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Knowing full well Mary Jo’s reputation as a hard ticket, the priest decided, I can only assume, that discretion superseded any sense of bravery, that he needed his teeth for saying mass the next morning, and releasing Ned from his grasp seemed to be the most sensible move.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