James Louis O'Donel

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The Right Reverend
James Louis O'Donel
James louis odonel.jpg
Archdiocese Archdiocese of St. John's
Successor Patrick Lambert
Personal details
Birth name James Louis O'Donel
Born 1737
Knocklofty, County Tipperary, Ireland
Died 1 April 1811
Waterford, Ireland
Buried St Mary’s Church, Irishtown, Clonmel
Nationality  Ireland
Denomination Roman Catholic
Styles of
James Louis O'Donel
Mitre (plain).svg
Reference style The Right Reverend
Spoken style Your Excellency
Religious style Monsignor
Posthumous style none

James Louis O'Donel (1737, Knocklofty, County Tipperary, Ireland – April 1, 1811, Waterford, Ireland) was the first Roman Catholic bishop of St. John's, Newfoundland.[1]

James O'Donel was born into a prosperous family and received a classical education before entering the Franciscan order. After British-imposed laws restricting Catholicism ceased to be rigorously enforced, O'Donel was able to travel to Rome to study for the priesthood, becoming ordained in 1770. He later taught philosophy and theology in Prague, and in 1777 became the Franciscan Prior in Waterford.

Following developments in England, Catholics in Newfoundland gradually gained religious liberty, made explicit by a public declaration by the Governor in 1784. After a request from Irish merchants in Newfoundland, O'Donel was sent to St. John's as Prefect Apostolic the same year, largely to deal with the presence of "unlicensed" and "unruly" priests on the island. In addition to his personal popularity, one of his qualifications for the position was an ability to preach in Gaelic.

O'Donel found the situation to be much as it was described, as insubordinate priests fought Irish battles. Accordingly O'Donel set about reorganizing the Catholic Church in Newfoundland. He built a chapel in St. John's, established parishes outside the capital, and gradually brought priests under his authority. During his first few years in Newfoundland, O'Donel also found that Catholic liberty was less than absolute, and was involved in an infamous incident in 1786 in which he was assaulted by Prince William Henry, later King William IV. In 1796, O'Donel was consecrated as a bishop.

O'Donel's ministry in Newfoundland was largely characterized by trying to maintain peace, both between fellow Catholics and with the British. In 1800, an incipient Irish uprising involving soldiers in the St. John's garrison was forestalled when O'Donel, upon hearing of the plans, alerted the authorities. The 19th-century historian Charles Pedley alleged that O'Donel received his information via the confessional, but no credible evidence for this claim has ever been adduced.

Theologically, O'Donel subscribed to the Augustinian position that religion imposes a "reverential fear" on mankind's "naturally licentious" nature. This, and his belief in the essential mystery of the divine nature gave rise to his support for religious tolerance, since God's inscrutability would inevitably lead to theological disagreement, but furthermore, as he wrote to his contemporary John Jones, "an observant [C]hristian of any denomination is...a better man".

O'Donel's health deteriorated in the early 19th century, and he resigned his position in 1807 and returned to Ireland. He died of shock in 1811 after suffering minor injuries in a fire.

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