Church’s iron-clad grip fi­nally loos­en­ing

The Pilot - - Editorial - Bob Wake­ham Bob Wake­ham has spent more than 40 years as a jour­nal­ist in New­found­land and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwake­ham@nl.rogers.com

My great-grand­mother was sim­ply known through­out Fox Har­bour, Pla­cen­tia Bay as Mary Jo, a tough, strong-willed woman who took guff from not a soul, even the lo­cal priest, dur­ing a time when gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion in small Catholic com­mu­ni­ties in New­found­land had let their spir­i­tual boss run, and some­times ruin, their lives.

As the story goes, the fam­ily yarn best ex­em­pli­fy­ing her lack of fear of the clergy, Mary Jo — her last name was Dor­mody, her “maiden” name was Fo­ley — hap­pened to be at a dance where, as was the tra­di­tion, the en­tire town showed up, or so I’ve been told, in­clud­ing the priest, wan­der­ing the floor (one can imag­ine) to in­ter­cede and pre­vent younger cou­ples from a mor­tal sin of arousal dur­ing slow waltzes, and to keep po­lice-like or­der, as well.

When one of Mary Jo’s sons, Ned, got a bit bois­ter­ous — he may have been singing up a storm or per­haps told some­one where to go and how to get there, the anec­do­tal ev­i­dence passed along over the years be­ing some­what vague on that point — the priest grabbed the Dor­mody off­spring by the neck at the top of the dance hall’s stairs, and be­gan to vig­or­ously lead his sin­ful parish­ioner down­ward to the near­est exit.

But Mary Jo was hav­ing none of that — the power, the un­chal­lenge­able author­ity of the priest be damned.

She raced to the top of the stairs, pointed a finger in the priest’s face, and an­grily shouted loud enough for just about ev­ery­body to hear: “Lis­sen here, you, you what I wouldn’t call ya, take your hands off my son, or you’ll be dealin’ with me.”

Know­ing full well Mary Jo’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hard ticket, the priest de­cided, I can only as­sume, that dis­cre­tion su­per­seded any sense of brav­ery, that he needed his teeth for say­ing mass the next morn­ing, and re­leas­ing Ned from his grasp seemed to be the most sen­si­ble move.

The story, need­less to say, made the rounds of Fox Har­bour back then (it oc­curred in the ’40s, I was told) be­cause it was down­right shock­ing. The lo­cal priest, af­ter all, had more say in lo­cal af­fairs than even the most for­mi­da­ble of politi­cians, more author­ity than the area po­lice con­sta­ble. He vir­tu­ally dic­tated the day-to-day ac­tiv­i­ties in the lives of his parish­ioners; his word was gospel, so to speak.

No­body ques­tioned the priest in Fox Har­bour. Un­til Mary Jo came along.

Per­haps the scat­tered reader out there is think­ing I’m mak­ing too big a deal about the set-to be­tween Mary Jo and the priest, that it was not some sort of philo­soph­i­cal stand on my great-grand­mother’s part. That it was sim­ply a mother pro­tect­ing her son. Another colour­ful fam­ily anec­dote.

And such a con­clu­sion is not nec­es­sar­ily with­out merit.

Nev­er­the­less, I’ve al­ways thought — af­ter hear­ing the yarn about Mary Jo in­nu­mer­able times — that it was a shame more New­found­land Catholics didn’t fig­ure out that to­tal sub­servience to a priest, to any church rep­re­sen­ta­tive, com­pro­mised any no­tion of in­de­pen­dent think­ing. And that to chal­lenge, even oc­ca­sion­ally, the power, the dogma, of the round col­lar gov­er­nance, should never have been a fear­ful mat­ter; that ev­ery sin­gle syl­la­ble mouthed from pul­pits should not have been ac­cepted, with­out ques­tion, as the un­qual­i­fied, un­con­di­tional truth.

You never know: if there were more Mary Jos, New­found­land would not have waited so as­tound­ingly long be­fore elim­i­nat­ing the re­li­gious big­otry and seg­re­ga­tion fos­tered through de­nom­i­na­tional education.

Or if there had been more out­spo­ken peo­ple like my great­grand­mother Dor­mody (the in­ci­dent at the dance was hardly an aber­ra­tion, as she was never re­luc­tant, from what I gather, to voice an opin­ion on any­thing, any­where), per­haps women would have dared to defy or­ders from their priest that they not prac­tice birth con­trol, even af­ter hear­ing med­i­cal ad­vice that fur­ther preg­nan­cies could have tragic con­se­quences.

Or that male dom­i­nance would not have been al­lowed to per­me­ate ev­ery as­pect of Catholi­cism.

Or that ho­mo­pho­bia would not have be­come part and par­cel of the Catholic be­lief sys­tem.

Or that pe­dophilia would not have been per­mit­ted to dis­gust­ingly in­fil­trate the Catholic clergy in the way in which it was.

Ul­ti­mately, the iron-clad grasp the church had on the lives of thou­sands of New­found­lan­ders has been forcibly re­duced, as ev­i­denced, for re­cent ex­am­ple, in some of the news cov­er­age doc­u­ment­ing the re­tire­ment of Bishop Martin Cur­rie, sto­ries which had as an as­ter­isk the sug­ges­tion that the days when Catholi­cism dom­i­nated a great deal of New­found­land cul­ture were long gone.

And it’s even hap­pen­ing in Ire­land, the place where so many of our an­ces­tors called home, and the ori­gin of a great deal of the sti­fling re­li­gious phi­los­o­phy that au­to­crat­i­cally gov­erned Catholic New­found­land.

The Ir­ish voted over­whelm­ingly this past week to re­peal the laws ban­ning abor­tion; seven out of ev­ery 10 “yes” vot­ers were Catholics, a rev­e­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Catholic Re­porter, that forced even the coun­try’s se­nior bish­ops to con­cede that the dis­re­gard so many of their flock had for the Church’s teach­ing on abor­tion was “another nail in the cof­fin for Ir­ish Catholi­cism.”

Abor­tion is le­gal in Canada, but, shame­fully, New­found­land is the only prov­ince that does not at least par­tially fund the so-called abor­tion pill.

The gov­ern­ment has promised it would cor­rect that in­equity.

About time.

That’s what Mary say. Jo might

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