A brief history of the Argentia parish

excerpted from

"The Church History of the People of Freshwater & Holy Rosary Parish"
by Olive Power

presented here by permission

Holy Rosary Parish 1835 - 1940

No official documentation exists as to the exact date of the establishment of Holy Rosary Parish at Little Placentia. [The name Little Placentia was later officially changed to Argentia, appearing in the parish register in 1896 and consistently after that time.] The earliest date recorded in the Argentia Parish Register is a baptism on June 14, 1835. The earliest marriage date is August 25, 1835. The 1835 time frame is supported by other church records. According to the official biography of the first parish priest of Holy Rosary, Father Pelagius Nowlan arrived in St. John's in 1831 and was sent to Harbour Grace as curate for four years. He moved to Argentia in 1835 and remained there until his death in 1871.

In Bishop Fleming’s [Michael Anthony Fleming, O.S.F. - Bishop 1830-1850] account of his first visit to Father Nowlan’s parish, he tells of his journey on the "Madonna", a little schooner built to bring the bishop and clergy on their first visitation around the coast of the island. The voyage began at St. John’s at noon Friday, July 17, 1835. Bishop Fleming writes that on Sunday, the 23rd of August at Placentia, he administered the Sacrament of Confirmation to eighty persons, and on Monday he again conferred Confirmation upon twenty-nine more persons, who came from near the extremity of the bay and had arrived too late the day before, making the number one hundred and nine in all. On Monday he sailed from the harbour and in a couple of hours got into Little Placentia, being only about three leagues to the northward. He describes where he had the "pleasure of meeting personally Reverend Mr. Nowlan, who had been lately appointed to that district; and found both at Little and in Great Placentia, his congregation loud in praise of his exertions to afford them the comforts of religion". He continues, "Here we remained til Sunday, the 30th. These five days we passed hearing confessions and instructing the congregation, whom we found well prepared by that reverend gentleman; and never did I meet a people more attached to their religion, or more devoted to its ministers, than the people of this entire district, and on Sunday, I had no fewer than ninety- four to whom to administer Confirmation."

Over the years, Holy Rosary Parish served many communities in Placentia Bay. Red Island, Fox Harbour, Iona (Rams Island), Ship Harbour, Long Harbour, and Mussel Harbour (Port Royal) were all once part of Argentia Parish. The last entry in the parish register listing Red Island as part of the parish is August 1942. Fox Harbour and Ship Harbour are listed until July 1944. After that time, only baptisms from Freshwater and Argentia are listed.

Sources: "The Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland" M. F..Howley and "Argentia RC Records" Brian Hennessey.
[In "The Ecclesiastical History of Newfoundland" Howley quotes a passage from Fleming’s account of his visit to Father Nowlan’s parish in one chapter where he says it was 1831 and later he narrates the same passage correctly, declaring it was 1835.]

The Parish in Transition - 1941

In the "Destroyers for Bases" deal of Sept 3, 1940, England received fifty old destroyers from the US, and in exchange leased to the US seven tracts of land on which to establish military bases. One of these tracts was Argentia.

The people of Argentia eventually relocated to their new home of Freshwater, together with their priest and parish. Although church history in Newfoundland records other parishes moving with the parishioners, Holy Rosary was perhaps one of the most dramatic because the cemeteries were part of the move. The remains of loved ones from three cemeteries at Argentia were moved to Freshwater at night to spare the relatives of the dead undue grief. The remains were placed in a mass grave in a cruciform arrangement.

The original parish church, schools, and property were all bulldozed. The parish that began in Argentia in 1835 was "moved" to Freshwater, complete with its statues, pews, bell, and cemeteries.

The town plan for the "new settlement", drafted in 1941 and still on file at the parish office, was not followed, perhaps because of the haste in getting new homes constructed or because of disagreements concerning the suitability of building lots. The early entries of 1942 list " New Argentia" as the name of the "moved" parish - a name that did not endure.

