Students from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy pass by St. Joseph Hall on the campus in Barry’s Bay, Ont. Photo courtesy of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom

Opinion: Our Lady Seat of Wisdom is built on the Catholic tradition

  • April 27, 2017

On April 29, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy (OLSWA) will graduate the first class of its newly approved bachelor’s degree program.

The small Catholic liberal arts college in Barry’s Bay, Ont., which opened in 2000 with nine students, has emerged from the other side of its provincial accreditation process as an innovative and creative leader in Catholic post-secondary education in Canada.

It received approval from the provincial government to issue three-year Bachelor of Arts degrees early this year — on Jan. 28, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, to be precise. It was just the latest sign of Providence that the approval came through on the feast day of the intellectual model of the Academy. As The Register went to press, the academy was awaiting a few formalities to be confirmed so that the degrees could actually be awarded at the April 29 ceremony.

The academy’s motto, Veritas vos liberabit — the truth will set you free — was the ideal which guided George Dienesch, John Paul Meenan and Scott Nicholson’s bold venture 17 years ago, when they founded the academy in an unused convent on the shore of Kamaniskeg Lake in the small town of Barry’s Bay, about 185 km west of Ottawa.

I had studied with John Paul and Scott and so went to visit them in the summer of 2000. They were not just poor. They had nothing. I don’t mean nothing with which to run an academy. I mean they had nothing for the day’s meals. Those founders truly did not know how they would afford to feed themselves, but by God’s providence, their neighbours’ generosity and their own fortitude they persevered. Fortitude in this case meant days of eating oatmeal morning, noon and night.

Their sacrifice for the intellectual and spiritual formation of young people has led OLSWA to grow from those uncertain early days to its current enrolment of over 100 full-time students from across Canada and the United States, drawn to the Academy by its strong liberal arts curriculum, genuine Catholic formation and affordability.

In some respects, the frugal spirit of those early oatmeal suppers endures. The same church basement is used for everything from Shakespeare dramas to the dining hall. If St. Hedwig Church has a funeral reception on that day, the students’ lunch is bumped! Barry’s Bay is somewhat limited in diversions. On this visit, the faculty were kind enough to take me out to the local motel’s dining room — for both dinner and breakfast. It’s about the only place to go.

Yet amid the modest lodgings and remote location there is a real attractiveness about life at the Academy, centred on forming its students to be apostles to wider shores than those of Kamaniskeg Lake.

John O’Brien SJ, who was ordained a deacon in Barry’s Bay earlier this month, proposes in my online magazine Convivium that OLSWA’s alumni offer a hopeful example of faithful Catholics today. Being a faithful Catholic on campus does not require withdrawing to Barry’s Bay; leaders from Dr. Randy Boyagoda at St. Michael’s College to the dozens of Catholic Christian Outreach missionaries across the country continue to equip and commission students at mainstream public universities to be missionary disciples in the secular classroom.

But what Deacon O’Brien correctly highlights about OLSWA’s graduates, who have uniquely withdrawn from the confusion of secular schools, is that they demonstrate that the Church also needs an alternative, where students can discover the fullness of the Catholic tradition. We need this leaven in our common life.

With its community meals and Masses, intellectual nourishment and preparation of its students to be witnesses in Canadian society, OLSWA is more important to the Church in Canada than many of our larger, richer and more historic educational institutions, too many of which are indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. My own work on campus at Queen’s University is essential for the new evangelization, but even at our best we can only offer a small part of the Catholic tradition at the chaplaincy. An important part to be sure, but a small part. OLSWA provides so much more of what young people, and our common Catholic culture, needs.

“Our Lady Seat of Wisdom is unlike other Canadian universities in that the faculty genuinely cares about each student,” says Meghan Burton, a student of mine at Queen’s who was previously at OLSWA. “They do not just care about the academic success, but foster opportunities for each student to grow in virtue, prayer, community and morality.”

OLSWA began in poverty and a commitment to teach the truth. It has been sustained by genuine sacrifices by its faculty and benefactors, and the commitment to truth remains. This year, as its first class of Bachelor of Catholic Studies graduates receive their degrees, they are a sign of hope. God has blessed that initial vision, watered by prayer and fasting.

Congratulations to the first graduates and to those whose courage has made their graduation possible!

(Fr. de  Souza is the editor-in-chief of and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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