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Struck down in his prime


Bert Riggs,

(an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University),
whose column, A Backward Glance
appears in the Telegram each Tuesday

Transcribed From the Telegram

By: Barbara McGrath



A bust honouring Michael Morris is part of a monument in Bannerman Park in St. John's. (Photo: Joe Gibbons/The Telegram)

In Bannerman Park in St. John's, a monument and bust celebrate the life of Rev. Michael Morris. Why did this man warrant such public recognition? Michael Morris was born in St. John's, the son of Edward Morris and Catherine Fitzgerald, on July 12, 1852. The elder Morris was a master cooper, who worked at J&W Stewart's, one of the major mercantile firms operating in Newfoundland at that time.

Michael was one of the first students to enter St. Bonaventure's College, when it opened for classes on Henry Street on Dec. 1, 1856. After graduation, he was off to Ireland, where he studied for the priesthood at All Hallow's College, Dublin.

Completing his studies, Morris returned to St. John's where he was ordained on June 18, 1875 by Bishop T. J. Power. His first parish was the Placentia Bay island outport of Oderin, a thriving fishing community of approximately 400 residents, most of whom were Roman Catholic adherents.

Morris spent six years ministering to the people of Oderin and surrounding communities, some of which were up to 40 miles distant from Oderin and accessible only by open boat, a dangerous mission from which he never wavered, even in the height of winter storms.

During his years at this parish he was the driving force behind the construction of a new church and school at Oderin and a new church at Marystown. From Oderin, Morris was transferred in 1881 to the parish at Topsail, which included Manuels and other Conception Bay communities.

Here, too, he exercised his zeal for building, overseeing the construction of a beautiful gothic-style church, a schoolhouse and residence for the priests to live in.

For a variety of reasons - the high incidence of life-threatening diseases such as consumption, typhoid, diphtheria; the lack of trained medical personnel in rural areas; the large numbers of men lost at sea while prosecuting the fishery; the large numbers of women who died in childbirth - there were many orphaned children in 19th-century Newfoundland.

In Conception Bay

Morris wanted to create a facility that would cater to the needs of orphaned boys in the southern part of Conception Bay. With financial assistance from Bishop Power, in 1886, he was able to acquire Squires's Hotel in Manuels and convert it to a boys home. As the purchase had been made on Sept. 22, the feast day of St. Thomas of Villa Nova, it was named in his honour.

Villa Nova Orphanage was not simply a residence. It was also a vocational school, teaching the boys trades that would heighten their entry into the workplace in future years. The building contained a bakery and facilities for making shoes and clothes. Land was acquired on nearby Kelly's Island, where a farm was cultivated.

At its height, 127 boys lived at Villa Nova. To raise money to support this venture, Morris established a periodical magazine, The Orphan's Friend. He went on fund-raising tours throughout the United States, expounding the benefits brought to these boys by the programs offered to them at the orphanage and the need for their continuance if they were to have a chance to make their way in the world.

One warm July day in 1889, several of the boys were sent to bring home the grazing cattle. Perhaps as relief from the heat of the day, they drank water from a stagnant pool. The water contained the bacteria that causes typhoid fever: the boys contracted the dread disease. It spread rapidly and soon more than 40 boys had succumbed.

At first Morris tried to care for the boys himself, but once the true nature of the illnesses was determined, medical help had to be brought in. Still, Morris provided 24-hour care to the sick. As often happens in such situations, he was physically weakened from his labours, and came down with typhoid himself.

Despite the best medical efforts available, he died at his brother's residence in St. John's on Aug. 1.

A shocking death

Rev. Michael Morris's death stunned the people of St. John's and the surrounding area. This young man, who was doing such good works and making a positive impact on the lives of the boys in his care, had been struck down in his prime.

His body was placed in state at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist; people from all denominations came to pay respects.

On Aug. 3, a requiem mass was celebrated in his honour at the cathedral with thousands of people attendance; those who could not gain entrance to the cathedral lined the streets outside. The funeral cortege, which wound through city streets on its way to Belvedere Cemetery, was 35 minutes long.

On Aug. 30, a public meeting was held at the Total Abstinence Hall, where a committee was struck to raise funds for the establishment of a suitable memorial to Father Morris. The result was the engraved marble pillar and bust, which was placed in a central location in Bannerman Park.

Three students, Patrick Maher, Matthew Kennedy and Richard Byrne, and two staff members, Mary Ann Power and James Corbett, also died from typhoid fever at Villa Nova Orphanage. It continued to operate, under the direction of Rev. James McGrath, for two years but without the commitment and boundless energy of its founder it was forced to close its doors in 1891.

In 1989, on the 100th anniversary of Morris's death, a monument made of stone from Kelly's Island and Little Bell Island was erected in Manuels on the site where the orphanage once stood.

Bert Riggs is an archivist with the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University. ...



This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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