Gerry Turcotte takes over as president of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi colleges in Vancouver this summer. Photo courtesy St. Mary’s University

Faith a key factor in post-secondary life

By  Terry O’Neill, Canadian Catholic News
  • March 6, 2022

VANCOUVER -- In a society more comfortable with cancel culture than counterculture, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 call for Catholic universities to speak “uncomfortable truths” that may challenge public opinion can be a daunting task. But for the incoming president of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi colleges in Vancouver, it’s job one.

The search for truth, and the centrality of faith in that search, are key aspects of Catholic post-secondary education, says Dr. Gerry Turcotte, the newly chosen academic and administrative head of the Catholic colleges at UBC.

In an interview, Turcotte said faith is a key factor that has formed many of the institutions in modern society. “So we need it there, and to pretend it’s not there — or to miss that part of the story — is to miss a huge chapter.”

Currently the president and vice-chancellor of St. Mary’s University in Calgary — as well as a columnist for The Catholic Register — Turcotte will become president and principal of the Vancouver colleges on Aug. 1.

The author and editor of 18 books will succeed Dr. Michael W. Higgins, who is retiring from academic administration after a lengthy career as a post-secondary leader.

Located on the campus of the University of B.C., Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s colleges share administration but offer distinct curricula: Corpus Christi is a liberal-arts college while St. Mark’s is an undergraduate and graduate theological college.

Bruno De Vita, chair of the colleges’ presidential search committee, said Turcotte has shown deep commitment to Catholic higher education. “Dr. Turcotte is an accomplished leader who will bring a strategic perspective to the presidency while remaining connected with the strong student-focused roots that define the colleges,” De Vita said in a press release announcing Turcotte’s hiring.

For Turcotte, the Catholic intellectual tradition that underpinned the creation of universities in the first place remains “alive and well” in the colleges, where he wants to “play a major part in supporting and helping to shape the next chapter in the colleges’ exciting history.”

Echoing Pope John Paul II, Turcotte believes a crucial hallmark of Catholic education is its continuing search for truth. “It’s what Catholic higher education was created to do, by the Church no less,” he told the B.C. Catholic. “And central to that pursuit of truth is a Catholic post-secondary institution’s commitment to putting “faith” on the table.

For Turcotte, faith is “such a powerful, driving force in our universal culture” and “a key factor in how the world articulates itself, in all its diversity, in all its faiths.”

That catalyst, which particularly inspires his Catholic faith, “is about a sense of recognition of dignity of the human person. That’s a great position to start from.”

The Church’s specific focus on the dignity of the human person is, “a hallmark of Catholic higher education, and the fact that we can bring most of our understanding of everything – from our civic duties to our faith institutions – is a great strength.”

Recognizing the importance of faith allows Catholic institutions to serve as beacons for truth in a world more accustomed to a multiplicity of truths as varied as individuals. “We can identify the way that faith can help to transform our community,” he said. “And you don’t have to be Catholic at a Catholic university to be empowered by that message and by that community.”

Turcotte personally leads St. Mary’s students on a regular community outreach called the President’s Volunteer Team. The group has supported a variety of initiatives, including the Diocese of Calgary’s Feed the Hungry program, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity and a Night of Lights Remembrance Day event where students light 3,500 candles to honour the fallen veterans of the southern Alberta region.

Turcotte said he has been motivated throughout in his career as an educator, author, and administrator by the joy that his Catholic faith brings him. “The message of Jesus is one of hope, and joy, and possibility,” he said.

“It’s such a positive message. … Divisions, controversies, they will always be there. But beneath it all is our belief in a loving God who believes in the dignity of the human person. And that’s a pretty cool message.”

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