CCHA, Historical Studies, 68 (2002), 44-65





The “Year of Joy” and Centenary Renovations to the Cathedral,

St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1953-551




John Edward FitzGerald



     In 1955, the Roman Catholic Church in Newfoundland celebrated the centenary of the consecration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s. In 1834 the construction of the largest Irish cathedral in the New World had been the dream of the Irish Franciscan Vicar Apostolic of St. John’s, Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming. Opposed by the British government and a small faction within his own congregation, Fleming’s plan won overwhelming support among the Irish in Newfoundland. The neoclassical architectural style of the building was to reflect his ultramontanism, a philosophical and ideological spirit which motivated clerics to look to Rome and the papacy for strong leadership, orthodoxy, and resplendent examples in liturgy, architecture, art, and music. Ultramontanism was believed to be the antidote par excellence to the desire of lay élites, trustees, and state officials to influence the Church’s temporal affairs, and these troubles plagued Fleming when he first became bishop.2 He and other Irish clerics saw ultramontanism as the means of ending Irish Catholics’ political and civil disabilities at home and Newfoundland. In 1838, he stated his belief that the cathedral was the pivot in the development of Catholicism in the island, for “the enemies of our Holy Religion” had been “indefatigably employed” to stop him from acquiring the lands, and to disparage the building’s construction.3 Against his enemies in St. John’s, Fleming cultivated support in the Irish community there, and at Westminster deployed the Irish politician and emancipator, Daniel O’Connell, who repeatedly advocated Newfoundland reform causes. Hounded by Fleming, the British government capitulated and in 1838 granted land for the cathedral. Fleming secured architectural plans from a Mr. C. Schmidt, the architect of the Danish Government resident at Altona-on-the-Elbe. His designs were chosen because he had studied in Rome and design­ed in a style which appeal­ed to ultramontan­ists, and his roofs threw heavy loads of snow in north­ern climates.4

     On 20 May 1841, the twelfth anniversary of the announcement of Catholic eman­cipation, the cathedral’s construction began with the cornerstone-laying. Enthusiasm was high. On that day the astonishing sum of over £2600 was received in donations, prompting Fleming’s chief clerical rival, Anglican bishop Aubrey Spencer, to note (in his own memorial to the British government to fund his own cathedral) that this was from a Catholic community four times poorer than his congregation.5 Spencer’s successor Edward Feild later became jealous of Fleming’s successes, in 1844 happily noting that the stone towers of the cathedral had to be cut down several feet due to poor workmanship, causing from £700 to £800 to be lost. Again in 1845 he gleefully observed that “a great deal more of ye walls of ye R.C. Cathedral must be taken down this spring” due to frost.6 On 6 January 1850, Fleming’s last public act was to celebrate the first mass in the empty building; he died that July. His successor, John Thomas Mullock, completed the project in accord with Fleming’s wishes and in the ultramontane style. At its completion, the cathedral was the earliest iteration of the Romanesque revival in North American architecture.7

































High Altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, circa 1950

showing Carew’s Baptism of Christ, the polished pink granite columns,

Carew and Sullivan’s angels holding aloft the cross, and St. Andrew’s altar behind the high altar.

Photo credit: Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John’s.

     Mullock consecrated the cathedral on 9 September 1855, in the presence of the most famous Irishman in America, John Hughes, Archbishop of New York.8 Soon thereafter Mullock chronicled the festivities, described the cathedral, and emphasized its ultramontanism: “The church, which is built in the style of a Roman Basilica, is 246 feet, 6 inches long, and 186 feet, 9 inches in the transept: and the facade is 99 feet wide ... The walls are ornamented with Corinthian pilasters, surmounted by a cornice 13 feet wide ... the ceiling of the nave, like many of those in Italy, is flat, enriched with elaborate centre-pieces.” The heart of the building was the “great” high altar, “perhaps, the finest specimen of art in the whole western world.” It stood at the intersection of nave and transept, “like many of those in the ancient churches of Rome.”9 But at the heart of the symbolism were statues:


Under the arch [of the high altar] ... is a colossal group of the baptism of our Saviour, executed by [John Edward] Carew, in Caen stone: by whom also are the group of angels, and the infantine figure of angels, and a lamb ... the remainder of the carving was executed by W.[illiam] Sullivan. Under the high altar, which is open in front, is placed [John] Hogan’s most superb work – the “Dead Christ,” executed in the purest Carrara marble. This splendid figure, which will be the pride of Newfoundland for ages, is the posthumous gift of Dr. Fleming. The Sanctuary is paved with marble; and at the end of the apsis is another grand altar [St Andrew’s altar], beautifully carved in Caen stone by Carao [sic., Carew] ... At the end of the ambulatory every vista is closed by altars dedicated to S. Patrick, S. Bridget, S. Joseph, and S. Anthony ... The two [funerary] monuments in alto-relievo, exquisitely wrought by [John] Hogan in the purest Carrara, are perfect gems of art; ... one was raised to Dr. Scallan by his successor; the other is about to be erected... in memory of the Right Rev. Dr. Fleming.10


In the coup d’oeil, one’s eyes moved from Hogan’s deposition scene The Dead Christ under the altar, the symbol of Christ, upwards to Carew’s Baptism of the Saviour, a rendering of the scriptural account of Christ’s baptism and a statement of faith in the need to proceed from death to new life in baptism, upwards again and beyond through the arch of the high altar, the symbol of the gateway to Heaven.

