Corpus Christi College at Twenty and the Bright Future of Our Catholic Colleges

Keynote address by Archbishop J. Michael Miller at the 19th Annual Fundraising Breakfast (5 October 2019)

Once again, dear friends of Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s College, it’s a pleasure to be with you this beautiful morning.

Because this year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Corpus Christi College, my remarks today will focus, although not exclusively, on the history and contributions of this Catholic undergraduate institution in our community. It is a story of great faith and tireless determination.

Pre-history of Corpus Christi College
While classes began at Corpus Christi College in 1999, like all institutions before their official foundation, its history reaches much farther back. And back with you I will go: to the origins of Catholic higher education here in the Lower Mainland.

Founding of St. Mark’s College
Nearly a century ago, the laity and clergy in Vancouver already had in mind the founding of Catholic college or university. The Jesuits, for example, purchased 15 acres in Point Grey in the 1920s, which many assumed was for a Catholic college.(1) If that was their plan, it was never realized.

When William Mark Duke became Archbishop in 1931, he was determined that such an institution would be established during his time in office. Almost immediately, he met with Chancellor Norman Mackenzie to request a Catholic presence at UBC. He was refused, and Duke was told “it would do no good”(2) to press the issue any further. He did so anyway. Trying again, in 1937 the Archbishop asked the University authorities about the possibility of an affiliated arts college on the campus, such as was the case at St. Michael’s College in Toronto and St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon. The University senate refused his petition. A subsequent request for an arts college limited to offering only a few disciplines, such as Philosophy, History and Economics, was likewise rejected. In pushing for these initiatives alongside Archbishop Duke was Father Henry Carr, a Basilian educator who was himself a relentless advocate for founding Church-affiliated colleges on the campuses of public universities.

UBC’s repeated refusals still did not, however, dampen the Iron Duke’s determination to found an institution of Catholic higher education in Vancouver. He began to consider an alternative to affiliation: a Catholic university with its own charter. But, for many reasons in the mid-1940s, his proposal never got off the ground. It became apparent that the best that he could hope for was a theological college on campus, such as those sponsored by the Anglicans and United Church. This, however, was not what the Archbishop had in mind. Nor was it what was needed, since the Benedictines were training Catholic seminarians at the Seminary of Christ the King in Burnaby.

After the Second World War, leadership in advancing the cause of Catholic tertiary education in the Archdiocese took an historic turn: it shifted from the clergy to the laity. In October 1947, a group of five lay Catholics set up the British Columbia Catholic Educational Association. Their purpose focussed on urging UBC to hire qualified Basilian priests on its faculty, on erecting a student residence for Catholics, and on establishing an affiliated theological college.

What resulted in the mid-1950s was the University’s agreement to allow the foundation on campus of a Catholic theological college, which Father Carr shrewdly suggested should be named “St. Mark’s” to honour Archbishop William Mark Duke. The St. Mark’s College Act was passed in 1956, and the College was affiliated with UBC,(3) with the right to grant degrees only in Theology. While, at long last, this gave Vancouver a Catholic college, it fell far short of what both the Archbishop and the Catholic faithful really wanted – a liberal arts college for educating lay women and men.

In its early years, under the direction of the Basilian Fathers, St. Mark’s managed a residence for 103 Catholic men, sponsored an active Newman Club Centre, a Chapel for all UBC students, and a library. The College also served as the residence for Basilians teaching at the University or engaged in other apostolates. It was only in the 1960s that some non-credit courses and eventually some credit graduate courses in Theology began to be offered.

