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Historical Information

West Coast Region - Bay St. George District

From the Forge to the Pulpit

The following was originally written by Don Morris, in a column he wrote called Vignettes of the west.

Transcribed by Steve Gillis with permission granted by the Western Star

From the forge to the pulpit

From blacksmith to archbishop. These were the unlikely bookends in the remarkable career of one of the most dynamic Catholic priests to serve in western Newfoundland. He was Most Rev. Neil McNeil, first bishop of St. Georgeís and a man who was later destined to make his mark on his church in Canada.

It was a mid-January day in 1910 when word reached Newfoundland from Rome that the St. Georgeís bishop had been appointed as archbishop of Vancouver, B.C. A contemporary report said that while Vancouver had only lately been made a See, the promotion of Bishop McNeil to itÖ " Is one of the most important appointments of the church in British North America."

The report added: "The elevation of Bishop McNeil therefore is testimony of the approval of His Holiness the Pope oh his (McNeil) 15 years of splendid service on the West Coast of Newfoundland."

Newfoundland pleased

All of Newfoundland was pleased, indeed honored, when news came from the Vatican of the bishopís appointment to Western Canada. In brief sketch of the mans life, one local newspaper noted:

During his Episcopate (at Bay St. George) he has built a Magnificent cathedral, a presbytery, numerous schools, churches and in addition has been increasing in his efforts for encouragement of agriculture and general thriftiness among his people so that they are now among the most progressive in the Island. And his good works have not been confined to his own creed alone, for he is esteemed by the people of all denominations."

Bishop McNeil, born at Hillsboro, NS, in 1851 was of Scottish descent on his fatherís side and Irish on his motherís. At the age of 15 he left school to learn the trade of his father Ė that of blacksmith. But three years later he entered St. Francis Xavier College, Antigonish, to study for the priesthood. In 1873 he proceeded to Rome and entered the college of the Propaganda and for six years studied under very eminent teachers. He had a most brilliant record as a student and in 1879 was ordained to the priesthood.

Leaving Rome, he spent a year at the Marseilles University for the study of astronomy and higher mathematics and then returned to Nova Scotia, joining the teaching staff of his alma mater, later becoming president of the college.

Moved to St. Georgeís

Bishop McNeil was consecrated in 1895 in St. Ninianís Cathedral, Antigonish. Newfoundlandís Archbishop M.F. Howley, his predecessor in the Vicariate at St. Georgeís, was the special preacher for the occasion. The new bishop arrived at St. Georgeís via St. Johnís. Since the Newfoundland railway was just pushing into the West Coast he was able to come as far as Bay of Islandís from where he traveled by boat to Sandy Point. Said one report of the bishopís arrival at the scene of his future labors:

" Upon his arrival (at Sandy Point) he was quite to realize the benefit of moving across the harbor to St. Georgeís, which place, although somewhat unattractive due to the marshy conditions of the land, nevertheless had the advantage of being on the proposed railway line."

" His first step was the building of a cottage in which he could reside and lay plans for building of a Pro-Cathedral and an Episcopal and other necessary buildings. In the meantime he supervised the building of St. Michaelís College, which was opened in 1899."

This particular report on the bishops early days at St. Georgeís continues: The shortage of skilled labor necessitated his acting as contractor, labor foreman and trainer, but fortunately he was exceptionally well equipped to act in these capacities, being naturally skillful. A workshop, sawmill and even a stone quarry were set up in which he himself worked side by side with the men and which provided ready supplies of material on which to draw.

"The setting up of these basic ides is proof of his technical skill" the report went on.

" Further evidence is afforded us by the fact that in 1907 he gave a lecture at St. Georgeís on electricity, himself making the necessary apparatus by which he illustrated his points. He had the first electrical installation on this coast and, incidentally, he is reputed to have brought the first gas engine to the west coast."

Many good-byes

Bishop McNeil left these shores for his new posting in April 1907. There were many good-byes in the churches along the coast and in halls and other places of assembly. On April 10 the residents of St. Georgeís, regardless of class or creed, filled the Star Hall to overflowing to say farewell to their beloved priest and friend. Giftís were presented and speeches made. And then Bishop McNeil made his reply. When he was finished speaking, said one report; there wasnít a dry eye in the hall.

© 2001 Stephen Gillis and NL GenWeb