     In the Irish world, Fleming’s cathedral was unique and captured the spirit of its age. It was the acme of pre-Gothic revival Irish neoclassical church architecture and art. After Catholic emancipation in 1829, Irish bishops emerged as patrons of the Celtic sacred arts and competed to acquire only the best works of Irish artists for their churches, and Fleming and Mullock followed suit, acquiring works by John Edward Carew (1785-1868) a renowned Irish sculptor in London and a student of Sir Richard Westmacott. Carew worked in the naturalistic style, and won the important commission of the bas-relief The Death of Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar for the base of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square. For St. John’s Carew did another Baptism of Christ, a revisitation of an 1835 rendering done as an altar-piece for St. James’ church, Brighton,11 the second Catholic church consecrated in England after the Protestant reformation.12 To Carew’s works were added two funerary reliefs and another statue by John Hogan (1800-1858), Ireland’s most famous sculptor, whose works in the neoclassical style were restrained, detached, and contemplative. Hogan assured his international reputation in 1829 with the Dead Christ; thereafter, his creations were snapped up by Irish bishops visiting his Rome studio, and Hogan was pronounced by the egotistical Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen as “the best sculptor I leave after me in Rome.”13 Hogan’s biographer John Turpin has remarked that Hogan’s work must be interpreted against the “background of resurgent ultramontane Catholicism which was being introduced to Ireland – a country which lacked fine Catholic churches, art works or a splendid liturgical tradition since the Reformation.”14

     In the Newfoundland Catholic imagination, O’Connell and Hogan were held in close association and reverent esteem. In the parade preceding the laying of the cornerstone, the order of procession placed the banner of Daniel O’Connell higher in rank than those of Pope Gregory XVI, St. John, and St. Patrick, and just before the Queen’s, the Virgin Mary’s, the clergy, and Fleming.15 Hogan’s 1829 Dead Christ had been installed under the altar of St. Teresa’s church, Clarendon Street, the altar in front of which O’Connell had stood in 1824 and announced his Catholic Association with its plans for Catholic emancipation and the relief of civil disabilities imposed by the Penal Laws.16 In May 1841, O’Connell sat on the British Parliamentary Committee which investigated Newfoundland politics, and he defended Fleming and the reformers.17 In 1843 at O’Connell’s “monster” repeal meeting at Mullaghmast, before thousands of spectators, the visiting Hogan “crowned” O’Connell with a green velvet cap edged with gold during a staged ceremony redolent of the coronations of Irish high-kings on the Hill of Tara.18

     O’Connell never stood at the foot of the cathedral altar in St. John’s, but his presence was felt there. Hogan and Carew’s works in St. John’s proclaimed the cathedral as a first-class Irish building of international rank, a Catholic triumph over the opposition of Protestant Britain which had sought to suppress the Church. The cathedral’s iconographic program of statuary also connected immediately to the Irish Catholics’ own historical experiences in Newfoundland, and made plain that outside the Church there was no salvation, religious or political. The St. John’s Cathedral thus became both a religious and political statement about the rights that Irish Catholics should have in a British colony, an assertion of self-confidence by a culture which saw itself as the guardian of the independent Newfoundland state.19 In 1855, Britain was finally persuaded to grant responsible government to Newfoundland. For the Irish who had fought long and hard for “Home Rule” in the island, it was a sweet victory.

     While the initial deposit of memorials and statuary in the cathedral reflected official lofty ideals of what an Irish cathedral should be – “elevated,” “colossal,” “superb,” “grand,” “exquisite,” and “perfect,”20 subsequent bequests expressed the wider community’s faith and culture. Several wealthy benefactors erected memorial plaques in the neoclassical style. Between 1869 and 1905, the Irish-born bishop, Thomas Power, and his successor, the native-born Michael Howley, encouraged the donation of twenty-eight large 9'x18' stained glass windows. On a panel under each window the Newfoundland painter George Gamberg painted a cartouche bearing the name of the donor or parishioner commemorated. In 1903 a coffered Italianate ceiling was executed by the cathedral plasterers, the Conway brothers, working from the designs of Howley, St. John’s artist Dan Carroll, and architect Jonas Barter.21 In 1914, a classically-styled marble altar rail with bronze gates and Carrara marble balusters were donated by Howley’s sister, Katherine Howley Morris.22 By 1915, fraternal societies had made substantial donations of stained glass windows, an archepiscopal throne carved by St. John’s cabinetmaker James Armstrong,23 and a copy of the famous Irish DeBurgo-O’Malley chalice.24 These endowments, in stylistic and cultural consonance with the cathedral’s neoclassicism and Irish heritage, represented the faith and history of Newfoundland Catholics, and they received wide publicity in local newspapers and journals. The interior statuary and monuments of the cathedral survived virtually intact until the 1950s,25 despite some minor relocation of statuary, and with the exception of the installation of a series of garish light fixtures, including one featuring the holy name in lights in a frieze above the high altar’s arch.

     By the late 1940s, Newfoundland Catholics had to redefine their identity and culture as a consequence of political and constitutional change. Their religious iconography was also adapted. In two 1948 referenda, most Catholics on the Avalon Peninsula voted according to the advice of Archbishop E.P. Roche and Bishop J.M. O’Neill, who warned that union would bring materialism and secularism into the island and create “a new environment where pleasure was unlimited and joy unconfined.”26 Furthermore, they warned, the Church’s rights in education also could be threatened. Only a bare majority of Newfoundlanders voted to join Canada. In 1949 Roche expressed coolness towards the visiting Apostolic Delegate to Canada and Newfoundland, Ildebrando Antonutti, and kept him waiting for several hours before receiving him at the Palace in St. John’s.27
























Patrick James Skinner (1904-1989)

Third Arch­bishop of St. John’s (1950-1979)

Photo credit: Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John’s


     On 23 September1950, the ailing Roche died, and four months later, his auxiliary, Patrick James Skinner, was nominated archbishop. Born in 1904 in St. John’s, Skinner was educated by the Irish Christian Brothers at St. Bonaventure’s College. In 1922 he entered Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, and two years later entered the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, the Eudists. Unlike many Newfoundland clerics who had been educated in Ireland, he established Canadian credentials and became acculturated as a Canadian, but he was fond of America and frequently visited his brother William, a lawyer in New York. Further studies at the Eudist seminary at Charlesbourg, Québec, preceded his ordination in May 1929. Later Skinner earned a licentiate in philosophy from Laval University. In 1946 he was named Superior at Holy Heart Seminary in Halifax, and in 1950, with the nod from Antonutti, he was appointed Titular Bishop of Zenobia and Auxiliary to Roche.28 A quiet and pious man, Skinner was much less given than his predecessor to making pronouncements on contentious issues. He was also thirty years younger than Roche.