Founding of Corpus Christi College
Even though by then St. Mark’s was firmly established, the desire to provide an undergraduate education in the liberal arts in the Catholic tradition remained very much alive. Beginning in the early 1990s, a small group of mostly lay Catholics,(4)  began to meet in the home of Gerry and Marion Sylvester, who had moved to Vancouver after the closure of Notre Dame University in Nelson. They incorporated themselves as The Advancement of Higher Education in the Catholic Tradition Society; their explicit purpose was to found a liberal arts college to be called “Corpus Christi.”(5) In 1992, the group presented a Brief to Archbishop Exner which pointed out what many had long held to be self-evident: that “the province of British Columbia and specifically the Archdiocese of Vancouver is in need of a Catholic institution of higher learning to assist in the development and renewal of Christian culture.”(6)

This Brief was later expanded into a Founding Document, in which they unambiguously affirm that the College to be established was to be Catholic. For these founders, this meant “the commitment of the College to function and educate students within the great Catholic educational tradition, according to the principles of a Christian humanism which aims at the formation of the whole person, drawing on the vast contributions of Catholic philosophers, theologians and other thinkers.”(7) To achieve this end, they wrote: “Such a College must proclaim the Catholic viewpoint in various fields of learning” and prepare leaders capable of “putting their faith into action.”(8) Moreover, in the spirit of Father Carr, they were convinced that “A sound Liberal Arts education, with emphasis on Theology, Philosophy, History, Science and the Social Sciences, can best prepare students to succeed in turning our society back to God.”(9) This Founding Document inspired the original mission of Corpus Christi College, and continues to inspire it to this day.

One critical decision, however, still had to be taken. Where was such a college to be located? Surprisingly to us, at the outset, they did not think of associating it with St. Mark’s. In fact, early suggestions included at least these three possibilities: establishing a “satellite campus” of Gonzaga University of Spokane in Vancouver; associating with the Seminary of Christ the King, which had degree-granting status; or setting up a small stand-alone college after the successful model of Trinity Western University which had begun in 1962.

After receiving the Founding Document, Archbishop Adam Exner consulted with the Basilians at St. Mark’s about the proposal to found Corpus Christi College. The Principal, Father James Hanrahan replied in a letter: “That there is a crying need here for a Catholic College offering the Liberal Arts no one with an awareness of the Catholic intellectual tradition or of the needs of students could deny.” But he objected vehemently to the suggestion that the College could be a satellite campus of Gonzaga University. Instead, Hanrahan proposed – and for this we owe him an enormous debt of gratitude – that there be “a serious effort to establish a new relationship with UBC or, failing that, with Simon Fraser,” or the establishment of “a separate Catholic College of Education” which could coordinate its program with St. Mark’s.(10)

When Corpus Christi College was incorporated on 11 January 1995, its relationship with St. Mark’s College was still not yet a sure thing. To clear the way for the collaboration we now know, Father Hanrahan secured from President David Strangway an agreement that the University would not oppose the establishment of an undergraduate college on the campus of St. Mark’s.(11)

    And so it happened. The Society accepted the willingness of the St. Mark’s Board to open its facilities to the new College, and in September 1999 Corpus Christi offered its first classes to nine students.(12) Undergraduate education in the Catholic tradition had arrived; and providentially, just in time to mark the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium.

From what has been said, it’s evident, I believe, that the laity of Vancouver were the driving force behind the founding of Corpus Christi College – and remain so today.(13) The impetus for tertiary Catholic education in British Columbia is historically rooted in the people of God and is now their legacy to build up and hand on.

They are being called upon to move into the future that tradition begun by Archbishop Duke, Father Carr, the Basilian Fathers and especially by the countless laity who have offered their counsel and resources to realize the dream of a century ago. The financial sacrifices made by all parties engaged in this great enterprise have been – and are – countless. Our Colleges receive no government funding, which presents a challenge, as you can well imagine. But it is also a grace, since it allows us to foster our Catholic mission unimpeded by undue government interference.

Contributions of the Colleges to the Common Good
Because both Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s comprise one faith and learning community committed to serving the common good of society and the Church, I would now like to suggest to you a few ways how they achieve this purpose.

