “with all the means in their power all plotters, conspirators, and favorers of the infidel French.” The bishop’s efforts seem to have been generally successful, for in 1805 Governor Sir Erasmus Gower could write that O’Donel’s parishioners were notable for “industry sobriety and good order.”
Notwithstanding certain periods of financial distress and the relative poverty of his parishioners, on whom he was dependent for contributions, O’Donel seems to have been adequately supported during his term in Newfoundland. Brigadier-General Skerrett made two attempts to increase his income by applying for a pension for O’Donel’s services in 1800, but the documents miscarried. Then in 1804 the “Magistrates Merchants, and other principal Inhabitants” of St John’s tried again, this time asking Governor Gower for his support. Gower recommended that O’Donel be paid £50 per annum while he remained in Newfoundland, and the British government approved. Although pleased to receive the pension, the bishop considered it insufficient, and he also wished to have the money payable during his retirement. His petition to improve the conditions had Gower’s support, but nothing came of it.
These events took place when O’Donel was feeling himself inadequate for the toils of his mission. The combination of a slight attack of apoplexy in 1804 and other symptoms of general debility convinced him that he should retire, and he requested the Holy See to appoint a coadjutor with the right of succession. Patrick Lambert accordingly arrived in St John’s in August 1806, and on 1 Jan. 1807 O’Donel resigned his mission. The scene of his departure from St John’s that July was indicative of the respect in which he was held by Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. He was entertained at a dinner given by the most prominent merchants, and the chief personages of the town gathered to bid him farewell. As a further token of appreciation, he later received a silver urn worth 150 guineas from some merchants. These rewards recognized that O’Donel had kept the Irish population of Newfoundland peaceful in a period when rebellion and turmoil were rife elsewhere.
Upon his return to Ireland, O’Donel retired to the Franciscan monastery at Waterford. One night in late March 1811 the chair in which he was reading caught fire and, though the aged prelate was only slightly injured, the shock was too great, and he died on 1 April. He was buried in St Mary’s chapel, Irishtown, near Clonmel, beneath a tombstone inscribed with an epitaph he himself is alleged to have composed.
AAQ, 30 CN, I. Arch. of the Archdiocese of Dublin, Troy papers, 1: 33. Arch. of the Archdiocese of St John’s, Howley papers: 400–1. Archivio della Propaganda Fide (Rome), Scritturi riferite nei Congressi, America Antille, 2 (1761–89): 413 et seq. PANL, GN2/1, 1749–1811. PRO, CO 5/470–506; CO 194/35–44 (mfm. at PAC); WO 1/15: ff.21–22. USPG, C/CAN/Nfl., 1, nos.69, 81. “The first bishop of Newfoundland,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record (Dublin), 2 (1866): 508–23. Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1811: 497. DNB. The Dissenting Church of Christ at St. John’s, 1775–1975: a history of St. David’s Presbyterian Church, St. John’s, Newfoundland (n.p., ), 17–19. M. F. Howley, Ecclesiastical history of Newfoundland (Boston, 1888; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1979). G. W. L. Nicholson, The fighting Newfoundlander; a history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (St John’s, [1964?]). Philip O’Connell, “Dr. James Louis O’Donnell (1737–1811), first bishop of Newfoundland,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 103 (1965): 308–24.