     Skinner’s first task was to reconcile aggrieved Catholics to the new state. In 1948 the Newfoundland politician J.R. Smallwood had used the Church’s stand against confederation to mobilize the Loyal Orange Association, leaving a bitter aftertaste.29 Skinner also recognized that Catholics in Canada’s newest province were a divided political minority. Many in the St. George’s diocese on the island’s west coast had connections with the Canadian Maritimes, and voted for confederation. But most Catholics in the Archdiocese of St. John’s were of Irish heritage, had been anti-confederates, took it on the nose in the referenda campaigns, and now endured the hostile Anglophile Smallwood regime. A minority still considered their Newfoundland to have been taken over by a foreign country. Skinner consequently had to avoid inflaming anti-Catholic opinion, resurrecting Newfoundland nationalism, or upsetting politicians. If he was pro-Canadian or a “confederate,” he kept it to himself. In September 1952 he approved of the visit of the renowned Irish-American priest Fr. Patrick Peyton and his Family Rosary Crusade, but he vetoed a large Catholic parade through St. John’s as part of the visit, fearing that Protestants might be upset at such a display.30

     Fortunately, the Cathedral was approaching the centenary of its consecration, and this provided Skinner with a good excuse to celebrate the Church’s achievements. On 20 September 1954 he addressed a mass meeting of the diocese’s men and announced a whole “Year of Joy,” which eventually came to include a series of theatrical productions, a children’s day at the cathedral, a parade, a fireworks display, a commemorative film and souvenir book, and liturgical celebrations.31 The highlight of this unconfined “Year of Joy” would be the visit of a galaxy of Canadian bishops and clergy, with the guest of honour Canada’s “smiling cardinal,” James Charles Cardinal McGuigan, the Archbishop of Toronto and the highest-ranking churchman ever to visit the island. It would be an ecclesiastical fashion show without precedent, a spectacle to expose the congregation to visiting prelates and their sermons paying compliments to the historic cathedral and making Newfoundland Catholics more comfortable about being Canadians. But the focus of the celebrations, the cathedral itself, was in a state of disrepair, and Skinner was already at work on this file.

     In the century after 1855, successive bishops attempted to maintain the stonework exterior and the plaster interior of the St. John’s Cathedral, but the freeze-and-thaw cycles of St. John’s in wintertime proved a constant challenge to the structural integrity of the building. The exterior stonework repairs begun by Archbishop Roche were completed, but by 1952 the interior of the cathedral still needed attention. What could be done with it? Skinner thought the interior was cold, dowdy, and underwhelm­ing.32 It spoke more about Newfoundland’s dim Irish past than about its shiny Canadian future. To address this, Skinner appointed Monsignor Harold Summers cathedral administrator in 1952, and his Vicar-General in 1953.33 However, Summers was not much interested in the details of history or the whims of interior decorators, so he retained the St. John’s architect John Hoskins as cathedral architect, mandating him to give the cathedral a facelift, and bring it into line with the style of modern Canadian Catholic churches.

     Ironically, the solution that presented itself was American rather than Canadian. In May 1953, the New York church decorator Viggo F.E. Rambusch visited Newfoundland on work he was executing for the Archdiocese of St. John’s at St. Joseph’s church in the city, and at St. Michael’s church, Bell Island, Conception Bay.34  At Summers’ direction, Hoskins sent plans and photos of the cathedral to Rambusch in October 1953 and sought advice on a new interior decorating scheme to consist principally of painting and lighting.35 Rambusch had extensive experience in decorating American and Canadian churches, and Hoskins later described the firm as specialists in “Church decoration, furnishings, lighting, and fixtures.”36 Viggo Rambusch replied from his Greenwich Village bureau on stationery reassuringly stamped “Canadian Office” that he was interested. Hoskins advised that even though organized labour in St. John’s would have no difficulties with the local employment of American nationals, Rambusch “should count on only bringing in the minimum number, say two – a superintendent and a decorator.”37

     On 12 November Rambusch prepared a draft estimate of $52,877 for the work, which would include the application of several hundred books of gold leaf ribbon to the ceiling.38 He “strongly recommended” the installation of a tester (a canopy to hang above the altar), and began to think about what might be done. “When it comes to the architectural surfaces of the interior,” he wrote, “we find them now cold and decoratively neglected.” Instead, “Based on sound archaeological precedent, we recommend a rich, dignified scheme, proper to this type of architecture.”39 Just what archaeological precedents Rambusch had in mind were not specified. Unlike the previous two Danes (Schmidt and Thorwaldwen) involved with the cathedral and its artists, he was less interested in the history, artistic merit, or ideological context of the cathedral’s monuments and features than in landing a contract. He arrived in St. John’s on Friday 13 November 1953, estimate in hand, and inspected the cathedral the following Sunday afternoon.

