MF – 1858.12.16 – A Visit to St. John – #13 – F12243
(From the New York Tablet.) NOTES OF A VISIT TO ST. JOHN N. B.
The city of St. John. – Its streets and buildings. – The Irish element the prominent one. – Celtic and Catholic customs predominate. – The Cathedral. – The Bishop and Clergy – The Philharmonic Society. – Lake Lomond. – Ben Nevis. – A local tragedy.
MONTREAL, Nov. 28th, 1858.
The city of St. John, although principally composed of wooden buildings, the churches even included, has now some handsome rows of brick and stone, especially in King, Dock, and Prince Wm. streets, which are the principal commercial thoroughfares. King and Queen squares are well laid out and tastefully ornamented, although the rows of handsome edifices to form their respective boundaries are, for the most part, somewhere in the future. It will always be a serious inconvenience to the good people of St. John to have rocks to climb in all their goings out and comings in. With the exception of Quebec I never saw a city so rocky as St. John; in fact, with few exceptions, every street is “the Rocky Road to” somewhere – if not to “Dublin.” Still the inequality of the surface is not without its advantages, for it certainly contributes to give a picturesque character to the city, and also affords find prospects of the surrounding scenery at almost every turn. The country around St. John is composed of the same rocky and sandy hills which form the basis of the city. Some of these elevations are wooded to their summits, others covered wholly or in part with brown, scant herbage, but all have the same character of extension, if one may say so, seldom rising in conical or [pyramidical] forms, but stretching along, one beyond the other, in continuity that appears endless when viewed from the vicinity of the city. The scenery is, therefore, of a bold and somewhat wild aspect, haggard and cheerless, I should think, when wrapt in its wintry shroud, and never what one could call beautiful, though in summer it must be picturesque from its wild, and lonely, and sylvan character.
Unlike Portland, Maine, St. John is, in great part, an Irish city. A very large proportion of the leading men of business are Irish, not only in origin, but in habits, manners, and in feeling. Irish names are seen everywhere through the city, as well on the doors of private dwellings as over the stores and warehouses of the great thoroughfares. Several of the first merchants in the city are Irish, some Protestant, some Catholic, and as a general thing they live on very good terms with each other.
Certain it is that in no city of America that I have seen is the Irish element so prominent on the surface as in St. John; and what is still more cheering is the fact that it is not merely on the surface, but underlies the whole fabric of society, as far at least as the Catholics are concerned. During some weeks which I spent in the city, I had an opportunity of becoming acquainted more or less with almost every class of the people, and it is with pride and pleasure I say it – I found the old Celtic virtues, aye, and many of the old Celtic customs, even, in full life and vigor, warming and animating every portion of the community. The faith and piety so generally diffused amongst the people, old and young, is no spurious plant, of sickly foreign growth, it is precisely the vigorous, healthy, and robust plant imported directly from the free hill-sides of Ireland where all the land is fertilized with the blood of martyred generations. It is the faith typified by the Irish oak, the faith which bends to no passing breeze, not even to the sweep of the hurricane, and which rears its stately head age after age in undiminished glory and freshness that never fades. Long may the fair city of St. John deserve what I have just said of it – long may its thrifty and enterprising inhabitants be able and willing to do such great things as they are doing for the glory of God and the good of religion. The Cathedral which is now so well advanced that divine service is regularly performed there, will go down to posterity a granted and enduring proof of their munificent charity and active faith. It was an immense undertaking for a population hardly ever exceeding eighteen thousand,* and as we look upon its massive walls, its noble towers, and stately buttresses, then enter and behold the solid grandeur of nave and aisles and clere-story, we ask ourselves can it be that the Catholics of St. John have been able to erect such a monument. They did erect it, however, thanks to their own generous devotion and the untiring energy and zeal of their eminent prelate who holds episcopal sway in the Province.† The old Church of St. Malachy, is still in good preservation, the Bishop is reserving for the School of the Christian Brothers, whom he hopes to obtain from Ireland. He has also secured for the people of St. John the invaluable services of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of Charity. Both these institutions are yet in their infancy, but their influence is already felt and admitted. All this and more still has the good Bishop done in the short space of seven years, and as the people say themselves, if God spares him health and leaves him amongst them, for some years longer, the city will have many other religious and charitable foundations to show. There is a very general fear existing amongst the Catholics of St. John that their Bishop may be removed to the metropolitan see of Halifax, and certainly, to all appearance, it would be a bad move for their interests, for it is admitted on all hands that Dr. Connolly has done more to elevate them as a body than most men could have done in the same time and under the same limitations. We had not the pleasure of seeing or hearing him in the exercise of his episcopal functions during our stay, as, owing to the vast extent of his diocese, he is long and frequently absent on pastoral visitations. As for the reverend gentlemen who are his fellow-laborers in the ministry, I do not choose to say of them what truth demands, fearing it might look like exaggeration. The best proof of their merits is the esteem and veneration in which they are held by the people for whom they labor so devotedly. This much I may say, however, that no Catholic visiting St. John can leave it without the most favorable impression of the clergy, one and all, considering them as priests, as men, and as gentlemen.
Amid all the bustle of trade and commerce, the citizens of St. John find time to cultivate the arts. They have a Philharmonic Society, and an Amateur Artists’ Society. I had the pleasure of visiting an exhibition of paintings got up under the auspices of the latter association. Of course, the best works exhibited were foreign, but there were also very many portraits, landscapes, fruit and flower pieces, &c., by local artists, some of which are indicative of considerable taste and talent. Amongst the collection are some scenes of great beauty from the Scottish and Welsh Highlands. On the whole, the exhibition was very creditable to a comparatively young city like St. John.
The immediate vicinity of the city abounds in delightful promenades, and within a circuit of some eight or ten miles are many places of great interest well worth an hour or two’s drive. Of these Lake Lomond with its wild Highland scenery is about the most attractive. Winding along in an almost serpentine course for some three or four times, with a range of wild and picturesque hills on one side and a fine level country on the other, the lake presents a series of the most charming scenes imaginable. At times the rocks rise abruptly from its sparkling surface in bold and rugged grandeur, and again the woody hills recede with a graceful slope leaving lawns and glades of singular beauty near the water’s edge. High over all rises grandly from the lake, the almost precipitous flank of Ben Nevis, its shaggy brown crest traced in sharp angles on the (when I saw it) clear frosty sky. The mountain is, of course, a pigmy as compared with its Scottish namesake, but the lake which mirrors its form is of much larger dimensions than the far-famed sheet of water from a real or supposed resemblance to which it evidently takes its name. – The friends to whom I am indebted for the pleasure of this exquisite morceau of New Brunswick scenery, pointed out to me in the woods near the head of the lake, a spot made memorable by its association with a local tragedy of recent occurrence, viz.: the murder of an entire family by one man, who, with his accomplice, fled to the recesses of the wild forest bordering on Lake Lomond, and there in a sort of encampment lay concealed from the officers of justice for two whole months, when the pair were captured, lodged in St. John jail, and the wretched man, Slavin, the principal culprit, was soon after convicted and executed. The other, – whose heart failed him at the last moment, so that, although present, he positively refused to strike any of the victims, – evaded the execution of the sentence passed upon him by committing suicide in prison. It was a fearful tragedy, and its gloom hung for many a day over the fair city of St. John. In another short letter I will give the few remaining particulars connected with the place.
M. A. S.
* This is said to be the average Catholic population of St. John, N. B.
† Right Rev. Thomas L. Connolly, second Bishop of St. John.