All roads lead to the Blackhead stone church?

In the second half of the 19th century, Bishop Mullock had five stone churches built, one each in Ferryland, Torbay, Kilbride, St. Kyran’s, and Blackhead. According to an article in an 1862 edition of The Record a newspaper published in St. John’s, he attended the one-year anniversary of the dedication of the church in Blackhead in August 1862. Archaeological testing was conducted a few weeks ago in Blackhead, between St. John’s and Cape Spear, at the location of what was thought to be the stone church dedicated by Mullock in 1861.


John Thomas Mullock

Based on local oral history, members of the Chapel Restoration Committee in Blackhead and the PAO believed the stone chapel was built in the vicinity of the current Blackhead One Room School and Church Museum. After the testing was completed, the PAO wondered whether the stone chapel had been built elsewhere in the community.  Our reasons for questioning the location included the facts that we found almost no cut stones in our test units, and that historic newspaper articles describe the church as being clearly visible from the sea or near the seashore.

Blackhead One Room School and Church Museum
Testing next to the Blackhead One Room School and Church Museum

We have managed to find photos of the churches in St. Kyran’s, Torbay, Ferryland, and Kilbride (see below). Each church was built in a similar fashion and almost completely of stone. Based on measurements in Google Earth, the church in Ferryland is approximately 35m by 12 m. The quantity of stone and mortar for each construction must have been considerable. Our limited testing in Blackhead uncovered jumbled stones, a few bricks, and some window glass. Interestingly there was very little in the way of cut stone. In the five test pits, there may have been two cut stones and a small amount of mortar. We noted some cut stones on the surface in the bushes seen on the left side of the photo above. Unless the site was nearly completely scavenged for building materials, this quantity of stone and mortar seems to have been insufficient for a building of that size.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Kyran’s, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland
Ferryland (Google maps image)

Two newspaper articles describe the church as being visible from the sea or near the seashore. An article in the August 19, 1861 edition of the newspaper Newfoundlander, cited by Clarke & Newhook (1997), describes the dedication of the church by Mullock. It also gives details about how people had traveled out from St. John’s including the College and Temperance Bands for the occasion. Of particular relevance to this post is a description of the location of the church as being “…beautifully situated on elevated ground commanding an extensive view of the sea, and conspicuous to the mariner from every quarter as he approaches the land.” Standing in Blackhead today, it is very difficult to imagine what a mariner would have seen from the ocean when approaching or passing Blackhead over 100 years ago. Even with all the trees and modern houses removed, would this location command “…an extensive view of the sea…” and be “…conspicuous to the mariner from every quarter as he approaches the land…”?

An article in the July 1, 1876 edition of the Terra Nova Advocate and Political Observer describes a steamer trip to Renews along with the geography as seen from the steamer and it relates stories of lives lost at sea in terrible storms. Eventually, the writer describes passing the village of Blackhead and how they “…salute the little chapel…visible in the distance, standing by the sea shore…”. Later the author writes regarding the church as being the first thing “…the eye of the emigrant…” would see when “…coming from the old countries.” Both articles clearly suggest the church in Blackhead was visible from the sea and likely situated near the seashore. The area tested by the PAO and thought to be the location of the stone chapel is nearly 400 metres from the ocean. Does that qualify as “…standing by the sea shore…”?

Romantic, flowery writing is typical of 19th-century travel writing and both articles exude this style. Perhaps the authors were using some artistic license to describe the church location. The photos of the St. Kyran’s, Torbay, Ferryland, and Kilbride churches show each was likely two stories high, so perhaps they were “…conspicuous to the mariner from every quarter as he approaches the land…”, perhaps 400 metres from the sea isn’t that far?

An 1871 article in the Canadian Illustrated News, a newspaper/magazine produced in Montreal describes the author’s walk from St. John’s to Blackhead. It states the church was standing at that time at the entrance to the village:
At length I entered Blackhead, and found it a small hamlet containing between thirty and forty houses, and about 180 inhabitants. A few houses on each side of the road, at the entrance of the village, make a feeble attempt to form a street, and then the effort seems to have been abandoned, and the cottages are built at random among the rocks, along the summit of the cliff, with winding paths between. There is a neat stone chapel at the entrance of the village where all worship on Sundays, the people being all Roman Catholic.

