Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 21, 1999
Collins overcame hardships
Priestly studies delayed while caring for ailing dad
By GLEN ARGAN
His early life was marked by hardships. But Thomas Collins rose above those hardships to develop a tenaciously positive view of life.
The new archbishop of Edmonton was born in Guelph, Ont., Jan. 16, 1947 to Thomas Sr. and Juliana Collins. He was their fourth child, born when his mother was 47.
The eldest, Catharine, is a retired school principal; Patricia was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy; George was a spina bifida baby who died in infancy.
Young Thomas learned to read before he started to school, Catharine told the WCR in 1997. "He always had an inquiring, inquisitive mind. He was an exceptional student in school."
But after he entered elementary school, his father, a deeply prayerful man who was circulation manager for the Guelph Daily Mercury, became ill and his working career ended. Juliana went to work as a legal secretary.
Over the next 12 years, Thomas Sr.'s health deteriorated until he died in 1967. His son delayed his entry to the seminary so he could stay at home and help care for his father.
While in high school, Collins had been encouraged to enter the seminary by Msgr. John Newstead, pastor at Guelph's Church of Our Lady. He took it seriously and in 1969, after completing his bachelor of arts, he entered St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ont.
While most young men find seminary life demanding enough, Collins got permission to assume an added task - he took his master's degree in English literature at the nearby University of Western Ontario while preparing for the priesthood.
On May 5, 1973, Hamilton Bishop Paul Reding, one of Collins' heroes, drove him to church and ordained him to the priesthood. The young priest served two years in parishes and was then sent to Rome to study Scripture.
As well as studying the Bible, Collins learned Italian, French, Greek, biblical Hebrew and some German. "I had Greek taught by a Spaniard in Italian from an English textbook. It was a very strange experience."
In 1978, while he was finishing his time in Rome, his mother suddenly became very ill. He rushed back to Canada and was able to give her the Anointing of the Sick before she died.
Collins spent the next six years teaching Scripture at St. Peter's Seminary before returning to Rome for two years to complete his doctorate. His dissertation was on the final verses of the Book of Revelation.
And while some see the Apocalypse as filled with symbols predicting the end of the world, Collins like most Catholic scholars views it as a book of hope written for a suffering Church.
"The message of the Apocalypse is that all things must be oriented towards fidelity to God and all our moral decisions should flow from that," he once told the WCR.
At the seminary, Collins was a hit.
"He was a popular teacher and a popular confessor in the seminary right from the beginning," recalled Father Michael Ryan, who had Collins as a student and later as a colleague. "He's got a great sense of humour and he just delights an audience."
Collins saw teaching as a way to share his knowledge with the Church which had paid for him to study five years in Rome.
"Seeing the seminarians (and lay students) has filled me with hope," he said. "These are people who are coming forward to serve the Lord."
Collins became dean of theology and eventually rector of St. Peter's.
As top administrator, he took a collaborative approach. "You pool the wisdom and insights of everybody and see what is the right thing to do," he said.
"Being a member of that faculty had a profound influence on my life - working together with 12 other men and women."
One day in March 1997, he was finishing a discussion with a faculty member in his office when the phone rang. It was the apostolic nuncio asking him to come to visit him in Ottawa.
A few days later he sat down with Archbishop Carlo Curis and heard the news - Pope John Paul wanted him to become bishop of St. Paul, Alta. Would he accept?
For Collins, the decision was obvious. He was trying to make major decisions in his life according to a statement by St. Francis de Sales: "Ask nothing, refuse nothing. Go where you are sent." He accepted - without hesitation.
While it was difficult for the new bishop to leave his family and friends, Newstead said Collins "was joyful in accepting the task of going."
Indeed, he sees a spirit of joy as the greatest need of the Church. "Sometimes Catholics get discouraged," he says. "We need to have hope."
It's a quality he emphasized during his 19 months as bishop of St. Paul. And it's one he will no doubt stress as archbishop of Edmonton.