An account of the move from Argentia as recorded in the "Holy Rosary Parish, Freshwater July, 1984 " booklet, published by the Holy Rosary Parish 200th Anniversary Committee, and written by Brother Francis Foran, follows.

Father Adrian Dee became parish priest in 1922, and it fell to his lot to see his parish uprooted by the construction of the United States Naval Base. Through the instrumentality of Father Dee, Holy Rosary Parish was kept intact, and flourishes today in Freshwater.

When England got its fifty overage destroyers from the United States in 1940, activity started immediately in Argentia. There were 500 people living in 114 buildings, and after the rumours became facts, it dawned on the people that they would have to be uprooted, their homes torn down and they would have to settle elsewhere. This movement would include the church, priest’s house, school and hall and three cemeteries.

The first lease for the land was not signed until June 14, 1941. A year later on the same date, a supplementary lease was signed. These contracts mean that the Americans control a large area of Newfoundland until June 14, 2041.

On March 31, 1941, Father Dee was informed by the Commissioner for Public Works, Sir Wilfred Woods, that the U.S. Navy would require the area occupied by the Church buildings by May 1, 1941. Father Dee had planned a temporary move to Marquise. The school at Marquise was to be arranged as a temporary residence; a temporary church was to be built and storage space provided. On April 15, Father Dee was informed that the Marquise area could not be used because the U.S. Army was moving in there.

So began the trauma, the sorrow and the frustrations of moving from their homes to where they did not know. Father Dee had set himself the goal of keeping his parish intact. With this object in mind, he worked untiringly with his people and the Commission of Government.

The strongest proposal seemed to be to move to Herring Bay, in the North East. There were frustrations with regard to the survey and the dealings with the Government. A resolution of April 16, 1941, drawn up at a public meeting, stated that it was unanimously agreed that the people wanted to resettle in the North East Arm of Placentia, at Herring Bay. At the beginning of June, the Department of Natural Resources convinced Father Dee of the impracticability of settling in the Herring Bay area. On June 13, Father Dee proposed Freshwater.

The Freshwater proposal carried the same frustrations. Road building seemed a tremendous obstacle. More surveys were needed. The people began building without a town plan. The results were inevitable.

On July 11, 1941, an application was made to the Department of Natural Resources, for unclaimed Crown land between the Base and Placentia, including Freshwater. This application was made by the R.C. Episcopal Corporation.

The U.S. Government and the construction companies were anxious to get on with their work. Agreements were signed with householders, and removal notices were issued. Proposals were for temporary residences in Marquise and Placentia. There was strong objection to settling in Placentia, the fear seemed to be that the people would remain there, and thus be outside the parish. The priest’s residence, the church, school and hall were also involved in this temporary move.

Besides his other work, Father Dee was attempting to attend to the religious life of his parishioners, both in Argentia and in their temporary homes, and he was taking on the new responsibility of the Catholic American Marines on the Base.

When Freshwater was decided upon, in July 1941, Mr. Patrick J. Brennan asked for the contract on the building of the new church, stating that he had the plans used for the Argentia church. A contract was signed with Mr. Brennan, and on August 7, 1941 a lump sum for labour on two houses and the hall was given as $2,530.50. The work was to occupy eight men, the contractor and a cook. The workers received 45 cents an hour.

By October, Father Dee was growing impatient. The buildings were not being constructed quickly enough. It seems the contractor was working on private homes also. On November 8, 1941, the contract with Mr. Brennan was revoked.

With the amount of building going on in the area, there was naturally a keen interest shown by supply companies. F.M. O’Leary was offered to supply plans for the new church. Materials from Canada, such as Bric Siding and Ten Test, were offered by his firm. Father Dee was seeking a temporary church, one two-story building and one bungalow. Materials coming from Canada were admitted with either a reduced duty or an exemption from duty. Both materials and competent carpenters seemed to be in short supply.

