In early 19th century Newfoundland, one of the most active and influential fraternal organizations was the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS). It was founded on 17 February 1806, a month before the Feast of St. Patrick, at a meeting held at the London Tavern in St. John’s. Membership was open to adult male residents of Newfoundland who were of Irish birth or ancestry, regardless of religious persuasion. The BIS was a charitable, fraternal, middle-class social organization founded on the principles of “benevolence and philanthropy”, and had as its objects the helping of the growing numbers of poor in St. John’s, and providing for members’ families in need.
The BIS was the first non-secret fraternal society permanently established in Newfoundland. Many of the English merchants returned annually to winter in England, so the Irish who formed the BIS were among the first inhabitants of Newfoundland to consider themselves permanent residents with, as they often claimed, “a stake in the place.” Implicit in the objectives of the BIS was the advancement of the social position of its members, and a number of its founding members were members of the nascent colonial elite or aspired to membership in it.
While the vast majority of the Irish were Roman Catholics, most of the early BIS executive members were Protestants, and more than a few had military connections. The moving spirit was the Irish merchant James MacBraire, while Captain Winckworth Tonge was its first president, and others like Lieutenant-Colonel John Murray, John MacKellop, Joseph Church, and Captain William Haly were on the executive. The only Roman Catholic executive member was its secretary, Henry Shea. Because quarterly membership dues of four shillings and sixpence excluded all but men of some means, the BIS quickly became an important instrument of upward social mobility for Irishmen in Newfoundland. While the BIS carefully retained a non-sectarian character to its general membership, Roman Catholics joined in increasing numbers until the 1820s when they came to predominate in the organization.
By the 1820s, many BIS members were beginning to play prominent roles in the political life of Newfoundland and the Irish community in St. John’s, such as Patrick Kough, Patrick Morris, Timothy Hogan, and John Kent.
After 1833, John V. Nugent, a schoolteacher from Waterford, was the chief political strategist for the reformers in the House of Assembly. Later in the 1830s and 40s, wealthy Irish-Newfoundland merchants Lawrence O’Brien and James Tobin were influential members of the society. Members were forbidden, though, from bringing public politics into the affairs of the Society, and hardly ever did members all “line up” on one political side or another. More typically, very considerable differences of political opinion existed among members, who resorted to the BIS for the social reasons of dinners, receptions, and the ever-popular Feast of St. Patrick in mid-March, rather than for politics. Nevertheless, the society became a powerful force for positive social change.
In August 1823, Timothy Hogan proposed that the BIS establish an asylum “for the support and Education of Orphan Children”. A week later, a committee reported to members that the society’s patron Governor Sir Charles Hamilton had agreed, and resolutions were entertained to fund the construction of an Orphan Asylum school by subscription, and by a subvention from the society of $100 per year. Furthermore, the sum of $334.4 was collected from BIS President Patrick Morris, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Scallan, the priests Nicholas Devereux and Thomas Ewer, and members Thomas Beck, Patrick Kough, Timothy Hogan, Nicholas Croke, Aaron Hogsett, Patrick Doyle, Stephen Malone, Henry Shea, William Hogan, John Ryan, Laurence O’Brien, and others.
Morris gave $100, while Scallan and Vice-president John Ryan were the next largest contributors at $20 apiece. As the asylum was eventually deemed to be too costly and was not built, the BIS proceeded with a school alone, naming it the Orphan Asylum. Built on Queen’s Road on the side of the hill overlooking St. John’s, the Orphan Asylum featured a prominent tower observatory, and it was one of the most prominent architectural features of the city in its day.
Although by the 1820s almost all the subscribed members of the society were Roman Catholic, the BIS decided that the Orphan Asylum School (OAS) was to be like the society itself: formally non-sectarian, open to orphans “without distinction of country or creed”, and a school in which religious instruction was not given. Bureaucratic and funding problems delayed the opening until 1826, when schoolmaster Henry Simms began to teach 136 boys and 70 girls. Attendance grew as the city’s working class Irish sought an education for their children, and sought to use that education as a means of social, occupational, and economic mobility.
By the 1840s the BIS had become so wealthy and influential that, next to the House of Assembly and the governor’s council, the BIS was able to marshal considerable resources to address social problems and needs. In 1845, President Patrick Morris told the BIS that its funds were “flourishing beyond precedent”, which prompted the society’s trustees (which included Morris, O’Brien, Kent, Kough, and Tobin) to make a loan of $1,734 to the government with which to build a home for the legislature, the Colonial Building. In 1846, when a potato blight struck small farmers and subsistence farmers in outport Newfoundland, the BIS sent 76 barrels of seed potatoes to help re-establish crops. Through the mid to late 19th century, the BIS was careful to remain officially non-sectarian, but the society was widely acknowledged as a Roman Catholic men’s society.
In 1876 the Society secured the services of the Irish Christian Brothers to take over the management of the Orphan Asylum school. To meet increasing enrollment & provide a more suitable venue for activities, the Society constructed St Patrick’s Hall in 1880. The green & gold colors which distinguish the school were adopted from the same colors of the BIS. After St Pat’s was relocated to Merrymeeting Road in 1945, the Presentation Sisters moved into the vacated space and operated a girls’ school there until 1985. For nearly 160 years, the BIS operated or supported a school in St. John’s.