1. Educating Laity for Leadership in the World
First of all, the founders of both institutions envisaged the College’s primary contribution to the common good to be the formation of lay women and men educated in the Catholic intellectual tradition, with its focus on integrating the truths of faith with the truths accessible to science and reason.(14)  Regardless of the discipline studied, this tradition and world view of Christian humanism undergird all the teaching and learning at the Colleges.

This passion for truth welcomes all people of good will to share in the specific kind of education offered at the Colleges. Following the founders’ vision, the Colleges are keen on fostering ecumenical relations with the other denominational institutions on campus. Among them, however, St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi are unique, because they are the only Colleges offering undergraduate studies at UBC.

At the same time, the Colleges serve the spiritual and sacramental life of students and staff by being an integral part of a wider community of faith: the Catholic Community at St. Mark’s College, the Catholic Centre on the UBC campus. The two Colleges and St. Mark’s Parish recognize that thinking critically and believing devoutly are mutually supportive. They form one Catholic community where faith, reason, and sacrament are at the core of their communal life.

As is appropriate for Catholic institutions, the Colleges take very seriously their role in forming women and men of character who “will strive to improve their workplaces and communities through their commitment to equality, their promotion of social justice and their encouragement of hope.” For example, the Colleges sponsor service trips to the Dene people in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith as well as service learning opportunities at the Door Is Open in the Downtown Eastside and at the L’Arche community in Burnaby. By engaging in these activities, as the St. Mark’s website states, they “bring the richness of our faith and of the Catholic intellectual tradition to every situation in a spirit of openness, respect, civility and cooperation.”(15)

2. Forming Labourers for the Vineyard
While preparing citizens who will contribute to society is essential to the Colleges’ mission, so too is forming students who are intellectually and spiritually ready to serve in our Catholic institutions: in our parishes, schools, health care facilities, and social service agencies. Each College in its own way prepares its graduates to be instruments of the Church’s mission of evangelization, by equipping them with a vision of the human person and the world shaped by the Gospel.

Corpus Christi forms leaders who will enter a wide variety of fields through its courses, social justice initiatives, religious atmosphere, and student activities. For its part, St. Mark’s offers Master’s degrees in Religious Education, Theological Studies, Pastoral Studies and Catholic Educational Leadership. As well, this College provides the theological formation for those in the permanent diaconate program, a contribution to our local Church for which I am especially grateful.

An extraordinarily significant achievement at Colleges which is putting into action the hopes of both groups of founders is the role they have recently taken on in teacher education. From the earliest days down to the present, the need to form Catholic teachers at the college level was foreseen as a priority in all plans. Archbishop Exner, for example, expressed this desire forcefully, and prophetically, shortly after the inauguration of Corpus Christi College: “I am particularly interested in the possibility of having a Catholic education component at Corpus Christi in cooperation with the UBC faculty of education. If this possibility were to become a reality a great void would be filled in our Archdiocese, in our province and beyond.”(16)

    Today, our two Colleges are working together to provide a four-year degree program designed to meet the requirements of future teachers in our schools, whether Catholic or not. The students begin their studies at Corpus Christi and after two years complete their program at St. Mark’s with a BA in Theology and Culture; this, in turn, leads to entrance into UBC’s Faculty of Education. Such a program, which has already seen three cohorts of BA students admitted to the Faculty, is precisely what the founders of both Colleges envisaged, and is a great gift to our local Church and the wider community.

Gazing into the Future
Before concluding, I want to mention a vitally significant step that is being taken which will strengthen Catholic higher education in our Archdiocese and throughout Western Canada.

Despite the distinct history, legal status, programming, and development of Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s, it has long been, and is increasingly, recognized that “the Colleges are stronger together than apart.”(17) Although many of the operations of the Colleges have already been effectively rationalized, I ardently hope that in the very near future the two of them will be institutionally merged. I wholeheartedly support that our two Colleges are currently working actively toward this goal with authorities from both UBC and the provincial government.