     When Rambusch wrote Hoskins from New York a week later, his proposals were much more specific. A new lighting scheme was needed, but he quickly returned to an old theme and pushed a bit, advising that “we shall eventually be informed as to whether or not a tester is desired.” If it was desired to “alter the reredos,” Summers and Hoskins were told that “we have available not only photographs, but a complete set of measures by means of which carefully prepared scale drawings could be made and sent on to the architect, who in turn will have the alterations carried out by a local contractor, after which we are to do the painting and gilding.” Furthermore, “The three open areas [the spaces between the columns of the high altar] should be closed. This could be done by means of drapes but better yet, would be a plywood wall, for this in turn could carry applied mouldings and the proposed statue of St. John.”40 Rambusch proposed relocating the stations of the cross at a lower point on the cathedral walls and refinishing them in two tones of bronze – “a solution similar to that carried out within the Cathedral in Omaha.” As for seating in the sanctuary, he wanted to know “how many seats should be provided for the clergy under normal conditions” and whether he should send “suggestions for a temporary solution to seat the ‘X’ members of the hierarchy and clergy who will be there for the centenary.” He also proposed to construct a new throne for Skinner, and install a new sanctuary lamp, for the existing lamps were “not worthy of a Cathedral.” For this he saw an immediate solution. At St. Joseph’s in St. John’s, he had seen “a very large and beautiful brass sanctuary lamp which would in size and character, be most appropriate.”41 It seems not to have mattered that the lamp had been donated in 1917 by the children of St. Joseph’s school for their parish church.42 Rambusch aimed at getting the lamp at a price well below what he believed was its value: “If Monsignor thinks well of the idea,” he wrote, “Mr. Hoskins or R.[ambusch] D.[ecorating of] C.[anada] could offer Monsignor Maher $250 for his sanctuary lamp (which is worth at least $1,000) which is inappropriate for the new St. Joseph’s church as it would be successful within the Cathedral. With the monies provided Monsignor Maher, we would provide him with a new, smaller, and more appropriate bronze sanctuary lamp.”43 Liberating churches of their memorials was acceptable, provided the items suited the cathedral.

     Rambusch also had no qualms about modifying the cathedral’s monuments, provided his employers approved. He had seen the eleven-foot-high marble pulpit erected by Archbishop Roche in memory of Archbishop Howley, and learned of Summers’ discomfort at having to mount it because of his fear of heights. Writing to the cathedral authorities in careful language, he noted: “It has been considered that the pulpit should be lowered.” He also proposed lowering the marble altar rail, and moving the donated memorial plaques situated throughout the church: “As there may undoubtedly over the years be other tablets erected, some thought might be given to relocating those now in place, so affording planned locations for the others still to come.”44 But the implications of buying and selling donated monuments, memorials, and statues went unconsidered by Rambusch or the cathedral authorities.

     Rambusch’s proposals sat with Hoskins and Summers through the winter of 1954. Summers accepted some and questioned others, but next to the recommendation about the altar rail, he wrote, “to remain as is,” and next to the suggestion of removing the plaques, he scribbled a bold “No.”45 He reserved judgment on Rambusch’s main recommendation, the re-painting of the cathedral ceiling in a “walnut” colour. In March, Hoskins was getting worried about the need to conclude work on the cathedral before the end of 1954, and Summers had unresolved questions about Rambusch’s proposals. He directed Hoskins to get a second opinion and check Rambusch’s credentials. The architect wrote the Boston architectural firm of Maginnis and Walsh to seek their interest in conducting the cathedral renovations. They were told that Rambusch had submitted “rather detailed studies,” and that Hoskins had visited the decorator’s warehouse in New York in December, and that Archbishop Skinner and Summers had stopped there on their way to Rome in January, discovering that Rambusch “appeared to have the necessary personnel and fabricating facilities to execute all forms of interior decoration.” But the work would be expensive and Maginnis and Walsh were told that “the Administrator has not ... committed himself in any way to the Rambusch concern and has consistently declined to sign a contract for the execution of the work.”46 Furthermore, Hoskins found Rambusch’s scheme


comprised of rather vaguely executed proposals from the drawing board covered, I may say, by not so vague but quite realistic cash estimates. The treatment of the plaster ceiling proposed – walnut or alternatively, mahogany – appears heavy and does not meet with general concurrence. Unqualified or reserved acceptance of the Rambusch proposals will entail a substantial financial outlay and the advantage of competitive tenders is at once eliminated. Monsignor Summers, having given the matter careful consideration, feels the whole project deserves a new approach represented by the retention of an independent architectural authority fully experienced in this particular type of work.47


Eugene Kennedy of Maginnis and Walsh replied, thanking Hoskins for his flattery but refusing the offer due to other commissions. Kennedy also strongly endorsed Rambusch. He had “executed a great deal of work for us under our direction that has been highly satisfactory” and done “splendid examples of work” entirely “without benefit of architectural supervision,” wrote Kennedy, and “in this connection we know of no one more competent than they to solve the artificial lighting problems relating to a large church.”48

     The grandeur of the Roman basilicas must have whetted Skinner’s and Summers’ appetite for more pomp at the cathedral in St. John’s, for on their return they were more eager than ever to begin renovations. All hesitancy over Rambusch had vanished. On 2 April 1954, Hoskins telegraphed Rambusch that the “Cathedral authorities having returned from Rome” wanted an alternate proposal for the treatment of the ceiling, and that a final decision was pending.49 On 26 July, the first contract was signed for $68,152 to repaint the cathedral walls and side altars, paint the ceiling, install a tester, and modify the high altar, which involved “marble areas to be cleaned and painted areas to be [re]painted and apply some gold leaf,” along with the installation of a new nine-foot-high carved wooden statue of St. John the Baptist.50 Other contracts followed. Work began soon thereafter and Rambusch scrambled to meet the centenary year deadline. A forest of scaffolding filled the cathedral to within six feet of the 55-foot-high ceiling,51 and the painting and application of classical floral motif stencils began. The cathedral was closed for six months, and the congregation worshipped in the nearby auditorium of Mercy Convent on Military Road.

