Birth of a College
Respected Evangelical University Was Midwife to Catholic Startup in Western Canada
BY STEVE WEATHERBE
June 8-14, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/3/08 at 1:06 PM
When Whitney 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 magisterium.
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 philosophical foundations.”
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 in Houston.
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 now.’”
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 Redeemer.
“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 Catholicism.
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 this.”
Steve Weatherbe is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.
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