The Legend of the Grotto in Renews, Newfoundland
by Tammy Lawlor, MUN

Historical Background

The community of Renews has existed since the early sixteenth century.  In 1506 Jean Denys, a French explorer left boats in Renews, or Rougenoust as it was then known (English) and in 1536 Jacque Cartier completed his second voyage to Newfoundland by leaving boats in the harbor (Rowe 62).  To some researchers the leaving of boats by these two men suggests that there may have been wintering inhabitants in Renews as early as this time.  Official attempts at settlement in Renews began in 1612 under John Guy and when that failed it was tried again in 1616 under Sir William Vaughan.  However, in 1620 Vaughan sold the land to Viscount Falkland.  Around the same time Sir George Calvert, later known as Lord Baltimore, was attempting to establish a colony at Ferryland, a short distance from Renews.  This colony, legend has it was intended as a "refuge for the Calvert's and their fellow Catholics" (Lahey "Religion" 7-8). Settlement continued in Renews during these first troublesome years to the point that it was established as such an important port that in 1620 The Mayflower stopped there on her voyage to the New World to replenish her supplies (Winter 576).

The population of Renews continued to grow and by the early 1700's the number of Irish Catholics settling there was growing rapidly.  This was the time of penal law in Britain and many Irish Catholics may have come to the new world to escape the persecution they faced in their homeland.  They soon found, however, that the laws same in Newfoundland. In fact, the orders given to the governors from 1729 to 1776 were:

You are to permit a liberty of conscience to all, except Papists, so they be contented with a quiet and peaceable enjoyment of the same, not giving offence or scandal to the government (RoIlmann 64).

Most of the time these laws were not strictly enforced.  In fact, there may have actually been a church in St. John's as early as 1754 (Howley 181).  However, around the mid 1700's there was a crack down on the practise of Catholicism.  In 1743 the governor of the time, Smith, wrote to the magistrate in Ferryland, John Benger, instructing him to be mindful of the "Irish Papists" in the area and to attempt to send as many as possible out of the country.  When William Keen, the chief magistrate of St. John's was killed by a group of Irishmen in 1752, penal laws were enforced to the full extent for the next thirty or forty years (Howley 179).  Court documents from the Renews area in the 1750's show there was growing concern over the number of Irish Catholics living in the area and there was a fear of insurrection (Barnable 9).  Long before the 1750's, though, the servant fishermen in Renews had proven they had no loyalty to the resident planters.  In November of 1696 the French war ship Profound attacked Renews where there were seven residents and one hundred and twenty servant fishermen, many of whom would have been Irish.  These servants are recorded as not caring who owned the place (Prowse 230).  There is no doubt that these feelings remained or perhaps even worsened with the increased oppression of these people into the eighteenth century.  It was in this climate of fear and persecution that fascinating events are said to have taken place in Renews. These events have lived on through the legend of the "Mass Rock."

The Legend and its Historical Accuracy

Growing up in Renews one of my favorite pastimes was to walk through the woods adjacent to my house and climb a hill known as Midnight Hill.  I would run down the other side of the hill to a grove of trees where there is a spring with a well by it. We called this "Nun's Well" because it used to provide water to the nearby convent.  A few steps from the well is the back of a grotto built on the Mass Rock.  This was my favourite view of the grotto, facing away from the community, shielded from site.  Even at a young age I was effected by the legendary atmosphere of this spot.  I must have been very young when I first heard the legend of the Mass Rock because it seems as if I have always known it. I was told that in the 1700's the people of the community would gather at this rock at midnight to celebrate mass or say prayers in secret.  They did so because they were Catholic and at the time it was a penal offence to celebrate mass in Newfoundland.  For this reason this area has always been a source of pride for me and for many other members of the community.  However, most people who visit the grotto view its front with marble statues and so-called miraculous spring, and never venture to the back, oblivious to the historic events said to have taken place there.

I have seen written versions of this legend in quite a few places 1 and I have heard it told a number of times among Renews people.  The common thread of each story are statements like "mass was a penal offence at the time" and "a special tax was levied on Roman Catholics," as if there is a need by the various narrators to emphasize the persecution suffered by the Catholics.

In 1883 Rev. M. Harvey makes reference to the oppression of Catholics in Newfoundland in his History of Newfoundland.  He also tells of priests who came to Newfoundland disguised to administer to the people in secret (Renews 10).  The earliest reference to the legend itself is by Archbishop Howley in his Ecclesiastical History.  He mentions the "Midnight Rock" and tells how a Father Fitzsimmons officiated there.  This version of the legend is also told by Sister Sheila Guerin of Renews in her unpublished paper "History of Renews."2 Another unpublished paper by Marion Harte, also of Renews, titled "An Outport Study of Renews" 3 mentions the legend as well.  While Ms. Harte quotes Archbishop Howley about Midnight Rock, she omits his reference to Father Fitzsimmons, possibly because it did not fit the tradition with which she was familiar.

