Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 1, 2004
St. Mary's opens minds and souls
Catholic liberal arts college offers small classes, solid academic standards
By BILL GLEN
WCR Staff Writer
St. Mary's College in south Calgary is becoming a victim of its own success.
The only stand-alone Catholic liberal arts college west of the Maritimes has become so popular because of its small class sizes and intimate setting, the swelling student population threatens to undermine the very elements which helped make the campus so attractive in the first place.
But fear not, says college president Terrence Downey. Plans are in the works to expand.
"The place has grown so quickly. We have begun to reach capacity, but we do have a heritage building we plan to renovate. That will take the pressure off for a couple of years before we have to start construction on new buildings," Downey said.
Since it offered its first credit courses to a handful of people 10 years ago from a temporary location in an empty elementary school, the college has flourished, with people seeking to walk about a campus where spirituality is flowing freely with some three-dozen full and part-time faculty members.
"I have been president since July 1999 and I have witnessed enrollment grow by 450 per cent," Downey said. "When I came here, there were fewer than 100 students. At the moment, we have more than 450.
"We are earning an excellent reputation in the city. We are known as a place with solid academic standards and the students are selling the place in the sense that the demand keeps growing rapidly for more courses and programs," he said.
The college is currently engaged in a strategic planning process and consultants assisting the faculty say they have never seen a group who are more qualified, focused or on-side, Downey claims.
"Students like the smaller class sizes and they like being in a Catholic aspect. I believe we are the only Catholic college in the country that demands a course in theology and a course in ethics as part of our degree program. It's part of our regular liberal arts BA program," he said.
"We are being recommended by the private colleges accreditation board to give our own bachelor of arts degrees in English. We have already been recommended to give three-year degrees in general studies.
There is an openness and encouragement at the campus for discussion of religious and spiritual matters so that the students develop spiritually as well as intellectually.
An Oblate priest is a full-time member of the faculty, with three other priests teaching part-time.
Downey meets with Bishop Fred Henry, chancellor of the college, on a regular basis to discuss how the college can contribute to the Catholic Church in southern Alberta.
"I think we have enhanced the religious atmosphere here because we have created a place where people can be comfortable freely talking and developing their spirituality," Downey said.
St. Mary's will have its first convocation this spring. Downey says it is the only independent, liberal arts Catholic college west of the Maritimes that dispenses its own BA degrees. Other Catholic colleges, like St. Joseph College in Edmonton, are affiliated with larger universities, he said.
Bishop Fred Henry is ecstatic saying, "In southern Alberta, a small Catholic university college was talked about for years. It seemed like it was a pipe dream. Anytime anyone began to talk about it with any enthusiasm, some cold water was dumped on the dream.
"Finally, it came to fruition and each of the years I have been here (since 1998) has seen greater signs of hope. We watch with wonder and awe the flowering of this college and its reception by people."
Possible BEd degree
Henry believes the college also offers a promissory note with respect to the hope that it will eventually be able to offer a bachelor of education degree.
"We would become a feeder for many of our Catholic elementary, junior and high schools in the province," he said.
The college would then present a Catholic formation program for teachers which the secular universities has a great difficulty doing because religion is always an add-on. They would like to see the whole curriculum permeated by faith and by the message of the Gospel.
"A challenge we have to face in the shorter term is where we might have to precisely cap things at," he said. "I don't think we can open ourselves up to unlimited growth. We have neither the campus nor the financial resources to look at an open-ended thing.
"I suspect we might look at a maximum student enrollment of about 2,000. It's hard to say when that might be, but to get to grant degrees this year, we will see even more of a significant influx of students," he said.
Henry hopes to maintain a strong Catholic presence and model the dialogue between faith and reason that he believes is so characteristic of the tradition of higher education.
Student association president Angela Joyce is in her third year at the college in general studies. After going to the University of Calgary from high school, she fully appreciates the experience at St. Mary's.
"I think the best decision I've ever made was to come here. I've had nothing but amazing experiences being involved in sports and being president this year," she said. "I don't think I'd have learned half as much in a larger institution given the encouragement and support from the professors and the students."
Joyce took a semester at the U of C.
"At the time, I found the university to be overwhelming," she said. "St. Mary's is so convenient for people who live in south Calgary who might want to take their courses at the college and then transfer over to the U of C."
Joyce noticed that coming to St. Mary's from high school provides a much easier transition than entering university directly. "There is still the one-on-one interaction with the teachers. It is much easier to meet people," she said.
"Another reason I've stayed here for three years is because we have been involved in the Alberta college sports league. We have basketball, volleyball, hockey and now soccer teams."
Joyce is a member of the women's basketball team that is undefeated the past three years. She has been involved in career fairs, setting up booths to help recruit more students.
"We hold Mass at lunch every Wednesday. We also have Masses for many occasions . . . There are many different faiths that attend. . . The bishop comes a lot of the time and celebrates Mass with us."