     Once renovations got underway, the first monument to be treated was the pulpit. By 15 September, Rambusch again proposed to Hoskins that it be lowered in height, and the work was done soon thereafter without consulting the Howley family who were cathedral parishioners.52 When this work and the reason for it were discovered, parishioners began to call Summers “the bull of the woods.”53 But on other issues Rambusch did not get his way. On 1 September, a penitent Rambusch wrote Summers, making


one last plea to have the many plaques within the Cathedral relocated in some more reasonable place or places ... Could we, in the interior consultants, not accept the blame, responsibility, or credit for doing this? It should be a system which would allow for appropriate additions from time to time over the coming generations. It would at least seem proper that the least important plaques be placed in the narthex. If the problem is not solved at this time, there is no knowing what the ultimate results will be. Please forgive me for bringing this up once again for review, but I do feel it is very important.54


But Summers again refused. By the end of September, Hoskins protested to Rambusch that the lighting fixtures were not to Summers’ liking, and that at a cost of $1800 per unit “we had visualized something a bit more distinctive. The cost of bronze metalwork seems to have gotten entirely out of hand...”55

     By 23 October 1954, Summers feared that his renovations were getting out of hand. Under pressure from the decorator, he directed Rambusch that “with regard to the figure of the Dead Christ under the main altar, I have no intention whatever of moving it. It is to stay there.” Also, no changes were to be made to the high altar to install a tabernacle there, as Rambusch had recently requested,56 nor were changes to be made to the tabernacle on the Blessed Sacrament altar, and Rambusch’s new plan to apply gold leaf to the entire “area above the mensa” to “render it important and beautiful” was not to take place, but rather as the contract stated, the high altar and two side altars simply were to be cleaned and painted in colours, and some gold leaf was to be applied.57 Summers then wrote a second “Dear Viggo” letter, alarmed that Rambusch firm’s site foreman at the cathedral, Egon Pederson, believed that the sanctuary would not be finished in time for Christmas, even though Rambusch had given Summers “every hope” that the sanctuary would be done in time for Christmas, and that this did not bode well for a limited six-month disruption at the cathedral which would see all work concluded by the beginning of Lent 1954.58 On 1 November Rambusch apologized to Summers and explained that his business associate Leif Neandross was “now at the Cathedral making samples.” Neandross, who had served in a camouflage unit during World War I, was an expert at faux-finishes and had won the Rambusch firm important contracts from the U.S. War Department during World War II.59 Rambusch promised to wire Neandross immediately and guaranteed that a “successful series of solutions” would be arrived at “within the course of 5,7, or 9 days.”60 Three days later, on 3 November, Neandross gathered Summers and Hoskins in the cathedral, where several sections of scaffold had been removed to show off the painted ceiling. The administrator and the architect were pleased, and relieved to know that the scaffold would be out of the sanctuary by Christmas.

     Unfortunately, not all the artworks in the cathedral survived as intact as the funerary monuments and the Dead Christ. Only one memo to the cathedral authorities from Neandross documented what was actually planned for the high altar. “The rear of the altar, behind the granite columns,” he wrote, “is at present sheathed in wood construction – to be covered on both sides with veneer panelling ... Thus for Christmas, the upper portion of the altar will be painted and gilded; the rear wooden portion will be treated and the central design will be in place.”61 True to his word, by Christmas the eight polished pink granite columns of the high altar were painted a cream colour. Carew and Sullivan’s entablature, brackets, and angels of the high altar were taken down, as were the angels holding aloft the cross over the high altar were removed and those above the side altars. These were discarded. A tester, built by the Casavant organ company, was installed over the high altar,62 which itself was remodelled into a serliana.63 Given that Rambusch expected “blame, or responsibility” from the congregation, this may explain the absence of further documentation of what was done to the high altar. A year later, to explain to the congregation, Hoskins wrote an essay on the “restoration” of the cathedral. In a subsection entitled “High Altar Liturgical Corrections,” he asserted that


Structural corrections designed to simplify and improve the architectural proportions of the High Altar have also been carried out. The classical entablature previously surmounting the central opening between the Altar columns and bearing aloft a cross and statuary was entirely removed. The statuary group portraying the Baptism of Our Lord by St. John the Baptist has also been taken from its position above and behind the mensa and now rests in the adjoining grounds of the Archbishop’s Palace.64


But nothing was “restored,” and if anything was ever liturgically “incorrect,” neither Rambusch, Hoskins, Summers, nor Skinner ever claimed as much in contemporary correspondence. Liturgical and structural correctness were in the eye of the beholder. If “restoration” and “correctness” were guiding principles, respect for the historical integrity of artworks was not. According to parishioners, it was soon discovered that Carew’s “Caen stone” statue adopted the consistency of wet plaster outdoors over the winter. It soon disintegrated. Thus the high altar and all of its statuary – Mullock’s “finest specimen of art in the whole western world” – were discarded with the official approval of iconoclasts who knew little and cared less for history than having a decorator coat everything in their path, polished pink granite columns included, with stencils, cream paint, faux marble, and gold leaf.

     The remainder of Rambusch’s work at the St. John’s Cathedral received mixed reviews. Some treatments were absolutely inspired, but others were destructive. The ceiling, finished in walnut paint and stencils and highlighted with gold leaf, looked like the ceiling of a Roman basilica. The repainted walls and side altars were brightened considerably. However, the names of Irish parishioners who had donated the twenty-eight large stained glass windows, originally painted in cartouches on panels below each window in the nineteenth century by Newfoundland artist George Gamberg, were painted over, erasing the name of the person memorialized. This angered many in the congregation. The stations of the cross were lowered, obscuring ten of the twelve of the consecration crosses set into the walls. The St. Andrew’s altar behind the high altar, with its work by Carew, was also dismantled and discarded, as were a number of large paintings, copies of the old masters ordered by Mullock in 1856.65 Twice thereafter Rambusch tried to interest the cathedral authorities in costly modern furnishings. First he proposed a $508 bronze crucifix for a side altar.66 This was not purchased. Then he proposed a $241 six-foot velvet sash,67 to replace the bronze gates at the centre of the altar rail which bore the name of the donor, Katherine Howley Morris. This was purchased, but again the Howley family was not consulted.68 Finally on 29 March 1955, long after Rambusch returned to New York, the wooden statue of St. John the Baptist arrived. A frustrated Hoskins telegraphed Rambusch a message which could have aptly described the whole renovation program:


Positioning of statue however has disclosed that previously executed gilding of panels and surround scrolled treatment overlap the carved figure at sides and head noticeably detracting from the figure. Opinion unanimous that the scrolled treatment has been too profusely applied crowding the statue unduly resulting in a confused overall ensemble. Accordingly regret to advise you that the presently executed panel decoration not acceptable to Cathedral authorities. It should be removed restudied and re-executed to owners satisfaction.69


Rambusch’s “restoration” had modernized the St. John’s Cathedral to conform to the hierarchy’s standards of aesthetics, but the price was the destruction of significant portions of the community’s Irish and artistic cultural heritage.   

