New Saint Paul chair considers threat to Catholic education

  • May 1, 2007
OTTAWA - Will Catholic schools continue in Ontario? That is among the questions Saint Paul University’s first holder of The Mercy and Presentation Sisters of Newfoundland Chair in Religious Education and Catechetics said she faces as she assumes her new role.
On April 24, the university announced the establishment of the academic chair and the appointment of Professor Miriam K. Martin as the first holder. The chair was made possible through a $1 million endowment from the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Newfoundland, two religious congregations that have had their own bitter experience with the elimination of denominational schools in their home province. Martin, an associate professor of practical theology at Saint Paul, is a Presentation Sister.

The Catholic schools issue has moved to the forefront after the   Ottawa public school board passed a motion April 10 calling for the elimination of separate publicly funded Catholic schools. This follows similar resolutions passed by several smaller Ontario boards. The Ottawa Citizen also called Catholic schools "an obsolete privilege" in an April 13 editorial.

Though no mainstream political party advocates eliminating separate schools, Catholics in Quebec and Newfoundland have experienced how quickly the constitutional right to Catholic schools can be taken away.

Sr. Helen Harding, Congregation Leader of the Sisters of Mercy of Newfoundland, told the   Saint Paul University gathering how her congregation and the Presentation Sisters pooled their resources in the 1950s to establish Holy Heart of Mary Regional High School in St. John's, Nfld. For 40 years it operated as a denominational school under the Roman Catholic School Board of St. John's.  However, in 1998, the provincial government reorganized the provincial school system, and "without consultation or compensation, assumed possession and control" of the school, she said.

Harding said the sisters chose to sue the province and "decided that any monies received through this litigation process would be directed towards education."  The lawsuit was settled out of court last June.

Sr. Elizabeth Lee, leader of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, said the monies will go towards provincial, national and international projects to support religious education, fine arts, youth and adult literacy, early childhood education and other family assistance programs. The Saint Paul chair is their national effort.

Martin has been a full-time associate professor of theology at Saint Paul and the director of religious education programs. She has directed the Summer Institute in Pastoral Liturgy for the past 13 years and was founding director of the Summer Institute in Religious Education, a post she held for the past nine years.   Her research has focused on women and worship, pastoral liturgy and religious education, exploring the links between liturgy, catechesis and social justice.

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