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Redeemer Pacific College is a new Catholic college in Canada — with a twist. By Steve Weatherbe.
BY STEVE WEATHERBE
Agassiz toured Europe with the women’s soccer team from Trinity Western
University, she not only provided standout defense for the evangelical
university based in Langley, British Columbia. Like her teammates, she also
testified to church and school audiences about her faith in Jesus Christ — but
with a difference.
Whitney spoke from her heart too,
but from her Catholic heart, and since many audiences were Catholic, that was
fine with TWU.
In fact, Whitney is the product of a
unique relationship Trinity Western, with nearly 4,000 students, has with
Redeemer Pacific College, a much younger and 40-student school committed to
teaching the liberal arts from a Catholic perspective, in conformity with the
The principal push behind Redeemer
Pacific, which is 10 years old this year, and its happy connection with Trinity
is Tom Hamel. After 20 years in the carpet and drapery business, Hamel sold the
company to realize a longtime dream of teaching his faith in Catholic schools.
It was this quest that led to Pacific Redeemer.
“I was wary of local public
universities because so many of my friends from 20 years before had gone to
them, had partied, done dope and lost their faith,” he says.
He decided that Franciscan
University of Steubenville was the right place to take his training. But
needing some high school credits, he applied first to local public colleges
where the reaction to his plans was hostile. “A guidance counselor told me I
had been brainwashed. When I said I had a desire to go to Steubenville, she
said, “‘Is that your desire, or your Church’s desire?’”
So he thought of Trinity Western,
which had the advantage of being local and Christian.
The downside was that Hamel was
still harboring some stereotypes about fundamentalists teaching every subject
straight from the King James Bible.
But Hamel remembers many of his high
school friends who were evangelical and how “on fire for Jesus they were.” He
never wanted to leave the Catholic Church, but he had always seen “a need for
Catholics to develop more of a personal relationship with Jesus.”
The great thing about Steubenville,
he decided after a visit, was that it combined “evangelical fervor and Catholic
After his makeup year at Trinity,
Hamel drove all the way to the gates of the Ohio school, with his wife, four
children and worldly possessions, before deciding to turn around and complete
his degree at the evangelical school.
“I had found them to be great people
with an openness to Catholic thought among students and professors,” says
Hamel. And when his Trinity Western classmates came back from their weekends,
he’d “hear about how so-and-so had accepted Jesus.”
As Hamel, now in his early 40s, made
his way through his undergraduate degree at Trinity, the idea began taking
shape in his mind that a similar school was needed for Catholics. When, in
1996, he broached the idea to his favorite instructor, history professor Robert
Burkinshaw, the latter warned that, as Trinity itself had found, “starting a
college was expensive.”
“So he suggested I approach TWU to
start a college under its wing and told me he’d get me in to see the vice
president,” Hamel says. In three days he was talking to the vice president and the president, Neil
Snider, who said he had wanted to work with Catholics in higher education for
some time. Later Hamel would learn that Snider’s neighbor was Gerry St.
Germain, a prominent Catholic politician and prolife advocate, with whom he had
many discussions about Catholic-Evangelical co-operation.
Hamel next approached Vancouver
Archbishop Adam Exner, who swiftly endorsed the idea and provided seed money.
Hamel got advice from his erstwhile alma mater in Steubenville and from Basilian
Father Leonard Kennedy, who had been president of the University of St. Thomas
Trinity Western won the support of
its own board and senate to proceed and talks began in earnest.
Burkinshaw remembers, in the midst
of negotiations between Redeemer Pacific’s steering committee and Trinity
Western’s board, attending a lecture by Mark Noll, the American Evangelical
religious historian who recently moved from Wheaton University to Notre Dame.
“Noll wondered when Catholics and evangelicals were going together at the level
of higher education. I wanted to put up my hand and say: ‘It’s happening right
Burkinshaw also recalls giving a
lecture on the history of Catholic-Protestant interactions in Canada, which, as
in the U.S., involved considerable intolerance and violence on both fronts.
“There were riots against Catholics in Toronto and against Protestants in
Montreal,” says Burkinshaw, “but the interesting thing was the reaction of the
students. They wondered why everyone had been so nasty towards each other.”
In the second part of the lecture,
Burkinshaw describes why things have changed. “In the latter part of the 20th
century, Catholics and evangelicals weren’t on different ends of the
spectrum. They were crowded together at the same end, with everyone else at the
other end.” Moral issues like abortion provided common cause and made the
common ground seem larger.
“Redeemer Pacific and Trinity
Western realized that we could work together on the basis of the 95% of our
beliefs we held in common,” says Burkinshaw.
The agreement worked out was that
Redeemer would be a “teaching center” of Trinity Western, providing courses in
philosophy and theology that Trinity lacked, or courses Trinity already
offered, but from a Catholic perspective. Redeemer students would take the bulk
of their courses at and get their degree from Trinity.
A hurdle arose as plans for the
school’s opening in 1998 were being finalized. An obscure Trinity bylaw
required any distinctly denominational college to have its own campus. A piece
of adjoining farmland seemed ideal but the owner adamantly refused to sell. But
he died suddenly, and his heirs proved willing. Archbishop Exner bought the
land and Redeemer now operates out of the refurbished farmhouse.
Trinity now offers, through
Redeemer, a minor in Catholic studies and certificates in Catholic theology or
liberal arts. And thanks to a long battle Trinity fought with the public school
establishment all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, it now graduates
teachers qualified to teach in public schools. With a certificate in education
from Redeemer, they can also teach religion in Catholic schools.
‘Handle With Charity’
Trinity’s current president,
Jonathan Raymond, says he was delighted to discover the university’s Catholic
component when he signed on. He is an avid reader of First Things, the journal of religion and
public affairs edited by Father Richard Neuhaus, a great advocate of
evangelical and Catholic cooperation.
“We have 95%-98% of our beliefs in
common,” Raymond says. “And we handle what’s left with charity.”
Redeemer students participate in
daily chapel at Trinity, and TWU’s evangelical students take classes at
“There is a movement within
Evangelicalism, especially among the young, towards liturgy, symbolism and
iconography,” says Raymond. This has made that generation more open to
As for his own generation on the
board and faculty of Trinity, he credits the Second Vatican Council and its
openness to Protestantism, and the Holy Spirit to the way they welcomed
Redeemer so warmly. “I’m very pleased at the spirit of freedom and affirmation
that exists between us.”
Whitney Agassiz, who is just
finishing a five-month stint as Redeemer Pacific’s admissions counselor, says
that if Trinity is like a community, Redeemer is a family.
Characterizing herself as a typical
lukewarm Catholic, she took her first classes at Redeemer to meet the
requirements of the second scholarship, but ended up majoring in its
Christianity and Culture program.
“What I learned here is how to be a
Christian, how to let Christ lead my life,” she says. “I think a lot of
Catholics struggle with how to have a personal relationship with Christ, but
Redeemer Pacific and Trinity have created a space where we can learn how to do
Steve Weatherbe is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.