Father Dee wanted a house for himself, a bungalow for Aunt Min, his deaf-mute aunt, and a hall. The first two buildings were erected. The hall was the present church, but with a flat roof and without the brick siding. When the altar and statues from Mount Rosary Church were placed in the sanctuary, it was found that the ceiling was too low. To alleviate this situation, the sanctuary part was opened up to give a V-shaped roof. The present statues, cross and pews [later replaced] are from the old Argentia church. The bell and statues were removed from the church by George A. Fuller Co. and Merritt- Chapman and Scott Corporation. The church/hall was built in 1941, and the first Mass was celebrated on Christmas Eve, 1941.

The presbytery was the next building completed. The first school was the present LaFontaine Club [later torn down]. It was opened in May 1942. There were two rooms with an enrollment of 60 pupils.

On September 11, 1941, Father Dee wrote to Sir John Puddister, Minister of Health: " I think it is suitable that the remains in the cemeteries down here [Argentia] should be put in a common grave or vault and the headstones arranged around the side of it." Father Dee also suggested that the work be done at night; this was to avoid any mental hardship on the relatives of the dead. In October, 1941, permission was received from L.E. Emerson, Minister of Justice, for the work to proceed.

There were three graveyards: two down the Harbour, and one on Mount Rosary. The oldest of the three was under the hill, next to the old church. On top of the hill was a second one. The third was begun in the mid-twenties and was at Mount Rosary across the road from the church. It was finally agreed that all three cemeteries be moved to Freshwater, and that each remains was to be buried in a separate grave and wherever possible an identifying cross or headstone be placed over the new grave.

On July 7, 1942, Father Dee applied for three and one quarter acres of land to be used as a cemetery in Freshwater. After many delays, a plot of land was procured. The cemetery was laid out in form of a cross and contractors started the work of moving the bodies. Winter interrupted the work. To speed up the process, the Americans were asked to help. They were responsible for the layout, the fencing and the erection of the headstones and identifying crosses. Father Dee was very pleased with the finished work, and also with the respectful and understanding way the work had been carried out.

Father Dee’s work to obtain the best for his parishioners had taken its toll on his health. Worn out by his labours, he died on December 28, 1951, at the age of fifty-six. Fittingly, he is buried next to Father Pelagius Nowlan in Freshwater cemetery.

Brother Francis Foran

[Br. Forans's mother was Caroline Lambe from Red Island]

The Priests

The First Priest of Holy Rosary Parish - Father Pelagius Nowlan 1792 - 1871

Pelagius Nowlan was born in 1792, in the parish of Killrush, County Wexford, Ireland. [Place of birth identified in his obituary in both the Newfoundlander and the Morning Chronicle]. The surname Nowlan is a very common one in that area and it is impossible to pinpoint his birthplace with more precision. His unusual, indeed virtually unique, name suggests a family acquainted with classical tradition, and it is not inconceivable that his father may have been a hedge schoolmaster. [Two popes and an Irish church scholar were named Pelagius.] Unusually for the Wexford Newfoundland priests, Nowlan came from the north of the county. Pelagius was educated at St. Peter's College in Wexford town, under the watchful eye of Fr. John Sinnott. Fr. Sinnott's brother, James, had served for many years as a missionary in Newfoundland and his desire to serve on that mission may have originated at this time. Nowlan moved from St. Peter's to Birchfield College in Kilkenny, where he finished his ecclesiastical training. Bishop Fleming came to the south-east in the 1830s looking for recruits for the mission, as he felt that the Catholics of Newfoundland were grossly under serviced. Pelagius Nowlan and Edward Troy responded to Fleming's emotional and persuasive appeal, and both were ordained in Carrick-on-Suir. Nowlan was unusually old (being almost forty) when he was ordained. Upon his arrival in St. John's in 1831, he was sent as curate to Fr. Ewer, a Meath man, in Harbour Grace. The shortage of priests had given rise to a system of massive, sprawling parishes so that curates were an urgent necessity. Nowlan's first four years were spent in this populous parish. In 1835, he moved to Little Placentia on the south side of the Avalon peninsula and until his death in 1871, he ministered here as parish priest. The Sweetman family (with their initial base in Newbawn) had shipped many Wexford emigrants to this part of Newfoundland, and Nowlan enjoyed a particularly good relationship with his parishioners. In the old time style of Wexford priests, Nowlan was a simple unaffected man, who exercised a kind-hearted, hospitable reign and steered well clear of the political and denominational broils in which some of his colleagues immersed themselves. Fleming praised his zealous efforts in his reports to Propaganda Fide, as he always found Nowlan's flock to be well-instructed and prepared. For over forty years, Nowlan ministered on the other side of the Atlantic, never once returning to his native shore. His practical robust no-frills-attached approach was ideally suited to the rough-and-ready nature of Newfoundland society and he was an eminently successful missionary.