Initially, we thought that the only land entrance to the village in 1871 would have been along or near the current East Coast Trail, meaning the church would have been near the shore, at least much nearer the shore than the current suspected location which is ~400 metres from the water. With the help of our local informants, we have since learned there may have been two overland routes into the village in 1871 including a route somewhere near the current East Coast Trail, and another route closer to where the current road goes into the village. But, because two overland paths existed in 1871 we will not know for certain where the church was located from this article unless we find a map for the travelers’ route to Blackhead.

In the end, what do we know? Mullock had five stone churches built in Ferryland, Torbay, Kilbride, St. Kyran’s, and Blackhead. The Blackhead church was dedicated in August 1861. Sometime after that, in the late 19th century or more likely the early 20th century the church collapsed. It was described as being near the sea and visible from the sea. By 1879 the current Blackhead One Room School and Church Museum was built to be used as a school and later, after the collapse of the stone chapel, the school became the local church. From the perspective of local residents, the site next to the current Museum has been the undisputed location of the stone church for generations. Based on features visible on the surface and our testing we are certain something was built next to the current Blackhead One Room School and Church Museum; was it the stone chapel? There is not a lot of cut stone there for such a structure, and from our perspective, we location is not exactly near the sea and highly visible from the sea. There was an earlier school built in 1848, is that what we uncovered? It seems as though the more we uncover regarding the Blackhead church the more questions arise.

We have contacted archives at the Archdiocese, The Rooms, and the City of St. John’s and while the staff at each were very helpful and generous with their time, we had minimal luck finding documentation on the church. We are appealing to the public for help. Do you have early maps of Blackhead? Do you have any early photos of the community or better yet the church? Do you have any photos recent or older of Blackhead Village taken at sea? Did you or any member of your family ever own land in Blackhead and have land grant documents that show the church location?

  • Written with help from Bonnie Ryan, Chair, Chapel Restoration Committee, Blackhead

Clarke, Jason & Steve Newhook
1997 Origins and history of the Roman Catholic chapel in Blackhead.

The Record, 1862 August 23

The Canadian Illustrated News, 1871 November 18

Terra Nova Advocate and Political Observer, 1876 July 1

12 thoughts on “All roads lead to the Blackhead stone church?

  1. Awesome, loved reading about this part of our history. I always wondered where the stone church was located in Kilbride and now I know where it was after clicking on the photos. Wish you all the best of luck in finding the remains and site of the old church in Blackhead.

  2. That’s a most interesting post. Two notes, and another archaeological mystery (weirdly appropriate for Halloween). First, John Thomas Mullock was never an Archbishop. He was appointed and consecrated coadjutor bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of St. John’s with right of succession in 1847 and when Bishop Michael Fleming died in July 1850, Mullock automatically became bishop. Michael F. Howley, who became RC bishop of St. John’s in 1894, became the first archbishop when the St. John’s diocese was made an archdiocese in 1905. Now for the archaeological mystery. Mullock, as well as his predecessors Fleming and Thomas Scallan, were (after their deaths) buried in the crypt of the Cathedral (since 1955, the Basilica) in St. John’s. The Crypt was and still is located under the High Altar, a large 30-foot high superstructure of granite in the shape of a neoclassical “serliana”. But in 1903, Howley had the High Altar moved back (northwards) in the apse of the Cathedral to enlarge the sanctuary. If you visit the Basilica crypt today, you can see the tombs of Archbishop Roche and Bishop Power. But nobody actually knows precisely where the tombs of Scallan, Fleming, and Mullock are. The specific locations of their graves are unmarked in the crypt, though there are some ideas as to what those graves might look like. Three years after Mullock’s death, Fr. Edward Troy was buried in a brick-walled box tomb under the floor of the sanctuary of the old Holy Trinity wooden church in Torbay. Some years ago (on Halloween, eerily enough), Troy’s remains were relocated to the adjacent cemetery. Any archaeologists interested in having a look under the Basilica?

  3. There is a photo of a story board I Kilbride Cemetery on Find a Grave and on it are two photos of the church but hard to make out. Would you know if these photos are available on the web somewhere? I have searched on Google but was unable to find either one of them. Thanks and keep the stories coming, I for one love reading about our history, especially anything around where I live in Goulds.

  4. Great article. That church looked so much like the St. Kyrans Church. Visited the Ferryland Church-it has amazing accustics. The stones of the Blackhead church could have been removed by ship-may have been used at a distant location.

  5. The 1948 air photo series might show an outline. Unrestricted grazing and unlikely the site might have been level by heavy equipment in those days.

    1. We have an early air photo, I believe it is from 48 and it does show a collapsed building next to the current museum.

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