Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 5, 2002
Pere slap-shot life's frontiers
Msgr. Athol Murray built sturdy souls from Prairie stubble
By RAMON GONZALEZ
"I love God, Canada and hockey - not always in that order."
- Msgr. Athol Murray
Born Jan. 9, 1892 in Toronto, Murray (better known as Pére, or Father) was educated in the classics and the liberal arts at Montreal Loyola's College, Toronto's St. Michael's College, St. Hyacinthe College in Quebec and Laval University. While studying law at Toronto's Osgoode Hall, he read the words of St. Augustine: "To him who does what in him lies, God will not deny his grace."
Those words impacted his entire life. He then entered Toronto's St. Augustine's Seminary, was ordained in 1918 and sent to Regina in 1922, "on loan" from the Archdiocese of Toronto. One of his first acts was starting an athletic club for boys of all creeds. In the tradition of his hero, Knute Rockne of the other Notre Dame College, he trained clean, though rough, players.
When he was offered his own post in 1927, he asked to be sent to Wilcox, a small farming town of 300 people some 50 km south of Regina. Then he learned that the parish's patron was St. Augustine - surely a sign from God.
Several of his boys followed him from Regina - the original Hounds - so he found beds for them and looked to their education, getting permission to use a convent for classes. This became the nucleus of Notre Dame College, probably the world's only coeducational non-sectarian college under Catholic auspices and founded under the motto "Luctor et Emergo-Struggle and Come Through."
In the college's beginning, there was no running water or central heat. In 1930, fees were $18 per month, but many students couldn't afford to pay. However, Pere accepted students on the basis that they desired an education, not on their ability to pay. A side of beef, a chicken, a bucket of coal and produce often were accepted instead of money. Students came from everywhere and from every type of social, cultural and religious background.
Pére believed in building young minds through teaching the classics, constantly challenging his students' intellect and feeding them a steady spiritual diet. His goal was for Notre Dame students to be able to apply their keen minds and steadfast characters to whatever they wished to master. "Every human life is insignificant unless you yourself make it great," he once said.
Notre Dame was known for its sports teams, the primary one being hockey. Some teams would travel up to 13,000 km a season to play anyone, anywhere.
The difference between winning and losing at Notre Dame was often the difference between eating and going hungry, notes Jack Gorman in Pere Murray and the Hounds. "A convincing win by the Hounds would send Father Murray into an expansive and festive mood. Celebrate the victory - to hell with the expense."
Defeat, however, would padlock the larder and cast him into a blue mood. "You didn't skate hard enough - you have no guts. You aren't Hounds - you are mockers . . . the most watery-kneed, hollow-chested simpering bunch of mother's little darlings I've ever seen. This is the most gutless hockey team we've ever had at Notre Dame."
The college itself is Murray's miracle, Cashman said. When a Regina hotel installed new beds, he got the old ones cheap. When the local auto plant was renovated, he salvaged lumber to build a stadium. "Gang, there is no food, no money and no credit," he would say in hard times. "We need a miracle, get down and pray."
Time after time, miracles seemed to happen, with some donor sending a shipment of meat and some strangers sending hard cash.
After the crushing burdens of fundraising were lifted from Murray's sturdy shoulders by the college's graduates, he began to pour his "rollicking spirituality" into other projects.
One was the Tower of God, a stone structure decorated with symbols and relics of the Christian, Hebrew and Muslim faiths, which rose 18 metres over Wilcox and cast in concrete and steel were his famous words: "I don't give a damn what religion a guy belongs to. There is a God and I don't much care if you are a Catholic, Buddhist or Mohammedan as long as you believe in him."
While Notre Dame's bachelor of arts program Murray loved ended the year after his passing, the hockey program carries on as though he had never left. Very fitting. He used to say, "I love God, Canada and hockey - not always in that order."
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