The Father Fitzsimmons alluded to in some versions would likely be Father Henry Francis Fitzsimmons (1783-1819) who arrived in Newfoundland C. 1812 (Byrne 358).  He is said to have come to Renews where he raised a cross and celebrated Mass on the Mass Rock (Howley 243).  While Father Fitzsimmons's arrival came after the proclamation of 1784 which gave liberties to the Roman Catholics, it is interesting that he has been brought into the legend of the Mass Rock by some sources.  Father Fitzsimmons's arrival in Renews would have been within living memory of the secret masses if they had occurred.  This may actually be why he raised a cross on the rock and celebrated mass there, for there was a chapel in Renews at the time built in 1806 by Father Ambrose Fitzpatrick (Barnable 25).  Fitzsimmons stayed in Renews for only three years (Howley 243).  This priest seems to have been considered an eccentric by quite a few people and perhaps there were rumours which sprang up about him and his deeds at that time.  These rumours may have since filtered down so that all that remains is his name in the middle of another legend.

While Fitzsimmons was not one of the disguised priests who came to Newfoundland in penal days there was, in fact, another priest who came in the early days travelling under an alias.  In 1627 a Father Anthony Pole came to Newfoundland with Baltimore under the assumed name of Smith. This same man later smuggled himself back into England under the name of Gascoyne.  While this is quite some time before the events of the legend are said to have taken place, the activities of this priest in Ferryland stirred trouble with the authorities. He had obviously practised an outlawed religion quite openly in the colony and a complaint was sworn out against him (Lahey "Religion" 15-19).  It is quite possible that through the years other priests followed Pole's example, while being more discreet in their behaviour.  It is easy to see that there are kernels of truth within the versions of this legend. 

The historical truth of legend is, of course, different than the truth that we normally associate with historical documents.  The legend describes "truths" about the feelings and worldview important to the people who tell them (Alver 144-147).  This legend was told by Renews people for many years and was commemorated with a shrine in 1927.  Father Charles McCarthy, later Monsignor McCarthy, an Irish priest who came to Renews in 1920 and remained until his death in 1957, instigated the construction of "The Grotto."  The Grotto is a replica of the shrine at Lourdes, France, where Bernadette saw a vision of Our Lady and it is complete with a "statue of the Immaculate Conception and the kneeling Bernadette and the stream issuing forth from the rocky wall" (Reunion 6).  It was constructed with the free labor of the men of Renews and once it was completed in 1928 every man in the harbor planted a tree. The tradition of the Mass Rock was "fostered by Father McCarthy, an Irishman sensitive to English wrongs."  In a letter regarding the Grotto he related that a man named Michael Kane, who was born in l867 told him of the secret Masses that were held on that spot.  This man had never attended a Mass there himself but had heard of them (Barnable 122).

The legend of the Mass Rock has refused to die; in fact, it has grown over the years with new elements connected to it.  Since the building of the Grotto it has been rumoured that "The Monsignor" (pronounced Mons'nir in Renews), purchased the statues "of Bianco marble imported from Genoa, Italy through the Muir Marble Works of St. John's" with his own money.  There have also been reports of cures from the water of this shrine (Reunion 6).  The late Kate Squires of Renews told of a girl who "had trouble with her 'side"' which could not be helped by several doctors.  She was eventually cured after visiting the Grotto with her mother to say the rosary.  There was also a young boy whose coughing was cured by the water from the Grotto Ponnambalam 19-20).  The water from the Grotto has long been valued by the residents of Renews and surrounding areas for its healing qualities.  Many members of my own family bottle the water and bring it home to have on hand in case of an illness.  In fact, up to the 1960s there was a "common cup" at the Grotto and people who went there to pray would drink from the cup.  "At one time you could always see people at the Grotto kneeling to pray; drinking from the Lourdes water[,] which was taken from a common cup and no one ever seemed to worry about germs" (Johnson 16).

My own grandfather has been brought into the tradition by some of the older people of Renews.  It is said by some that a priest who came to Renews in the 1960s tried to beat the crosses on the top of the Grotto off in a fit of rage one day and that my grandfather, who worked for the priest at the time, stood in front of the Grotto and challenged the priest--something unheard of at the time.  My grandfather told him he would have to beat him first to get to the Grotto.  My grandfather arrived too late to save the crosses, though: there was so much damage done that they had to be taken off completely. 5  I have tried to substantiate this story from family members but they were unaware of the incident.  According to a paper written by Sumathy Ponnambalam in 1987 the pillars were removed because "one was in danger of falling down" (Ponnambalarn 11).  Her information came from the priest at the time, Father Gordon Walsh.