The Last Priest of Argentia and the First Priest of Freshwater Parish - Father Adrian Joyce Dee 1896 - 1951

Adrian Dee was born at St. John's, Newfoundland, May 24, 1896, son of Jeremiah Dee of Placentia and Theresa Ellen Cronan. He received his early education in St. Bonaventure's College, St. John's. From there he proceeded to Holy Heart Seminary, Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he did all his studies in philosophy and theology for the priesthood. Father Dee was ordained to the Order of Priest in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John's, June 24, 1919, by The Most Reverend Edward Patrick Roche, Archbishop of St. John's. Following a few short term appointments in St. John's, he was, in 1919, appointed pastor of Sacred Heart parish, Oderin, Placentia Bay, where he remained until his appointment as parish priest of Holy Rosary Parish, Argentia, January l, 1922. The arrival of the American servicemen at Argentia following the outbreak of World War II, and the establishment of two military bases in Argentia, required the removal of all of the civilian population from the area. In 1941 the seat of the parish was moved to the neighbouring community of Freshwater, which saw Father Dee becoming engaged in overseeing the construction of all the material facilities that the parish required, as well as giving his support and advice to the parishioners, who had moved from Argentia with him. Upon the arrival of the American servicemen, and for some time afterwards, he was the Catholic chaplain to the troops, a work he did up until a military chaplain was stationed at Argentia. Over the years, however, the nature of his personality helped him to keep a very close and cordial relationship with the military authorities at Argentia right up to the time of his death. For many years Father Dee suffered from a serious heart problem. He died December 28, 1951 in his 55th year, and the 33rd year of priesthood. To his fellow priests, contemporaries of Father Dee said of him that he was an unsurpassed host whose door was ever on the latch to them.

Father Adrian Dee served nearly two decades in Argentia Parish. After Father Pelagius Nowlan, 35 years in Argentia, Father Dee was the longest serving, with nearly 30 years in the parish.

Source: Official biographies from "The Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. John's".

Priests of Holy Rosary Parish, Argentia:

1835-1870 Father Pelagius Nowlan
1871-1895 Father Robert Brennan
1895-1911 Father John J. St. John
1911-1918 Father John Ashley
1918-1918 Father Thomas Devereaux
1918-1921 Father J.D. Savin
1922-1951 Father Adrian J. Dee

Assistant Priests:

1864-1865 Father Denis O’Brien
1865-1865 Father Thomas McGrath
1865-1866 Father Thomas Maher
1866-1871 Father Richard Dunphy
1871-1872 Father John Ryan
1875-1875 Father Francis McCullane
1927-1930 Father Francis Jackman
1933-1935 Father Albert P. Slattery
1935-1941 Father John Hunt

Priests from other parishes alternated at Holy Rosary Parish at times, five [of many] names of clergy that appear in the early baptism and marriage records:

1870-1872 Father Lawrence Verriker, Placentia Parish
1880-1892 Father William P. Doutney, St. Kyran’s Parish
1896-1930 Father J. J. McDermott, St. Kyran’s Parish
1907-1920 Father Francis Cacciola, Bar Haven Parish
1942 Father Anton Fyme, Merasheen Parish

Sources: The names of clergy up to 1941, as they appear in the Argentia Parish Register, were retrieved from data compiled by Brian Hennessey, "Argentia RC Records".