Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 6, 2000
St. Mary's College has grand ambitions
Calgary college looks to the future, having taken giant leaps the last 5 years
Special to WCR
Two years ago Calgary Roman Catholic student Annie Molloy attended Mount Royal College, a sprawling secular college in the southwest part of the city with about 11,000 full-time students.
Molloy left after one semester, however, and last year enrolled at St. Mary's College, a tiny but growing Catholic liberal arts college with about 235 full- and part-time students and grand ambitions for southern Alberta.
"It's really, really good," says Molloy, 20, who is now in her second year at St. Mary's and president of the college's student association. "The class sizes are really small."
Even though St. Mary's lacks the clubs and amenities of its larger collegiate cousins, Molloy prefers the college's intimate community where professors make an effort to know and help each student.
"You can't hide," she says. "You're forced to interact. It's something you won't get at university unless you go for personal help."
Molloy believes that kind of attentiveness assists students straight out of high school in making the transition to the world of post-secondary education.
"I think it's a really good post-secondary institution. I hope people will recognize it as a real benefit to Calgary."
Calgarians are beginning to recognize it. College organizers were surprised when a recent poll revealed that about 20 per cent of people questioned, both Catholic and non-Catholic, knew about the college and its programs.
"They (Angus Reid) thought that was very good," says Yolande Gagnon, chairperson of the college's board of governors for the past six years. "I think we're developing an identity."
When Gagnon, a former Catholic school board chair, joined the board, the college had an acting president, no students, hardly any money, and a one-room office donated in a downtown tower with no permanent site in mind.
Today it has a full-time president, 135 full-time students (compared with 25 three years ago), 100 part-time students, a full two-year program of studies including 75 courses, a faculty of five plus many part-time instructors, and a campus at the Lacombe Centre in the far south side of the city in Midnapore.
Built on a Catholic foundation, it is open to students from all backgrounds. Enrolment is expected to double next year.
"Universities in Western Europe originated in the 13th century under the auspices of the Catholic Church," says faculty member Father Michael Duggan. "I believe St. Mary's College, in its very early stages, is a contemporary illustration of a university in the finest sense of the word.
"I believe the health of the college derives from its being rooted in the Catholic tradition while being open to people of all traditions or of no particular religious tradition. At this point in history, Calgary needs a place where the great religious traditions of the world can meet in dialogue."
Duggan says students in his religious studies courses delight in listening to and conversing with representatives of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as various Christian denominations who come to speak to his classes.
The 35-acre campus, located along scenic Fish Creek Park, has one building - St. Basil's Hall - housing the library and a computer lab, classrooms, administration offices, and a spiffed-up students' association centre.
With no public funding, the college has raised about $7 million to date, including $4 million in donations from Allan Markin, president of Canadian Natural Resources, and an anonymous $1-million donation passed along last summer by Bishop Frederick Henry.
It also has pledges of $1.5 million each from both the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women's League.
"We've just made great progress," says Gagnon. "It's really awesome and wonderful."
Gagnon believes the college's success is due, in part, to the calibre of presidents who have guided the college since 1993, the most recent of which is Dr. Terrence Downey.
Downey took over as president in July, succeeding Dr. David Lawless, the former president of St. Francis Xavier University, who took St. Mary's from a temporary location in an empty elementary school building to the current campus.
Downey, 55, is the former chair of the political science department at the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, Ont., with a broad range of experience in education, public policy and public administration.
He couldn't resist the challenge of leading the country's first private, free-standing Catholic liberal arts college into the new millennium. (The country's other Catholic colleges and universities were either started by religious orders or are affiliated with other university institutions.)
"The seemingly unrelenting drive to social conformity presents both a challenge and an opportunity to the Catholic college," he says.
"A challenge because it is difficult to penetrate the prevailing orthodoxy of a society that is so set in its intellectual ways; and opportunity because the Catholic college does have legitimate and desperately needed perspectives to bring to bear on the great questions that confront the technological society in which we live," he says."
It expects to submit an application soon to the province's Ministry of Learning for degree-granting status, which will make it a university-college like Edmonton's The King's College.
In addition to its current offerings in the two-year general studies program, it's also providing programs in theology to religious educators and potential administrators in the Calgary Catholic school system.
Eventually it hopes to offer bachelor's and master's degrees in education. It's also cooperating with the diocese to offer programs in pastoral ministry.
Board of Governors' chair Gagnon would like to see the college develop a program that will make it unique among Canadian Catholic colleges and universities - perhaps a human rights or social justice centre which would enable it to fulfill a prophetic role in the Calgary community. Along those lines, Duggan is hoping to take a group of students to Haiti this summer.
Downey arrived just three months after the historic 90-year-old Father Lacombe Centre burned to the ground, leaving a visible gap (now landscaped) in the middle of the campus. During the summer, Downey toured the site on foot for about three hours learning about its history and heritage.
As he imagined Father Albert Lacombe, the famous Oblate missionary walking across the prairie at the beginning of the 20th century, Downey began to have a sense of the potential for the college in the 21st century.
With its scenic natural setting, Downey envisions St. Mary's as becoming both an intellectual and architectural landmark in the south end of the city.
As he glances across the prairie campus, Downey envisions the construction of student residences. He says the college will need more classrooms, a first-rate library, and the usual campus infrastructure including paving and lights.
Already supporters are talking about raising money to construct a new building that will replicate the facade of the original Lacombe Centre where Lacombe died in 1916.
Bishop Henry believes St. Mary's is performing a vital role during the post-Christian culture in which Catholics are living.
In a pastoral letter last summer, Henry says this era is characterized by conflicting understandings about what it means to be human, and about the purpose and ultimate end of life. No one is immune to the effects of individualism, materialism, relativism and secular humanism, he said.
In response, the Church has embarked on a new period of evangelization, which requires the involvement of all Catholics equipped with new means of expressing the Gospel. Young people are the leading characters in this evangelization.
During a recent planning session for the college, Gagnon relished the college's many accomplishments during its brief history.
But she also identified a fear - that the college might become arrogant and forget to serve the needs of the community, including both the Catholic community and the broader general community.
"I do think we have a place to bring something different to the general population," she says. "We should always be humble. We'll always be there as a conscience to remind people of the greater good."