Scarboros have made a difference

By  Michael Higgins
  • January 15, 2009
{mosimage}It was a celebration I was sorry to miss. On Nov. 9 close to 300 people gathered at the headquarters of the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society in Toronto for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the society by Msgr. John Mary Fraser. Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, who is the president of Scarboro’s civil corporation, was the main celebrant for the anniversary Mass. It appears to have been a genuinely festive occasion full of memory, gratitude and solidarity.

When I received the invitation to attend it was with the greatest reluctance that I declined — other commitments made it impossible — and it was only when my copy of Scarboro Missions magazine arrived that I appreciated the measure of my loss. But also the measure of my indebtedness.

Although my faith journey began with my Baptism as an infant, the journey proper began when I entered the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society — at one time known as Canada’s China Fathers — in 1966 at the age of 17. I recall the then long drive by car with my parents, siblings and grandmothers to the Scarboro cliffs to join the largest entering class in SFM history. There were 12 in the pre-university year and some 90 in total throughout the eight-year range of studies.

The Second Vatican Council had concluded only a year before, the Congress for the Theology of the Renewal of the Church was slated for the following summer at the University of Toronto (the largest such gathering  of theological experts or periti since the Council), the country’s centennial was just a few months away as was the Montreal Expo, and the atmosphere was electric, charged with a limitless hope. Things would change, of course, and in some instances drastically, but what a time it was.

A year after I had entered several of us were identified as the group that would constitute a new experiment in seminary education — new for Upper Canada, at least. Those of us in the philosophy years (the period prior to theology) would be educated on a university campus in a residence specifically built for us, together with an ecclesiastical superior and a dean of students. We could choose a degree program that corresponded to our respective interests and aptitudes but philosophy would play an important role in our formation nonetheless.

My platoon of worthy companions — there were eight of us — began our new life at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., in the Fall of 1967. Two of us were native Torontonians — well, actually I was the native, the other being Maltese by birth — two were from Peterborough, one from St. Catharines, one from Leamington, one from Bishop’s Falls, Nfld., and one from New Glasgow, N.S. We lived for a couple of months on a floor of an Augustinian monastery near the small town of Tracadie, and then for another two months on the top floor of a Wandlyn motel until the construction of Scarboro House was finally finished.

The Upper Canadians covered themselves in shame on the very first day of  arrival by train when we wondered aloud where the Antigonish subway could be found. Obviously, we saw the Maritimes as our first foray into mission territory. But our cultural insularity was soon shattered: we found ourselves exposed to a goodly bit of Atlantic Canada animosity justifiably directed toward Central Canada, and we breathed the fresh air provided by a dynamic liberal arts education. We came to love the place.

As it happens, several of us left the society as undergraduates to pursue different vocations, but the spiritual values associated with the society’s commitment to justice, peace and the salvific power of the Gospel, the heroic witness of many of the missioners who became role models for us, especially Art MacKinnon who was assassinated on June 22, 1965, during the civil war in the Dominican Republic, and the keen sense of genuine fraternity that defined our relationship with each other, all combined to make us deeply thankful for our years in the society.

For sure, the Scarboro Society I entered over 40 years ago was not the same body that exists today. But then again, it goes without saying that neither am I the same person who entered as an adolescent. The world has changed; the church has changed; I have changed. The SFMs retain a profound fidelity to their original charism, although its expression has altered with time: the present growth in membership can be found only with their lay missioners. Certainly, the friendships made on the rough hills of the Scarboro terrain have flourished over the years and not diminished.

For all of this I am one ex-seminarian deeply appreciative of the 90 years of service to the global church exercised by a small band of Canadian Catholics hellbent on making a difference.

Ad multos annos.

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