BARRY'S BAY, Ontario — When Naomi Hiroe first heard that Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy was starting up in Barry's Bay, Ontario, she thought, “It's a nice idea, but it's not for me.”
But a visit to the school, which adheres to the Church's magisterium and focuses on the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, changed her mind.
The 19-year-old, originally from British Columbia, visited when students were meeting in a living room during the academy's first pilot project. But that was enough to sell her. Now the school, whose teachers are still working without pay, has made it through its first year and has two buildings for dorms and classes.
“When I came to visit I got hooked,” said Hiroe, 19. “It was so different. Absolutely nowhere else would offer the same sort of stuff. Catholic thought permeates each class. I found out I knew nothing about my faith and coming here will help me from getting wacky ideas.”
The academy, about four hours from Toronto, hopes to become an accredited two- or four-year college. That could take years. Currently, it is focusing on giving students a one-year foundational program to teach them the truths of the Catholic Faith, said John Paul Meenan, the academy's director. The program provides a solid introduction to higher education, and allows students to prepare for a wide variety of careers or to transfer to other colleges, he said.
“We want our students to be able to go on to other universities and be grounded in the intellectual treasures of the Church,” Meenan said. “We can do quite a bit in a year.”
Meenan said the academy was founded to offer an alternative to secularized education that ignores Church teaching, whether at secular or Catholic schools.
Canada has a special need for the academy, added Meenan. Many families want their children to receive this kind of education, but have to send them to schools in the United States — like Christendom or Thomas Aquinas College — to get it.
The academy now makes it possible to provide this kind of education without the extra personal and financial difficulties of educating students outside their own country, he said.
All staff members take an oath of allegiance to the magisterium and the academy is founded on the guidelines set forth by Pope John Paul II in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) — the 1990 apostolic constitution for higher education.
The school received the support of Bishop Brendan O'Brien of the local Diocese of Pembroke.
“While this is a private initiative and not a project of the Diocese of Pembroke,” the bishop wrote in a letter last year, “I am sure that the potential students and benefactors would want to know that I am supportive of your goal to provide young people with a greater exposure to Christian culture.”
The staff is hoping a new bishop will be as supportive as Bishop O'Brien, who was recently transferred to another diocese. Pembroke is awaiting the appointment of a new bishop.
Starting the academy has been a lesson in faith, staff members said.
What started out as a pilot project in the living rooms of a group of parishioners of Holy Canadian Martyrs Church in Combermere, Ontario, has turned into an academy that now has classrooms, a library and dorm rooms. Six students now attend — three male and three female. Next year, 15 are expected.
The academy offers numerous classes, spiritual direction, weekly hikes and occasional pilgrimages. Nine courses are offered, including logic, Christian doctrine, ecclesiastical Latin, Church history, Scripture and apologetics and an introduction to magisterial thought. Tuition, room and board is $6,000 annually.
The academy's teachers have backgrounds in theology, philosophy, economics and other disciplines. Meenan completed degrees in Thomistic philosophy and theology at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto. The dean of students, Scott Nicholson, studied at Cornell University in New York, receiving degrees in economics. He also studied at the Oratory with Meenan. Another professor studied with the Legionaries of Christ for eight years earning a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, and another graduated from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
Even though the college isn't offering degrees, parents said it is a good starting point.
Diana Vanderhulst from Meaford, Ontario, sent her daughter Jill to the school to “continue what we had started at home,” she said.
A homeschooler, Vanderhulst said Canada needs a place like Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. “She is getting a good education and finding out more about the faith. If she goes on to a secular college she will have a good foundation and be able to defend her faith,” Vanderhulst said.
Students said their faith has grown during their time at the academy.
Hiroe, who attended public schools, said her prayer life has increased and she now attends daily Mass — “a foreign idea before.” The chapel is only five minutes from campus.
Rob Koechl, 20, attended Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., but has now chosen the academy.
“This was the only good Catholic college in Ontario,” he said. He also attends daily Mass and said he is learning a great deal about the Catechism.
While the school is off to a good start, more still needs to be done, Meenan said. Money is always a problem and the staff can't exist for long on their current compensation — room and board, with a stipend of $150 Canadian per month.
Professors also live in the same building as students. The male students are at one end of the hall and the male professors at the other. Female students are in a separate house on campus.
The importance of starting a new school, however, is worth the long hours and no pay, according to the staff.
Dean of students Scott Nicholson said he is pleased to see the students learning. “And they are advancing in the spiritual life,” he added.
He said the academy's low enrollment allows for a family atmosphere.
Basilian Father Leonard Kennedy, who is on the academy's board of directors, said the college is starting out like many others in the past.
“Just seeing young people doing something like this is inspiring,” Father Kennedy said. “All colleges started out on a shoestring and didn't have enough money. What we are seeing here is a wonderful formation that they won't get elsewhere.”