A statue commemorating “Pere Murray” stands on the grounds of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask. Photo by Alan Hustak

‘Pere’ Murray’s legacy thrives in Wilcox

By 
  • August 27, 2020

REGINA, SASK. -- Celebrations to mark this year’s centennial of Athol Murray College of Notre Dame at Wilcox, Sask., had to be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. But the pioneering spirit of the charismatic priest from Toronto who willed the college into being continues to resonate.

The centennial campaign to raise $20 million to build a new academic building to house science, art and music classrooms and a drama department on the prairie campus remains the focal point of the historic milestone.

Although the college 50 kilometres south of Regina is named for Fr. Athol Murray, it was founded in 1920 by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis as the Notre Dame of the Prairies Convent and St. Augustine residential elementary and high school for boys and girls. 

It was “Pere” Murray — as everyone called him — who began to develop the school’s arts program in 1927 and struggled during The Depression to turn a collection of shacks and bunk houses into a modern campus with 300 students.  Among its alumni is Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, whose father Robert was a president of the college. Reflecting its famous Notre Dame Hounds hockey team, the college has produced NHL stars such as Wendel Clark, Vincent Lecavalier, Russ Courtnall and Rod Brind’Amour. 

“The college maintains an ecumenical outlook. It is open to students of all faiths and backgrounds. We encourage all students to put their faith in God and live in accordance with their beliefs,” says college president Rob Palmarin.

Murray died in 1975.  He is buried on the campus in the shadow of the Tower of God, which he built as a testament to the three major religions that worship the same Creator: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. The fourth wall of the prominent tower is the wall of affirmation with quotes from renowned thinkers who believed in God. The stained glass windows in St. Augustine’s chapel highlight the Catholic intellectual tradition represented by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, Jean-de-Brébeuf and Hilaire Belloc.

Often it seems the college was willed into being by Murray’s faith alone. Once described as a priest with the soul of a saint and the vocabulary of a dock worker, he was a chain-smoking, scotch drinking taskmaster who believed that a classical education was necessary for clarity but that a rigorous athletic program was also required to nurture the body. “As long as you have God on your side, forget the rest,” he once remarked.  

The son of a Toronto industrialist, Murray was educated at Loyola College in Montreal, at Laval and at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. A hockey-loving journalist with a salty vocabulary in both official languages, he was ordained a priest in 1918 at age 26.

Sent to Regina “on loan” from the Diocese of Toronto in 1923, he started an athletic club for boys as soon as he arrived on the Prairies. When his bishop assigned him to Wilcox in 1927, 15 of his students followed him. Murray believed that even angels have to struggle so he adopted as the school’s motto Luctor et Emergo (I struggle and emerge).

“I have learned through the Greeks that to love the aristocrat, the patrician and the plebian is all right, but you must produce leaders,” he said. “The Greeks, with all their great individuals, lasted only 50 years. When the United States, like the Great Athens, disappears, there is only one other country with a future full of promise and that country is Canada. All that we need are great individuals of self-determination and self-awareness and self-realization. Those who are taught in this spirit will be filled with life and hope and joy.”

Murray befriended the rich — people who shared and bankrolled his vision, such as Klondike adventurer Harry Lane who in 1938 bought an old bank building in Wilcox, which became the first building on the college campus. Laura Lee Davidson, a Boston Brahmin who inherited Robert E. Lee’s personal library, donated Lee’s books to enhance Murray’s collection of medieval manuscripts. Western Canadian philanthropists such as Max Bell, Fred Hill and Donald Kramer kept the school running.

In 1960, when Murray decided to erect an ecumenical monument to God on campus, he audaciously persuaded the president of Pakistan, Ayub Muhammad Khan, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan to contribute to the Wall of Allah.

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