Janine Langan delivers a lecture.

Janine Langan founded St. Mike’s Christianity and Culture program

  • December 16, 2021

If there’s more to teaching than stuffing facts into young minds, then there was more to Janine Langan than met the eye.

The founder of the University of St. Michael’s Christianity and Culture program died unexpectedly the night of Dec. 11 at St. Michael’s Hospital. She had fallen and suffered a catastrophic brain injury. She was 88 years old.

Mrs. Langan was best known for single-handedly cajoling St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto into launching the Christianity and Culture program in 1979. The ground-breaking program for undergraduates broke the usual barriers between disciplines so that students had to examine Christianity through the study of history, art, philosophy — any and every lens that might apply.

Chris De Bono, Unity Health executive director of mission, values and spiritual care,  remembers how eye-opening the experience was for him as an undergraduate 30 years ago.

“She introduced me to a Church that was passionate, intellectual, socially just, creative, artistic and complex,” De Bono told The Catholic Register in an email.

The French-born Mrs. Langan’s favourite English word was “concretise,” De Bono said.

“I think it was the best way for her to capture the importance of God becoming human,” he said. “It always felt like matter mattered to her.”

De Bono’s experience studying under Mrs. Langan pushed him to seek a PhD in theology and work in health-care ethics. But it was more than a classroom experience, he said.

“She hand-picked me, along with a small group of first-year students, to be part of the St. John Scholars,” he said.

As a community, the St. John’s Scholars were committed to the faith they studied and to each other.

“Janine was the most formative mentor and influencer on my thinking and vocation,” De Bono said.

Mrs. Langan’s academic career began at the elite New England women’s school of liberal arts Smith College. From there she returned to France for further studies and then came to the University of Toronto for a PhD in comparative literature. As a young academic she established a reputation teaching a course on the Book of Job that concentrated on the question of why innocent people suffer.

During the 1979 to 1987 period, when she served as co-ordinator of Christianity and Culture, her friendship with writer, professor and psychologist Fr. Henri Nouwen helped further broaden the program’s horizons. Nouwen was an influential occasional guest lecturer in the program.

Mrs. Langan never really retired and continued to teach as often as she could as an emeritus professor. She also took up teaching high school students at the private Mary, Mother of God School in Toronto.

In 2006 Pope John Paul II knighted her a Lady of St. Sylvester for her work in the Christianity and Culture Program and additional teaching at St. Augustine’s Seminary. At the same time her husband Thomas, a St. Michael’s philosophy professor, was made a Knight of St. Sylvester.

Mrs. Langan’s passion for teaching was also recognized in 2016 by the Catholic Teachers’ Guild, which gave her its Jean-Baptiste de la Salle Award.

St. Michael’s instituted the annual Langan Lecture in Christianity and Culture in 2017. In a release, University of St. Michael’s president David Sylvester said the St. Mike’s community is considering ways to honour Mrs. Langan when COVID restrictions ease.

Mrs. Langan’s husband Thomas died in 2012. She leaves five children and 11 grandchildren and generations of students.

A funeral Mass will be celebrated at St. Basil’s Church on the University of St. Michael’s campus Dec. 27 at 10 a.m.

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