What Corpus Christi College has added to Catholic higher education in the Lower Mainland in just twenty years is a great blessing, even nothing short of the miraculous. And there is more soon to come!

Those of you at the breakfast this morning – and a good number of you have faithfully been attending for many years – have every reason to thank the good Lord, and our leader Dr. Peter Meehan, for what has been accomplished at the Colleges because of your prayers and generous support. And, on behalf of the whole Archdiocese of Vancouver, I thank you for being partners and catalysts in building “a living and dynamic expression of the Church’s mission in higher education for the Province of British Columbia.”(18) Well done – indeed, superbly done – good and faithful servants of our Catholic Colleges on the campus of UBC (cf. Mt 25:23).

✢J. Michael Miller, CSB
Archbishop of Vancouver

(1)Cf. Paul Burns, History of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges Staff Retreat 2015, manuscript, p. 1.
     (2)Saint Mark’s College: History and Present Situation; A Report by Rev. James Hanrahan, C.S.B., 1965, manuscript, p. 2.
     (3)Cf. L. K. Shook, Catholic Post-Secondary Education in English-Speaking Canada: A History  (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971), 373-385.
     (4)The group included Mr. Gerald A. Sylvester, Dr. Val George, Dr. John Waller, Judge John B. Varcoe, and Father Donald Neumann.
     (5)Cf. Corpus Christi College Proposal, undated (1998?), p. 2. The Mission Statement which governed the College’s first years tells us why it bears the name “Corpus Christi.” “Centered upon Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the College is a community of Christians striving for integration between faith and all truly human culture, between professional competence and Christian wisdom, and between faith and life” (Corpus Christi College Mission Statement, 2nd revision 10 June 1999).
     (6)See the Brief attached to the letter of John B. Varcoe sent to Archbishop Adam Exner and dated 3 February 1992. The 1994 Founders Document relies very heavily on this Brief.
     (7)Board of Governors, Corpus Christi College Founding Document (13 January 1994; revision 10 June 1999), D (3) (a).
     (8)Board of Governors, Corpus Christi College Founding Document (13 January 1994; revision 10 June 1999), B; cf. Brief, B.
     (9)Board of Governors, Corpus Christi College Founding Document (13 January 1994; revision 10 June 1999), E.
     (10)Letter of Father James Hanrahan, C.S.B. to Archbishop Adam Exner dated 21 April 1994. It is worth noting that in this letter Father Hanrahan expressed his displeasure that St. Mark’s had been left out of the discussion and said so: “If one central feature of Catholicism is integration into the local Church, however, it does seem strange that a proposal such as this could come as far as it has – he wrote – without any contact with the existing Catholic College in the Archdiocese.”
     (11)Cf. Paul Burns, History of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges for Staff Retreat 2015, manuscript, pp 1-2.
     (12)See the Letter of Senator R.J. Perrault to Judge John Varcoe dated 16 January 1998: “I am heartened by the information that Father Hanrahan welcomes the undertaking by Corpus Christi College as a cooperative effort which will further the efforts of St. Mark’s College to achieve its own goals. It is good to know of the close working relationship which will exist between St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College.”
     (13)See two of the recommendations of the Archdiocesan Synod which concluded in 2006: n. 10 - “Encourage and support the  establishment and development of a Catholic university”; and n. 28 - “Support efforts to establish a Catholic teachers’ college.”
     (14)The year before the opening of Corpus Christi, Pope St. John Paul II wrote that faith and reason are “the two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”(Fides et Ratio, 1).
     (15)St. Mark’s College website: -values-2/.
     (16)Letter of Archbishop Adam Exner to Dr. David Sylvester dated 11 October 2002.
     (17)The Catholic Colleges at UBC - Five Year Plan (April 2008), p. 13.
     (18)Be at the Centre, The Community of St. Mark’s at the University of British Columbia, Strategic Plan 2016-2021, p. 11.