Ex-soldier marches to St. Joe's College

April 11, 2011
Fr. Terry Kersch

Fr. Terry Kersch

CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Basilian Father Terry Kersch is a walking enigma, previously living the life of a soldier and then another as a man of the Gospel.

"The religious life and the military life, in some fundamental ways, are not all that different," said Kersch. "In the military life, it's the mission that takes precedence and part of your identity is putting yourself at the service of an overall mission.

"That's what you look for in a good military officer. Is this person willing to sacrifice him or herself to the mission? That's what being a Catholic is all about."

On July 1 Kersch takes on another mission, that of president of St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta. He replaces Father Timothy Scott, who was elected last summer to the general council of the Basilian Fathers.

Kersch, 54, is a cradle Catholic born in Montreal, and was educated in the Catholic school system there. As a child he had wide-ranging interests, including air cadets, photography and serving the Church. He started to explore a vocation to the religious life while at LaSalle Catholic High School.

MILITARY MOSAIC

At that time the religious orders were not accepting vocations fresh out of high school. So for 20 years, from 1973 to 1993, he lived a rich and diverse life, including a long history with the Canadian military, serving in the air force, navy and as an army reservist. His various military employments were at the mercy of his civilian job as a branch manager for a financial institution.

A decade after high school graduation, he left the financial industry and returned to school, intent on becoming a high school teacher, which would allow him to teach during the school year and be involved with the military in the summer.

While attending university in Vancouver, one of his fellow graduate students died and there was a funeral at St. Mark's College at the University of British Columbia. There he encountered the Basilians.

ST.AUGUSTINE BECKONS

He wrote his dissertation in international political theory and ethics. His research involved reading St. Augustine and the just war theory.

By encountering the Basilians and through his university research, an old childhood dream was reawakened.

"I discovered through the course of my study and doing my dissertation that the Catholic intellectual tradition was an incredibly deep and sophisticated one," said Kersch. "Through revisiting an old childhood desire, and discovering the Catholic intellectual tradition, it got me thinking again about being a priest."

BASILIANS OR OBLATES

Answering the calling was the easy part. The difficulty was making a choice on which order to join because he knew the Oblates in Toronto and the Basilians in Vancouver.

"I was torn between the Oblates and Basilians. I thought I had a better chance of being in a classroom as a Basilian," he said.

He professed his first vows as a Basilian 14 years ago, followed by his novitiate in Mexico. He now holds a master's degree in divinity from the University of St. Michael's College and a doctorate in political science from UBC.

Since becoming a Basilian he has served in Mexico, Colombia, Texas, Toronto and Vancouver. He is currently pastor of Toronto's St. Basil's Church, which is both a parish church and the collegiate church of St. Michael's College.

During his time with the Basilians he has been involved with four Basilian colleges - University of St. Michael's, St. Mark's College in Vancouver, Assumption University in Windsor, Ont., and the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

A NEW CHALLENGE

Now he brings his expertise to St. Joseph's College, where Catholic scholars project a convincing evangelical voice in the heart of a secular university.

"We have credible scholars there, and the more they're respected by their secular colleagues, the more we can evangelize effectively," said Kersch.

He has strong views on the value of theology, the arts and the humanities. He believes one of the biggest challenges faced by Catholic colleges, dependent on the funding of larger secular universities and increasingly neo-conservative sensibilities in government, is to develop a language that clearly and convincingly conveys the value of what they do.

Kersch hopes to teach at St. Joe's, but is uncertain whether he will have the chance to do so, given his other responsibilities.

Today he continues dabbling in such varied pursuits as visual arts and classical guitar.