Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 26, 2005
From a tutorial to an academy
John Paul Meenan floods his students with the light of Catholic tradition
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Barry's Bay, Ont.
In 1999, John Paul Meenan visited Madonna House in Combermere, Ont., hoping a retreat at the lay apostolate would help him discern God's will for his life.
"I didn't come up here to start a college," he said.
Six years later, however, Meenan is executive director of a new Catholic college with a three-year program and 60 full- and part-time students a short drive away in Barry's Bay.
Meenan, 37, had been studying at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto for the previous six years.
"There I realized how much I'd missed in university," he said in an interview in his cramped office in the former convent now housing Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy.
"My experience in secular university was beneficial. I know what's not out there, what's missing and what's good."
Master's in neuroscience
Born in Scotland, he grew up in Canada and attended the University of Western Ontario where he obtained a master's degree in neuroscience.
While at Madonna House, he was invited to speak at an informal tutorial of six students meeting regularly in private homes nearby.
He started tutoring students a couple of days a week.
"I realized this is something good. It works. There's a need."
A group of prospective teachers and students developed a shared vision. A year later, the Pembroke Diocese gave them the use of the former Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Barry's Bay.
Nine students enrolled the first year in a one-year program designed to return to Cardinal John Henry Newman's idea of a liberal arts education within a Catholic university.
"Cardinal Newman warned about the overspecialization of the university," Meenan said. "We think people should get a broad education before they specialize."
"It's an integrated program, fully orthodox, loyal to the magisterium and founded on the fundamental subjects, the great books of civilization: literature, philosophy, natural sciences, Scripture, history and theology," he said.
The school's motto is Veritas vos liberabit, Latin for The Truth Will Set You Free.
"We do it in the light of Catholic tradition, which we believe leads to the fullness of truth," he said.
Meenan and his small faculty are constantly asking the students how their faith impacts their lives.
The ideal context for education, he said, is within a "living faith experience," because it involves far more than mere technical skill or knowledge but the formation of the person.
The academy now has 45 students living in rented homes within walking distance and offers one year, two year and three year programs. The catalogue lists six full-time faculty members, including Meenan, and 11 adjunct faculty members, who come in part time or teach the odd course.
Meenan says he isn't out to create parrots who can recite the catechism, but thinkers who have an intellectual appreciation for their faith and can defend it when they go into the world.
For students, this ability to defend their faith is a highlight of their education.
Second year student Aaron Cripps of Halifax said the community life was the best part of the school, because he knows he will leave a better person with more self-discipline.
"It's a very balanced place to be."
Second year student Marissa Henry of Combermere said the community life has taught her to get along with people different from herself.
"What brings them together is the fact they are all "striving to live out their faith."
It's a family
The school is "a family," Henry said, and has helped her grow in confidence and "not be afraid of what people think of me.
"No matter where I go after this, I don't have to be scared to be who I am."
Angela Hardy, the academy's dean of student life, read about the school when she was a Grade 12 student in New Brunswick. She attended for a year, then completed a couple of years at the University of New Brunswick.
She returned to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom to complete another year, where she acted as a resident assistant to the previous dean of student life.
Hardy found that her personality and skills were ideal for overseeing student life, which includes planning activities, making sure the residences have all the supplies they need, and talking with students about their problems and concerns.
The close personal friendships the students make at the academy are a key to character formation at the academy, she said. "It's not like being in a big university, or being a number and getting lost."
Barry's Bay is a working class town in the heart of logging country not far from the entrance to Algonquin Park. The houses are boxlike and modest, the surrounding forested hills rugged, and earning a living here can be tough.
The wider Catholic community in the area is flourishing, however, with churches like St. Hedwig's in Barry's Bay packed on Sundays.
The area has also drawn Catholic families and artists who homeschool and have many children.
With Madonna House and the novitiate for Companions of the Cross in Combermere, the area attracts people who are fervent in their faith and willing to sacrifice for it.
With no money or significant donors, just dreams and prayers, the professors have had to do things like move furniture and change light bulbs as well as teach. Christopher Zakrzewski, who has taught a range of subjects from Latin to Russian literature, recalls when the starting pay was $300 a month.
The money's a little better now, but no salary could replace the community spirit and the fact that the students are "hungry for knowledge," Zakrzewski said. "I'm a mentor in a very personal way. I can show my faith."
Return to teaching
The next step is for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy to gain accreditation, though Franciscan University of Steubenville and Ave Maria College already accept credits for transferring students. The academy plans to add a fourth year so it can become a degree-granting institution.
Meenan says he never wants the school to get so big that the sense of community is lost, but 150 students might be nice. Then he'd have to get someone to do the administration, because his real love is teaching.
Room and board and tuition cost $7,000. For the students who commute, tuition is $3,000. "I don't believe students should go into debt," Meenan says.