     The sole Canadian improvement to the cathedral was a success. Ordered by Archbishop Skinner, who was a friend of Joseph LeDoux, the Vice-President of the Casavant Frères Organ Company, the new 4-manual, 66-stop pipe organ was one of the largest in eastern Canada, and was dedicated to the memory of the cathedral’s parishioners who had died in















Interior of St. John’s Cathedral, pre-1954

Photo credit: Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, E-42-18



























Interior of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1955

Photo credit: Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John’s


both world wars. Unfortunately, Skinner’s handling of the music program at the cathedral became a fiasco. In 1952, forty-nine years after Pope Pius X’s Motu Proprio prohibited women from choirs and banned “profane”musical compositions in favour of Gregorian Chant,70 Skinner asked the organist and choir director, Ignatius “Nish” Rumboldt,71 to teach the choir Gregorian chant and the music of Palestrina, and to abandon the choir’s romantic repertoire. He also directed that only men and boys should sing in the choir. Rumboldt replied that he had not studied these musical genres. Skinner even offered to send Rumboldt away for training, but the organist had a young family, and was totally committed to his four-part concert choir. A mixture of commitment to his family and anger at being required to jettison half the choir prompted him to submit his resignation. He was devastated when, after seventeen years of service, the resignation was accepted.72 Lacking an organist, in 1953, Skinner contacted Monsignor J.E. Ronan of St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto and obtained the services of a young German-trained organist, Reiner Rees, who arrived in St. John’s to play the new organ.73 However, Skinner’s musical demands and shabby treatment of Rumboldt, and the choir’s discovery that Rees was hired to play the new memorial organ, caused a scandal in the congregation’s musical community and prompted the choir to resign en masse. The 1955 celebrations proceeded without a resident choir at the cathedral, giving Skinner the only thing left and exactly what he didn’t want: choral music provided by the female students of the Presentation and Mercy sisters’ schools.

     Even though the final bill for the “restoration” came to over $300,000, the costs of the “Year of Joy” in the loss of the congregation’s goodwill were much higher. As far as documents show, Archbishop Skinner followed a “hands-off” policy with respect to personal involvement in changes at the cathedral, leaving Summers and Hoskins to approve or reject them. Rambusch could hardly be blamed for doing his work and trying to make a profit, but it was ultimately Skinner’s cathedral, and the congregation held him responsible for the improvements and the damage. Unfortunately, the desire to celebrate the cathedral’s history became an unwitting de-greening of the Irishness of several of its central artistic features, and an even more oblivious surrender to the secular world of commerce of the right to define what was sacred and profane. Instead of celebrating the building’s history and helping to reconstruct Newfoundland Catholics as Canadians, the cathedral renovations were characterized by high-handedness, ad-hocery and profound historical amnesia, and they alienated many congregants. Skinner, Summers, and Hoskins lacked a clear sense of the ultramontane character of the cathedral, and more importantly the Irish and indigenous heritage it embodied. The changes made to the sacred space were insensitive to the cultural heritage and the feelings of the local community.

     Was Skinner blind to this culture’s expressions in the cathedral church, and to how the changes would be received? Professional scholarship on Newfoundland history and the concepts of cultural heritage preservation would not arrive until the late 1960s, but the history of the cathedral and its artistic treasures were well-known, even in Skinner’s youth. The extent to which he was influenced in the early 1950s by new architectural movements in Québec, Europe, and the United States, particularly with regard to new church buildings and renovations of older churches, is also unknown. How much did the decorative styles of American churches influence him? He certainly saw these during his visits to New York. Perhaps he had an ecclesiastical version of renovation-itis, an affliction which accompanied the rise of mass consumer society in Newfoundland the wake of World War II, and which became a full-blown case of keeping-up-with-the-Joneses following confederation in 1949. Flushed with cash, thousands of Newfoundlanders in the outports and St. John’s discarded the mahogany and oak dining sets in favour of chrome sets, believing that new and modern meant superior. The 1950s “restoration” of the St. John’s Cathedral was a harbinger of things to come. By the 1980s, scarcely a single older Catholic church in outport Newfoundland had escaped the renovators. This tide was only stemmed after the 1987 revelations of the sexual abuse of children by the clergy, and when congregations declined. Had renovations to the St. John’s Cathedral come after the Second Vatican Council, there might have been an outright festival of iconoclasm.74

     The climax of the Year of Joy came on 26 June 1955, when Skinner read a brief in the cathedral from Pope Pius XII designating it a minor basilica, the ninth Canadian church to be so honoured.75 The distinction had been granted because of the cathedral’s “impressive vastness, for the dignity which so befits it for the sacred ceremonies, for the many large representations of the Saints which it enshrines, and for the variety of its adornment with marble and other precious materials.”76 From that moment onward, proud St. John’s Catholics were joined by all Newfoundlanders in calling the cathedral “The Basilica,” and its status as cathedral in the popular imagination was instantly eclipsed by the honorific. But as glorious as that moment was, the designation rang somewhat hollow, for the preparations for the birthday had run roughshod over many of the very same “adornments” which had merited the designation in the first place and had failed to take account of the views of the congregation. The “Year of Joy” was a bittersweet celebration. Newfoundland Catholics did become Canadian Catholics, but attempts to gild over their memories of an Irish heritage, repaint their identity, change their culture, and discard their nationalism were less successful. The “Year of Joy” remains a tarnished episode in the history of Catholicism in Newfoundland.

