Priestly presence diluted, but Basilians still on campus

By  Michael Swan, The Catholic Register
  • February 12, 2007
TORONTO - When the Basilian Fathers let slip that they won’t be appointing any more of their men to positions at Saskatoon’s St. Thomas More College it was no great shock to anyone in the Catholic education community. You can’t appoint men who don’t exist.

The dearth of vocations isn’t total, and the Basilians aren’t disappearing. But the Basilian seminary in Toronto built in the 1960s to house up to 100 men now accommodates six. Modest vocation numbers have been a reality for more than 20 years and it has changed the face of Catholic secondary and post-secondary education in Canada.

The Basilians once ran high schools from Ontario to Alberta. With the exception of the private, all-boys St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, the order has turned all of them over to tax-funded Catholic school boards.

At the university level, the order continues to be involved with eight institutions in Canada and one in the United States. When the three priests currently working at St. Thomas More either retire or move on to other posts that number will drop by one.

Nor does the order own any of the colleges and universities it founded in North America from the mid-19th century on, with the exception of the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies in Toronto. Lay boards now run the institutions, with varying levels of input from the Basilians.

“You pay a price to mammon, I guess,” explained Basilian superior general Fr. Ken Decker. “That’s kind of a crass way of looking at it, but the institutions require cash and sometimes you could get that cash from governments if you fulfilled certain requirements.”

Decker’s not entirely happy with how far his order has had to go in the past to secure government funding. He said some of the arrangements with governments forced the order “to almost literally sell out, so we did lose control of them — and then have decided to step away from them.”

A spokesman for the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities said the province never had any intention of de-Catholicising historic Catholic colleges.

“In terms of government policy, we recognize the autonomy of each individual campus and the history that goes with it,” said Sheamus Murphy.

Whether it was the government’s intention to wrest control from religious orders or not, that’s the way things worked, according to Decker.

“One of the reasons the transference has taken place is because the stark objective is to get money from governments, and governments weren’t always willing to give it to religious entities,” he said. 

In most of the institutions they founded, the Basilian Fathers are still a force with seats on the board, presidents and other administrators in office, a sprinkling of professors and campus ministry staff.

But it’s not like it was, said University of St. Michael’s College president Richard Alway.

“When I went through St. Michael’s the entire administration was Basilian priests, and over 90 per of the faculty were either Basilian priests or Sisters from the St. Joseph’s or Loretto Sisters — and today that situation has entirely shifted,” Alway said. “With that transition it means that we must be more intentional about Catholic identity. It’s not something you just take for granted.”

As a young priest, Decker didn’t endlessly talk about Catholic identity. He taught high school physics and chemistry.

“Anybody walking into the classroom might say, ‛Why not just have a lay person do this?’ And the answer would be difficult,” said Decker. “Except that I know there was a value that I had with the students, that I had a kind of appreciation of the universe that I was trying to communicate — things that I could bring because I had also training in theology and Scriptures, and then also the experience of doing pastoral work so that there was a kind of pastoral dimension.”

Alway doesn’t discount the value priests and sisters had in Catholic education in the post-Second World War period. But he also sees a value in how Catholic institutions like his have been forced to clearly articulate what it means to be Catholic and find ways to translate those words into programs.

To anyone who doubts the catholicity of the University of St. Michael’s College Alway can point to a very popular Christianity and Culture program at the undergraduate level, a graduate school of theology which is one of the top five producers of theological teaching staff in North America, an endowed chaplaincy, three chapels on campus with Mass offered any working day and a collegiate parish church, St. Basil’s, which is one of the jewels of the Toronto archdiocese.

Nor does Alway buy the argument that lay leadership is less Catholic than ordained leadership. Speaking to The Register on his way home from attending Michael Higgins’ installation as president of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, he declared Catholic higher education in good hands.

“No one would be able to tell me that Michael Higgins is not going to be a visible, voluble and effective Catholic leader in higher education,” he said.

Catholic is as Catholic does, and lay people are just as capable of doing, said Alway.

“We have to get over seeing that (Catholic identity) as totally dependent on the visible presence of the collar,” he said.

Still, many in Canada look with envy at the U.S. model of stand-alone Catholic colleges which rely more heavily on independent, private financing. Along with the private funding comes freedom over academic appointments.

The ability to appoint members of the religious order to teaching posts, or to include Catholic identity questions in the hiring process, is the biggest thing the Basilians have had to give up when passing control over to lay boards.

“The clout comes from the power we’ve left behind,” Decker said. “If the institution is under a lay board, not just an advisory board but a board of governance, then it does decrease the kind of influence you can have.”

At St. Michael’s the Catholic college hires professors through the University of Toronto. It all goes with being part of one of the largest universities in the English-speaking world.

At the Basilian’s St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas, the programs available to 1,600 undergraduates and about 2,000 graduate students is more limited than what’s available at the University of Toronto. But the 60-year-old liberal arts school and teachers’ college does have 10 Basilians on its teaching staff and three more active in campus ministry — a substantial presence in a school with just 121 full-time faculty.

“At every level they’re represented. I just pray that we get more of them in the future,” said St. Thomas president Robert Ivany.

The Basilian motto — “Teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge” — is St. Thomas University’s motto. Ivany uses the motto and the Basilian presence on campus to sell his school to parents who can expect to pay more than $20,000 a year ($17,110 U.S.) to send their sons and daughters to his school.

Ivany talks a lot about his school’s strict adherence to Ex Corde Ecclesia, a Vatican framework for tying universities and professors more closely with their bishop — a document which is irrelevant to University of Toronto hiring practices.

Decker says his order is just as committed to education on both sides of the border, and just as committed as it ever was. A vocation to the Basilians is still a call to the charism of Catholic education, said the Basilian superior. All six of the Basilians currently studying for the priesthood in Toronto either have been or are teachers.

“All the people we attract are attracted because we are educators,” Decker said.


In Canada and the United States, the Basilians are still in the education business. Here’s a list of their schools.

  •  Assumption University, Windsor, Ont.
  •  Corpus Christi College, Vancouver, B.C.
  •  Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, Ont.
  •  St. Joseph’s College, Edmonton, Alta.
  •  St. Mark’s College, Vancouver, B.C.
  •  St. Michael’s College School, Toronto, Ont.
  •  St. Thomas More College, Saskatoon, Sask.
  •  University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, Ont.

United States:
  •  Bishop O’Dowd High School, Oakland, Calif.
  •  Catholic Central High School, Novi, Mich.
  •  St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y.
  •  St. Thomas High School, Houston, Tex.
  •  University of St. Thomas, Houston, Tex.


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