In 1994 the Society changed history when females were accepted as members after 189 years as a fraternal organization. Seven ladies joined the ranks of the BIS that year.
Another important event was the visit of Irish Prime Minister John Bruton on St Patrick’s Day 1996. The PM attended mass with the BIS and then addressed the membership in the old Nickel Theatre. This was the beginning of a re-connection to Ireland.
In 2006 the Benevolent Irish Society celebrated its 200th anniversary. A number of events were held to commemorate a proud history of service to the community. To mark this milestone the BIS opened a Museum and are in the process of publishing a bi-centennial History Book.
In addition to education, the Society has contributed to many charitable causes both at home & abroad over its long history. In recent years scholarships, student special needs, and the school lunch program have been the main recipients of financial assistance.
Today the BIS operates out its newly renovated Irish Hall on 34 Harvey Road. Its focus is still on meeting educational & charitable needs in the 21st century while promoting Irish Newfoundland Culture and Heritage.
CHRONOLOGY OF SIGNIFICANT EVENTS
|Society founded for relief to the poor by a group of 78 Irishmen
|Patrick Morris elected first Catholic President and adds Education to society objectives
|BIS Orphan Asylum school opens for education of children
|Attended laying of the Basilica cornerstone by Bishop M.A. Fleming
|Government of the day met in the Orphan Asylum School after fire destroyed three quarters of St. John’s. At that session were Government of the day met in the Orphan Asylum School after
|BISprovided financial assistance to Ireland in aid of the famine (potato crop failure)
The organization now mainly Catholic members; four Franciscan Brothers (monks) taught in Society schools
|First St. Patrick’s Day Parade held
|Attends consecration of the Basilica. Hosts a dinner for visiting Bishops
|BISschools teaching Industrial Arts (net making)
|The Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) visited St. John’s and was given an address by the Society. Upon his departure His Highness left a subscription of funds for Society work
|Society attended the laying of the cornerstone of St. Patrick’s Church (BIS funds cost of pillars) Society President Maurice Fenelon appointed first Headmaster of St. Bonaventure College
|Management of BIS schools taken over by Irish Christian Brothers.
Society recorded $100 000 in charitable disbursements in the first 70 years of operation
|New St. Patrick’s Hall Building opened. Medallion of St. Patrick constructed in the tower, donated by member John Boggen. Cost of building $38,452.
|Ladies Auxiliary held a bazaar that raised $16,000 to assist with repayment of building loan
|John T. O’Mara (druggist) becomes first Newfoundland born president
|Fire destroys St. John’s; St. Patrick’s Hall burns early in the night, all remaining standing the next morning is the four walls
|St. Patrick’s Hall re-opened during the summer
|Rev. Fr. Clancy and President J.D. Ryan were delegated to attend the Great Convention of Irish Race at home and abroad, held in Dublin
|Society participated in the Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Queen Victoria along with the other two national institutions; St. George’s (England) and St. Andrew’s (Scotland)
|O’Donel wing annexed to St. Patrick’s Hall as a Centenary Project. Named after founding Bishop J.L. O’Donel
Centenary volume of BIS printed 1806-1906
|75 BIS men volunteer and answer the call of the colors in the Great War (1914-1918)
|Death of Vice-Patron, James D. Ryan, last Irish born President of the BIS. Occupied office of President for 25 consecutive years, 57 years as a member
|Society hosts Golden Jubilee of Irish Christian Brothers
|Christian Brothers move to new St. Patrick’s School on Merrymeeting Road
|Presentation Sisters take over BIS classroom for use as girls elementary school
|Society celebrates 150th Anniversary
|Society establishes The Irish Club
|Nickel Theatre closes after 53 years of bring movies to people of St. John’s.
Society hosts 100 year anniversary celebration of Christian Brothers in Newfoundland.
|Society celebrates 175th anniversary
|Presentation Elementary School closes and students leave St. Patrick’s Hall
|Member James A. McGrath appointed Lt. Governor of Newfoundland and Labrador
|St. Patrick’s Hall designated a Heritage Building
|Irish Club celebrates 25th anniversary
|School Committee disbanded after 165 years of operation and renamed Premises Committee
|Ladies accepted for membership in the Society
|First Lady Executive member elected (Elizabeth McCarthy – Chairperson of Charity)
|Irish Prime Minister John Bruton visits on St. Patrick’s Day
|St. Patrick’s Hall was sold to local developers Nolan/Hall
|Flag lowering on St. Patrick’s Hall (June 6)
|St. Patrick’s School on Merrymeeting Road closes (June 17)
|BISmoves to lower floor of Star Hall on Henry Street
|New home 30 Harvey road purchased by the BIS
|Official opening of The Irish Hall
|Society celebrates 200th anniversary publishes bi-centennial history (1806-2006) and opens museum. Patrick Morris declared “Member of the BI-Centennial”
|Changes made to executive structure. Irish Club disbanded. Registered charitable foundation established. Promotion of Irish & NL culture & heritage added to objectives.