O'Donel, James Louis (1737–1811), OFM, first Roman catholic bishop of Newfoundland, was born near Knocklofty, Co. Tipperary, son of Michael O'Donel and Ann O'Donel (née Crosby), well-to-do farmers. He had at least one brother, Michael (d. 1790), also a Franciscan. Initially tutored privately, James was later sent to Limerick for classical studies. He probably joined the Franciscans in Limerick, went to Boulay in France to begin his studies and then to St Isidore's College in Rome, where he was ordained priest in 1761. Afterwards he taught theology and philosophy in Prague and served as a chaplain to several distinguished families before returning to Ireland in 1768. In 1770 he became guardian of the Franciscan friary in Clonmel until 1776. In that year he was elected a provincial definitor, served as provincial (1779–82), and was appointed guardian of the Waterford friary.
During the course of the eighteenth century increasing numbers of people from Ireland, a large proportion of whom came from the Waterford area, worked in the fisheries and settled in Newfoundland. On 14 January 1784, with restrictions against catholic worship eased, allowing a chapel to be built and marriage services to be performed, four Irishmen from Waterford wrote to William Egan (1726–96), bishop of Waterford, on behalf of the catholic community in Newfoundland, requesting that a priest with the authority to regularise services be sent to St John's; they specifically asked for O'Donel, a Recollet priest, who was known as a popular preacher and an Irish-speaker. Bishop Egan forwarded the letter, together with supporting documents, to Bishop James Talbot of London, who was then responsible for Newfoundland and who authorised O'Donel to go as vicar general to the Newfoundland mission. However, he also sent the letter and documents to the cardinals of the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda Fide, who on 17 May appointed O'Donel superior of the mission. On 30 May 1784 Pope Pius VI appointed O'Donel prefect apostolic of the new ecclesiastical territory of Newfoundland, directly under the jurisdiction of Propaganda Fide. O'Donel arrived in St John's on 4 July 1784, where he began work by obtaining authority to build a chapel. Within six years he had sent away several unauthorised clergy and, with the assistance of Archbishop John Thomas Troy (qv) of Dublin, brought out Irish-speaking priests to minister to the missions at the newly built chapels in Placentia, Harbour Grace, and Ferryland, with the result that the catholic community in Newfoundland grew and prospered. Both the clergy and laity appealed to Pope Pius VI to make O'Donel a bishop, and on 23 December 1795 O'Donel was appointed titular bishop of Thyatira in partibus infidelium and appointed vicar apostolic of Newfoundland. The following 21 September 1796 O'Donel was consecrated the first English-speaking bishop in British North America at a ceremony in Quebec by Bishop Jean-François Hubert.
In a time of revolution and turbulence in North America, Europe, and Ireland, Bishop O'Donel was politically cautious and loyal to the crown. Both the excesses and the ideology of the French revolution alarmed him and he found offensive the sight of French prisoners of war attending church services with cockades on their hats, ‘large emblems of infidelity and rebellion’, he told Archbishop Troy of Dublin. He was more comfortable with Irish troops marching to church, even under the command of protestant officers. When in 1799 he learned of a plot by United Irishmen, both within his parish and within the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles, to overthrow the colonial government, O'Donel warned the commanding officer, Col. John Skerrett, and counselled obedience to his flock, thus foiling the plan. A second United Irishmen rebellion was planned in 1800 within the fencibles, but it too was discovered and thwarted. In the diocesan statutes of the following year (1801) he urged his priests to ‘inculcate a willing obedience to the salutary laws of England, and to the commands of the governor and magistrates of this island’. He also directed that prayers be said each Sunday for George III and the royal family. Bishop O'Donel established good relations with many of the protestant religious leaders of the Newfoundland community and with many of the merchants and colonial administrators. When the Irish Benevolent Society was founded in 1806 for the relief of the poor, largely by protestant Irishmen, Bishop O'Donel was pleased to be its patron. O'Donel also maintained friendly relations with his fellow bishops in Quebec and Ireland.
Bishop O'Donel worked hard to promote good relations between his Irish catholic flock and the largely English protestant colonial administration. There were occasional setbacks in his largely successful efforts. Rear-admiral John Elliott and Governor Mark Milbanke wanted to restrict the activities of priests and discourage Irish catholic settlement in Newfoundland. In a celebrated incident in 1786, Prince William Henry, duke of Clarence, while serving in the Royal Navy in Newfoundland, got into an altercation with O'Donel in St John's and threw an iron file at him; O'Donel went into hiding until the prince, to the relief of everyone including the colonial governor, returned to sea duty. Bishop O'Donel's services in promoting stability within the Irish catholic community were gradually recognised by the colonial administration. Col. Skerrett and others sought a pension for O'Donel in 1800 and the merchants and leading citizens of St John's similarly appealed to the governor in 1804, with the result that the bishop was given a pension of £50 per year.
With his health beginning to fail, Bishop O'Donel asked the Holy See for a successor. In August 1806 an Irish Franciscan, Patrick Lambert, arrived in St John's to be bishop coadjutor with the right of succession; O'Donel resigned on 1 January 1807. Both the catholic and protestant communities paid homage to O'Donel before he left. An extravagant dinner was given for him by the leading figures in St John's and the merchants contributed to the purchase of a silver cup, valued at 150 guineas (£157. 10s.). O'Donel sailed for Ireland in July and retired to a Franciscan friary in Waterford. There several years later he fell asleep while reading and a candle ignited the chair in which he was sitting. Although he was not seriously injured, the shock was such that he died several days later on 15 April 1811. Remembered as ‘the apostle of Newfoundland’, Bishop O'Donel built the catholic church in Newfoundland in the aftermath of the penal era.