• 2018-03-29

Saint john heritage

making connections

Saint John, NB is connected to hundreds of thousands of descendants of Irish immigrants throughout North America, but especially New England. 

Saint John, New Brunswick was one of the busiest ports of entry in North America for Irish emigrants fleeing persecution, unrest, and famine in the “Old Country” during the mid-1800s. 

Between 1815 and 1867, 150,000 Irish immigrants flooded into the city of Saint John.  More than 30,000 arrived between 1845 and 1847 alone – almost tripling the city’s population at the time. Many were ultimately bound for the United States.

Why Saint John?

At the height of the Irish exodus in the late 1840s, many landlords forced starving tenants to emigrate, preferring to pay for their passage to the Americas rather than be responsible for their welfare back home. Irish estate owner Lord Palmerston “exported” 2000 poor tenants from his lands alone. At that time, the United States had more stringent laws about landing indigent immigrants on their shores, often requiring ships' captains or owners to be responsible for the passengers for up to two years after landing. In addition, because of more humane laws regarding limits on numbers of passengers, passage to the US was more expensive. 

But there was regular transit of lumber ships between Canada and Great Britain. And those lumber ships could fit hundreds of poor, starving, and fevered immigrants on the return voyage to Canada, at lesser cost to the landlords or those who could afford their own passage. These ships became known as the "Fever Fleet.”

The manner of transporting the Irish emigrant of ’47 fills a black page in the annals of the Sea. Anything that could float or hold a sail was used to carry the emigrant across the sea. Ruined as he was, with only a pittance granted for his passage by the landlord, he had to accept. He was literally herded into vessels never built or intended for passenger service.” (The Irish Emigration of 1847 and Its Canadian Consequences, Rev. John A. Gallagher, C.SS.R., St. Alphonsus Seminary, Woodstock, Ont.)

As a result, many Irish who hoped to join relatives or friends in the United States obtained passage to Canadian ports. And Saint John was the second busiest port of entry in Canada for Irish immigrants in those years. 

Bound for the “Boston States”

For thousands, Saint John was their landing point to what they called the "Boston States." Some stayed in Saint John for a generation before heading to the US. Others left immediately. Whether they stayed for weeks or years or generations, the ancestors of many Irish Americans made their mark on Saint John.

The New Brunswick archives house a repository of vital statistics collected from New Brunswick newspapers between approximately 1815 and 1915. It’s quite common for a Saint John obituary with an Irish name published in the mid-19th century to conclude with the words “Please copy to Boston and Philadelphia papers,” ensuring that the deceased’s New England relatives would receive notice.

The Irish Monument: The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Saint John, built between 1853 and 1855, is the most visible and historically significant monument to the Irish wave of immigration to Saint John in the 1800s. As thousands flooded into the city (the majority of whom were Catholic), the community quickly outgrew the small wooden St. Malachi Chapel, which had been built to accommodate the approximately 65 Catholics who lived in the area in 1815.

Bishop Thomas Connolly led a massive effort to build a new church on what was then considered "the outskirts of town" that could better care for the growing flock of poor, sick, and sometimes orphaned charges. The Irish immigrants of the day -- Catholic AND non-Catholic -- literally helped erect the church with their own hands.

The costs of the building were considered so high that volunteer labour was used to proceed with the structure. Mr. William Smith, a prominent Orangeman, was chosen to oversee the construction. It should be noted that on March 28, 1853 “fully 400 men, labourers and various trades and callings were crowded around the site of the proposed edifice, enthusiastic volunteers in the work of digging the foundation.”  (Unpublished pamphlet “Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception," reproduced by Donna Blanchard).

The Cathedral Families: Are you connected? 

If your Irish ancestors began their North American lives in Saint John, they almost certainly were part of this remarkable and resilient Irish community that built the Cathedral.

Mary McDevitt, Archivist at the Diocese of Saint John, compiled the family names of many who have deep, generational ties to  the Cathedral community. See if your family name is on the list.

The Cathedral Heritage Family list was compiled from records in the archives of the Diocese of Saint John, dating from approximately 1815 to present. While most of the original "builders" are Irish immigrants, the Cathedral has been the spiritual home for Saint John's immigrant communities from around the world for generations. You can help Save our Heritage!

Restoring and Preserving the Irish Cathedral

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception requires a minimum of $10 million to restore and preserve it for future generations. The 24,000-square-foot roof has been replaced but significant work remains to restore the exterior envelope of the building, the interior and preserve the bell tower which houses an award-winning 10-bell carillon. 

Many Cathedral Heritage Families have joined together--from across North America and beyond--to contribute to the preservation of a structure so intimately connected with their family history. We will be sharing their stories (and those of their ancestors) in the coming months. 

If your family is connected to Saint John or New Brunswick and you'd like to help Save Our Heritage, please consider becoming a Cathedral Family.

Lynn Forbes Gautier

Lynn is the Executive Director of the Cathedral Heritage Foundation.  A lifelong traveler, Lynn loves to visit old cities and appreciates a society’s commitment to preserving its traditions and built heritage.


We need your help.

We're raising money to repair the ceiling of Saint John's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Every dollar counts when it comes to preserving one of New Brunswick's most important heritage buildings. It's a National Treasure! Please consider donating today.

A message to our American Friends

The Cathedral Heritage Foundation is supported by the American Fund for Charities, a US 501(c)(3) non-profit organization EIN 52-2109597. Donations from US taxpayers to the Cathedral Heritage Foundation and the Cathedral Restoration Project through the American Fund for Charities are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by US law. The Cathedral Heritage Foundation has been reviewed by the American Fund for Charities and has been determined eligible to receive contributions through the AFC.

If you are a US taxpayer and wish to support the Cathedral Heritage Foundation and the Cathedral Restoration Project, you may make a secure online donation at www.americanfund.info. Please be certain to identify the Cathedral Heritage Foundation as the beneficiary of your gift of support.

Alternatively, you may download a printable donation form and send it with your check or credit card details to The American Fund for Charities, 2 Liberty Square, Suite 500 Boston, MA 02109-4884. Be sure to identify clearly the Cathedral Heritage Foundation and the Cathedral Restoration Project as the organization you wish the American Fund for Charities to support.

Following your donation, you will promptly be issued with the receipt necessary for income tax purposes.