Fr. Michael Bechard led the Catholic chaplaincy team in resigning at Western University over unilateral decisions made by the administration. Photo by Michael Swan

Western U’s Catholic chaplains resign en masse

  • December 3, 2014

A new and bigger Muslim prayer room at Western University has triggered resignations from the entire Catholic chaplaincy team, led by Fr. Michael Bechard.

Bechard tells The Catholic Register the dispute has not pitted Muslims against Catholics. Rather the protesting chaplains are frustrated with high-handed, unilateral decisions by the London, Ont., university administration.

“This is not an issue where the Catholics are mad at the Muslims or the Muslims are mad at the Catholics. We all sat down at a table last night and had a great dinner,” said Bechard. “The frustration is that process isn’t being observed, over and over again, with the university.”

Bechard’s resignation is mostly symbolic. He and his team aren’t university employees and like any diocesan priest Bechard answers to his bishop.

“I am still the chaplain,” said Bechard.

But he is no longer part of the chaplains’ association that covers 10 distinct faith groups on campus.

About 1,000 Muslims on Western’s campus have for some time asked for a dedicated Muslim prayer space larger than the room they currently use. An opportunity to reallocate space for a new Muslim prayer room and for a larger multifaith room came up recently as University College, one of the older buildings on campus, must be closed for several years to undergo renovations. Closing the old college meant reallocating space among a large number of campus groups and academic uses.

At meetings with the co-ordinating chaplain for the chaplaincy association, the Muslim student group and the university’s student council, associate vice president for housing and ancillary services Susan Grindrod managed to negotiate increased space both for the Muslim prayer room and the multifaith area.

“The fact of the matter is the chaplains are getting more space out of this and that is something they’ve asked for,” Grindrod said.

“We’re certainly happy to provide that space. I understand they don’t like the process.”

“My concern is that one group is being given preference over all the other groups and I think that’s not being fair,” said Bechard.

In the old arrangement, the multifaith space and the Muslim prayer room were combined and this made for more interaction between faiths — something Bechard is anxious to foster.

“A few months ago I was talking to the Newman club about the gift of the Eucharist and we were on one side of the room,” he said.

“And a group of Muslim students came in and used the other side of the room. In many respects I think the witness we provided each other was good and healthy.”

Under the new arrangement, such accidental encounters will be less likely, Bechard said.

When Grindrod sat down with chaplaincy association co-ordinator Michael Wagenman, she assumed he was able to speak for the other chaplains. Bechard claims he had no idea the meeting even took place until the decision came down.

“Going forward, we won’t rely on the co-ordinator as the chaplains’ representative,” said Grindrod after local television stations and newspapers brought the dispute off campus.

Bechard has made interfaith relations a priority in his time at Western, overseeing the construction of two Muslim prayer rooms, chairing the Centre for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning and welcoming Muslim scholar Dr. Ingrid Mattson to speak at the King’s College annual public lecture series.

“I worked on the creation of an interfaith Abrahamic courtyard where there is art depicting the three different traditions on the outside. We’re deeply committed as a Catholic institution to creating a multifaith approach and accommodating the needs of all,” Bechard said.

Grindrod is unsure what else she can do to resolve the conflict.

 “They don’t like the process. Well, OK,” she said. “But I’m not exactly sure what they want. And he’s not a Western chaplain any more. He’s resigned. There is a larger interfaith, multifaith space that the chaplains will have at their disposal. But I think that’s sort of been lost in the discussion.”

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

“But I’m not exactly sure what they want."

The hope has always been that Western will reopen the conversation.

Further, I have not resigned as chaplain. We have resigned from the UWO Chaplain's Association. We continue to serve the needs...

“But I’m not exactly sure what they want."

The hope has always been that Western will reopen the conversation.

Further, I have not resigned as chaplain. We have resigned from the UWO Chaplain's Association. We continue to serve the needs of Catholics and others at Western. Michael Bechard

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