1 Research for this study was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Institute for Social and Economic Research, and the J.R. Smallwood Centre of Memorial University.

2  On Fleming see R.J. Lahey, “Michael Anthony Fleming,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto, 1988): 7:292-300, and Lahey, “The Building of a Cathedral, 1838-1855,” in J.F. Wallis, Ed., The Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist (St. John’s, 1980), 27-43; and J.E. FitzGerald, “Michael Anthony Fleming and Ultramontanism in Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850,” CCHA Historical Studies, 64 (1998): 27-45.

3 Archives of Propaganda Fide, Rome (APF), Scritture Riferite Nei Congressi, 1837-1841, Vol. 4, fols 267r-274v, Fleming to Cardinal Prefect, 21 April 1838.

4 APF, SRNC, 1837-1842, Vol. 4, fols 336r-343v, Fleming to Fransoni, 27 November 1838; ibid.,1842-1848, Vol. 5, fols 778r-789v, Fleming to Fransoni, 26 November 1846.

5 Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, USPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel) records, microfilm “C” II/24, fol292, Spencer to Lord Stanley, 26 August 1842.

6 Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, St. John’s, Bishop Feild Papers, letter 7, Feild to ?, 7 August 1844; letter 18, Feild to ?, 1845.

7 Shane O’Dea, “The Basilica of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland,” Mid-Nineteenth Century Cathedrals (Ottawa: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, 1989), 134, noted the building was “one of - if not the earliest essay in the revival of the Lombard Romanesque style in the English-speaking world.”

8 J.T. Mullock, The Cathedral of St. John’s, Newfoundland, with An Account of Its Consecration (Dublin, 1856), 1.

9 Ibid., 2.

10 Ibid., 1-3.

11 “John Edward Carew,” W.G. Strickland, A Dictionary of Irish Artists (New York, 1968), 1:152-4.

12  John Turpin, John Hogan: Irish Neoclassical Sculptor in Rome (Dublin, 1982), 19.

13 Ibid., 61; Peter Murray, Illustrated Summary Catalogue of The Crawford Municipal Art Gallery (Cork, 1991), Hogan entry, 175-6.

14 Turpin, Hogan, 46.

15 The Newfoundlander, 13 May 1841, “Programme of the Order of Procession...”

16 Clarendon Street church itself had Newfoundland connections: it had been built with United Irish money and help from the Sweetman family, a branch of which in the 18th century had fishing rooms in Placentia, Newfoundland, and premises in New Bawn, Co. Wexford.

17 Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee appointed to inquire into the State of the Colony of Newfoundland (London, 1841), 3 May - 25 May 1841.

18 Oliver MacDonagh, The Emancipist Daniel O’Connell 1830-47 (London, 1989): 230.

19 J.E. FitzGerald, “Conflict and Culture In Irish-Newfoundland Roman Catholicism, 1829-1850,” unpub. Ph.D. thesis, University of Ottawa, 1997, 459 and ff.

20 Mullock, Cathedral of St. John’s, 1-3.

21 Newfoundland Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 1 (June 1904), anon., “Renovation of the Cathedral.”

22 The Howley Morris altar rail gates are preserved in the Basilica Museum. Howley, the first native-born bishop, became archbishop in 1904.

23 Barbara Crosbie (neé Armstrong) to the author, 6 March 2002.

24 For the DeBurgo-O’Malley Chalice (1494) see J.J. Buckley, Some Irish Altar Plate: A Descriptive List of Chalices and Patens (Dublin, 1943), 14-18. The throne and chalice were gifts of the Benevolent Irish Society, which was founded in St. John’s in 1806 as a non-denominational fraternal and benefit society for Irishmen and their descendants. To preserve amity and avoid any taint of sectarianism, the society declared its non-sectarian character, but by 1830 its members were virtually all Roman Catholics. See J.M. Kent, Centenary Volume - Benevolent Irish Society of St. John’s, Newfoundland (St. John’s, 1906), 9-11.

25 In 1903 Archbishop Howley moved the high altar forward in the sanctuary; a plaque behind the altar notes this. In 1918 the carved wooden pulpit was replaced with a marble pulpit donated by Archbishop Roche in Howley’s memory.

26 The Evening Telegram, 13 October 1949, 3. Compare with the poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron  (1788-1824): “On with the dance! let joy be unconfined; / No sleep till morn, when Youth and Pleasure meet ...” On Roche and confederation see The Monitor, July-August 1947, 1; November 1947, 1; and December 1947, 10.

27 Personal communication from Mgr. D.L. O’Keefe, Archbishop Skinner’s secretary, to the author, June 1987.

28 “Skinner, Most. Rev. Patrick James,” in James Thoms, Ed., Newfoundland and Labrador Who’s Who Centennial Edition (St. John’s, 1967), 254; Paul O’Neill, “Archbishop Skinner: The Man From Holy Heart,” in John Wallis, Ed., Basilica-Cathedral, 161-169; “Events in the Life of His Grace Most Reverend P.J. Skinner, C.J.M., D.D. Archbishop of St. John’s,” P.J. Kennedy, Ed., The Centenary of the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, St. John’s, Newfoundland 1855-1955 (St. John’s, 1956), 124-6. Skinner died in 1989, a decade after retiring.

29 On the political and cultural impact of confederation on Newfoundland Catholics see J.E. FitzGerald, “Archbishop E.P. Roche, J.R. Smallwood, and Denominational Rights in Newfoundland Education, 1948,” CCHA Historical Studies (65 (1999): 28-49.

30 Personal communication of Archbishop Skinner to the author, June 1987; Rev. P.J. Kennedy, “The Family Crusade in Newfoundland, September 1952,” in Kennedy, Centenary, 134-6 notes the festivities surrounding this event. No parades were held.