The legend of the Mass Rock continues to survive years after Catholic emancipation.  The community is now almost completely Catholic with the exception of one family.  Even in 1759 around the time of the secret Masses, Catholics outnumbered the Protestants in the community; there were twenty-five families in Renews, sixteen of which were Irish Catholic (Barnable 14).  Perhaps the survival of this legend says more about the people of Renews than a first glance would suggest.  Jansen suggests that it is generally assumed local legends survive because they preserve local information.  However, he says, there is more at stake than just a general account of past events, and suggests that local legends continue to exist because of their specific function for both performers and audience.  Functions which he isolates include the recording of "a local triumph over an alien force" and eliciting emotions like "delight in seeing the law flouted" (Jansen 260-268).  Both of these functions seem to be served by the legend of the Mass Rock.  However, this legend may also help to preserve some historical facts for the people of Renews. 

In most legends there are elements of truth preserved.  It does not seem to matter that the legends themselves may be historically inaccurate, such as the version with Father Fitzsimmons as the disguised priest.  The elements of truth which are important to the people are preserved in the legend (Alver 144-147). The historical accuracy of oral tradition has been debated among scholars since the last century.  There were those like Lord Raglan and Robert Lowie who tend to dismiss all claims of historical elements within these types of legend, and others who claim complete historical accuracy of the legend (Dorson 19-22). Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two.  While some versions of the legend may contain false or misleading information, there are elements contained which are relevant for historians.  Robert Lowie conceded that some legends provided "information about the general historical conditions of culture, but he categorically refused to concede any historical credibility to the details of the narratives" (Dorson 21-22).

Other scholars, like Svale Solheirn, suggest that at times the historical legend can shape history.  He cites examples from Russia, Sweden, and Norway which deal with the invasion of foreign forces and the resistance of usually one brave person.  He states that at times these legends can serve to inspire and encourage people: "the psychological effects of the story.. worked as a potent cure against defeatism and pessimism; it gave encouragement and strengthened the will to resist" (SoIheirn 343-344).  Perhaps this can be said of the Mass Rock legend.  It is evident that elsewhere in Newfoundland there was strong persecution of Catholics.  In 1755 Governor Dorrill ordered the authorities to "hunt down" an Irish priest in the Conception Bay area: "The priest himself alluded authorities, but premises in which Mass had been said were burnt to the ground, and Roman Catholics who were known to have attended a Mass were subjected to harsh fines, and even exile, on account of their religion" (Lahey "O'Donel" 87). 

It does not appear that there were any major cases of documented persecution of Catholics in Renews.  This would not be because of isolation from authorities because, as stated earlier, Renews was an important port in Newfoundland at the time.  Perhaps the authorities in the area were sympathetic or more likely afraid, as can be seen from the court documents mentioned earlier.  After all, they were outnumbered by the Catholics.  They may have turned a blind eye to such activities as midnight Masses, or they may not have.  In any case, the defiance of the people was important enough to have been remembered in legend.  And, in the case of the Mass Rock of Renews, locals believe that the defiance was uniquely orchestrated: the inscription on the second marble tablet inlaid in the Grotto says that "it is the only rock regarding which we have such a tradition in this country."  The Country at the time would have been Newfoundland itself.


It appears that local legends serve many functions for the people who tell them and the receptive audience.  The legend has an "open-endedness" about it: "the action or plot of a legend is not completed in the narrative itself, and in fact the action continues into the present or even into the future" (Dundes 165).  While the actual secret Masses are no longer said there are Masses at the Grotto each Lady Day, August 15th.  The rock also continues to inspire stories of good will for the "good guys" and resistance to the "bad guys."  This legend is comparable to other stories and songs popular in the community of Renews.  The songs learned for generations, even by myself; have always been the "rebel songs" of Ireland, like "James Connolly," "A Nation Once Again," and others of a similar nature.  It is perhaps this attitude which has ensured the survival of the legend of the Mass Rock, of Irish people defying the British Crown.  The same can be said of other legends common m the area, like one from the same time about the Masterless Men, a group said to have lived in the hills behind the communities of Newfoundland's Southern Shore in order to evade British authorities, but that is another story.


1 See bibliography for various sources of the legend.
2 This paper is located in CNS, call number FF 1036 R48 G8 1971. 
3 This paper is located in CNS, call number FF 1036 R48 H2 1973.
4 This information came from an informal conversation with Mary Lawlor of Renews.
5 This was told to me by John Lawlor of Renews in an informal conversation.

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