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The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist

The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist examines the stories, myths, and personalities surrounding St. John’s beautiful Basilica. Recently we spoke with Newfoundland author Susan Chalker Browne about the book.

What inspired you to put this work together?
I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist andabout 10 years ago actually considered writing a children’s book about it. I’d started the research but quickly realized the scope of the material was too much for a children’s book; basically I couldn’t decide what to leave out.  So I put it aside and moved on to other projects. Then two years ago, following a meeting at the Archdiocese I happened to mention to Anne Walsh, executive assistant to the Archbishop, that I always wanted to write a book about the Basilica. She looked at me, her eyes widened, and she said, “Really? Are you serious? Come with me!” She led me through a narrow corridor, down a winding flight of stairs and out a small door, landing us right behind the high altar of the Basilica. Then she proceeded to take me on a mini tour of the church, pointing out all her favourite highlights.  By the time she deposited me on the front steps a half hour later, I was completely dazed and totally hooked. That was the start of The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist.

Did it come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
The book took two years to complete. There was so much research and material available that at times I felt quite overwhelmed. I also couldn’t figure out the best way to tell the story. Initially the concept was a non-fiction book, all writing with a few pages of photos in the middle. But my husband kept saying it should be a coffee table book, mostly photos, whereas I wanted to make sure all the fascinating stories were told. So the result is a blend – stories told in vignette form, plenty of photos old and new, with interesting facts and quotes sprinkled throughout. I wanted the book to be a visual feast; I wanted readers to take a tour of the Basilica without ever having to leave their home, and I wanted the writing to be clear and easily understood.

What was the most challenging aspect of the process? 
I had a difficult time coming to an understanding of Bishop Michael Anthony Fleming, the main protagonist of the story and the man who in 1834 envisioned a cathedral in St. John’s. I couldn’t figure him out, why did he push himself to physical extremes to spread his Roman Catholic faith and build a cathedral? Fleming literally worked himself into an early grave, dying of tuberculosis at the age of 57. Through conversations with experts in the field, it became clear that Fleming was a product of his time, growing up in Ireland when Catholic rights and freedom were quite restricted. When he came to St. John’s, he saw it as missionary territory and was determined to improve the lot of Catholics here.  Once I understood this, I was ready to begin.

What was the most rewarding part of the experience? 
Part of the joy of working on the book was the thrill of finding connections, such as the following story which begins in 1859, then jumps back in time to 1834, finally ending in the present day. One of the stained glass windows in the Basilica is that of St. Patrick, crafted by William Warrington of England and donated by Captain Pierce Feehan in 1859. Feehan was clever enough to have his name etched into the bottom of the glass, so no one will ever forget his generosity. 25 years before this, the name Pierce Feehan appears in ledger belonging to Bishop Fleming, who kept careful account of everyone who donated to his cathedral. Pierce Feehan was actually the very first person to have his name recorded in the ledger; in 1834 he was a sealer on the schooner Margaret Ellen and he gave £10 to the fund. Was it the same man? Did the sealer Pierce Feehan become Captain Pierce Feehan, with his loyalty to the cathedral remaining part of his life? Shortly after making this connection, we visited friends – Jim and Mary Feehan – and it wasn’t long before Pierce Feehan entered the conversation. Incredibly, it turns out that Jim Feehan is a descendent of Pierce Feehan and Jim could give personal details on Pierce’s life. It seems Pierce Feehan was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1803. He married Bridget O’Rourke of St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland and they had nine children, four of whom died in childhood, two others died in their twenties. Captain Pierce Feehan died in 1871 and is buried in Belvedere Cemetery in St. John’s beside his wife and small children. Now whenever I’m in the Basilica, I look up at Pierce Feehan’s stained glass window of St. Patrick – see his name etched into the bottom – and I think of the sealer, the captain, the husband and the father – the actual human being who supported the cathedral though all the joys and tragedies of his life.

What did you learn during the process?
The Basilica of St. John the Baptist is one of the most fascinating buildings in Atlantic Canada, perhaps the entire country. There is a story behind every statue, window and monument in the church which is only surpassed by the story of the church itself. Myths, legends, and enigmatic characters have been part of this story since 1834 when Bishop Fleming stood on the crest of a hill in St. John’s and imagined a cathedral on the site. It was incredible to discover how the people of St. John’s came out in the thousands over a period of years to make the cathedral a reality. The Basilica-Cathedral is part of our heritage; it was built by our ancestors and we all share ownership.

How did you feel when the book was completed?
When I first saw the completed book, I was thrilled beyond measure. It was every bit as beautiful as the book I had envisioned, maybe even more so. Flanker Press had given me free rein with the concept, complete access to their photographer Peter Hanes, a talented editor in Robin McGrath, and a brilliant book designer in Graham Blair.  The result is breathtaking and the day I went out to see the published book for the first time, the folks at Flanker were just as excited as I was.

What has the response been like so far from those that have read it?
The response has been extraordinary. Everywhere I go, people are chatting about the book, asking questions and telling me their favourite parts. I’m getting phone calls, emails, even people showing up at my door looking for a copy of the book. It’s selling exceptionally well, which is great because my author royalties are being donated to the Basilica Heritage Fund. I happened to fall in love with this church while writing the book, and I want to do my part to keep it beautiful.

What makes a good book?
I think if an author has a clear vision of what her book will be, has the time and energy and drive to bring it to fruition– and is lucky enough to have a supportive publisher – then the result will be a good book.

What are your thoughts on Atlantic Canada's literary scene?
The literary scene in Atlantic Canada is bursting with ideas and talent, and I feel fortunate to have my own foothold in it.

What's next on your creative agenda?
At the moment, I’m taking a creative break. The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist was an amazing writing experience, but it was also exhausting. I’m giving my brain a change of pace and filling my time with other experiences right now. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever find anything as creatively satisfying again. But ultimately I’m hopeful that another fascinating project will someday capture my imagination once more.

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