31 Kennedy, Centenary, 59-60.

32 Personal communication from Mgr. D.L. O’Keefe, Archbishop Skinner’s secretary, to the author, June 1987.

33 Summers (b. St. John’s,1899) studied at All Hallows College seminary in Dublin, and was ordained in 1923. On his return to Newfoundland he ministered at Mundy Pond, a working-class industrial suburb west of St. John’s, founding St. Teresa’s parish there in 1930. Tenacious and stubborn, he got the job done, and was loved by parishioners. His clerical career is discussed in Sr. M. Jerome Walker, “Historical Highlights of St. Teresa’s Parish (1930-1980),” St. Teresa’s Parish 1930-1980 St. John’s, Newfoundland (St. John’s, 1980), 10-14. The author’s maternal grandmother, Catherine Nugent, was an assistant housekeeper to Summers at St. Teresa’s and later worked at the Palace when he moved there in 1952.

34 Archives of the Archdiocese of St. John’s, Archbishop Skinner Papers, which include two files of Rambusch Papers (hereafter RP), file 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 13 November 1953. The son of a Danish immigrant, the effusive Rambusch cultivated close connections with American bishops and archbishops, and his son attended Fordham Preparatory School. See The Record (Hackensack, N.J), 23 December 1998; The Jersey Journal, 14 August 1990.

35 RP, file 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 5 October 1953.

36 J. Hoskins, “The Restoration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1953-1955,” in Kennedy, Centenary, 154.

37 RP, file 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 1 November 1953.

38 RP, file 2, Rambusch to Hoskins, 12 November 1953.

39 RP, file 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 13 November 1953.

40 RP, file 1, Rambusch to Summers and Hoskins, 24 November 1953.

41 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 24 November 1953.

42 As inscribed on the lamp.

43 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 24 November 1953.

44 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 24 November 1953.

45 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 24 November 1953, Summers’ copy with annotations.

46 RP, File 2, Hoskins to Maginnis and Walsh, 12 March 1954.

47 RP, File 2, Hoskins to Maginnis and Walsh, 12 March 1954.

48 RP, File 2, Eugene Kennedy of Maginnis and Walsh to Hoskins, 17 March 1954.

49 RP, File 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 2 April 1954.

50 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 4 August 1954.

51 The scaffolding was donated by the St. John’s Catholic businessman F.M. O’Leary and erected by parishioner and contractor Raphael O’Neill.

52 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 15 September 1954.

53 Wallace Furlong to the author, 30 May 1992.

54 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Summers, 1 September 1954.

55 RP, File 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 25 September 1954.

56 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Hoskins, 15 October 1954.

57 RP, File 1, Summers to Rambusch, 23 October 1954.

58 RP, File 1, Summers to Rambusch, “Attention Mr. Viggo,” 23 October 1954.

59 “War Paint,” Seaport - New York’s History Magazine, Spring 1999.

60 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Summers, 1 November 1954.

61 RP, File 1, Leif Neandross to Egon Pederson, Summers, Hoskins, Rambusch,, 8 November 1954.

62 Lester Goulding to the author, August 1985. In May 1955, Goulding became the Casavant Frères Organ Company’s representative in Newfoundland. At that time Casavant’s cabinetmaking division built church pews and other fittings; they provided the tester.

63 A serliana is an archway or window with three openings, the central one is arched and wider than the others. The serliana was first illustrated in Sebastiano Serlio’s Architettura (1537). It was likely derived from Donato Bramante; it was frequently deployed by Andrea Palladio. See John Fleming, Hugh Honour, and Nikolaus Pevsner, Dictionary of Architecture, 3rd Ed., (London, 1987), 295.

64 J. Hoskins, “The Restoration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1953-1955,”,Kennedy, Centenary, 157.

65 “Reproductions of Raphael ordered for Cathedral,” The Newfoundlander, 22 September 1856.

66 RP, File 1, Rambusch to Summers, 15 February 1955.

67 RP, File 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 28 March 1955.

68 There is no correspondence in the Rambusch papers with the Howley family, and according to the archbishop’s grand-nephew Michael Howley, the family was never consulted (Michael Howley to the author, 6 March 2002).

69 RP, File 1, Hoskins to Rambusch, 29 March 1955.

70 On the Motu Proprio see Mark McGowan, The Waning of the Green: Catholics, The Irish, and Identity in Toronto, 1887-1922 (Montreal, 1999), 98.

71 Rumboldt (b. St. John’s 1916, d. 1994) inherited the post in 1936 from his mentor the St. John’s musician Charles Hutton.

72  Paul Woodford, The Life and Contributions of Ignatius Rumboldt to Music In Newfoundland (St. John’s, 1984), 31-2; Sr. M. Kathrine Bellamy, RSM, Ph.D., to the author, 22 May 2001. Rumboldt (1916-1994) thereafter lectured in music at Memorial University and had a distinguished musical career.

73 Reiner Rees (b. Berlin, 1926, d. St. John’s, 1993) grew up in Frankfurt. Trained in music at Regensburg Conservatory, his improvisations in the style of Bach were brilliant. At age 17 he was conscripted against his will into the German army and sent to the Russian Front, where he was wounded, losing a leg and an eye. After the war, he sought employment in Canada; Ronan recommended him to Skinner. Sr. Kathrine Bellamy succeeded Rees as Basilica organist. Sr. Kathrine Bellamy to the author, 22 May 2001.

74 As it was, the Dead Christ and altar of sacrifice were moved forward in the sanctuary in 1974 so the priest could face the congregation during Mass.

75 “Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Raised to Rank of Basilica,” Kennedy, Centenary, 20.

76 Translation of Apostolic Decree erecting basilica, 30 May 1955, in Kennedy, Centenary, 19. The grant of designation as a minor basilica must have been sought during Skinner and Summers’ visit to Rome in 1954.