By Brother J.B. Darcy
Fire was the constant companion of Michael Anthony Fleming, fourth Vicar Apostolic and first Bishop of Newfoundland.
A disastrous fire in 1846 destroyed most of the capital city of St. John’s and, with it, much of his hopes. His own fiery temperament led him into impulsive and sometimes imprudent actions. To many of his contemporaries, particularly those in positions of authority, he was an “incendiary priest,” a political firebrand igniting the flames of discord throughout the island. To others—by far the majority of those who knew him personally—he was a prelate on fire with the love of God and neighbor, driving himself to incredible lengths for the sake of the spiritual and material welfare of his flock.
While the immense Basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s, with its artistic treasures, is his crowning glory, he has revered also for introducing, at great personal sacrifice, both the Presentation Sisters and the Sisters of Mercy as well as the Franciscan Brothers to Newfoundland.
In spite of these and many other achievements, Bishop Fleming is virtually unknown to all except to a few scholars in Newfoundland. Yet he was undoubtedly one of the greatest Canadian figures of the first half of the 19th century.