From the Heart of the Church to Madawaska Valley

Marissa Henry wasn’t sure where she’d go to continue her education once she finished high school.

Having been home schooled, she wasn’t keen on the idea of going off to some nominally Catholic college where, as has often been said, “students go to lose their faith.” Nor did she want to do the long-distance traveling she thought it might take to attend an “uncomplicatedly Catholic” Catholic school.

She ended up finding an answer close to home.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, offered Henry the opportunity to study close to home — in an environment where classical liberal arts are taught in a richly Catholic context.

“The reason students are here is for the faith,” Henry, now in her second year, told the Register.

There are a number of relatively nascent Catholic colleges sprinkled across the United States, but Our Lady Seat Of Wisdom Academy claims to be the first of its kind in Canada.

“While there is a wonderful history of Catholic higher education in Canada,” says Chris Corkery, chairman of the board at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, “there are no small colleges in particular that specifically exist to provide an education that is faithful to the Church, supports the Holy Father and adheres to Ex Corde Ecclesiae.”

The school’s founding was propelled by a small group of individuals who shared in common a strong desire to see a Catholic liberal-arts college formed in the Madawaska Valley. They began their mission with not much more than a belief that God would provide — and that all they needed to teach the truth was, as Corkery puts it, “a few good books, and a few good men and women willing to teach and be taught.”

In 1999, a handful of teachers and six students met in haylofts, basements and living rooms to study history, civilization and Church teachings. The following year, the Diocese of Pembroke offered the use of the former St. Joseph’s convent.

Today Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy has more than 60 full-time and part-time students.

The goal is to remain a small institution, accommodating no more than 150 or so, according to John Paul Meenan, the school’s executive director. Why cap growth?

“So the teachers will know every student,” he says, “and people will feel they belong to the college.”

The hope also is to keep student costs low. Tuition for the 2005-2006 school year is $3,000 Canadian. Room and board is an additional $4,000.

“We want to keep costs at a moderate level so students don’t graduate with a mountain of debt and can’t follow their vocation,” says Meenan. “It is difficult to get married or follow a religious vocation if you are burdened for years.”

“Families that are open to life and have lots of kids find it difficult to come up with a lot of money,” he adds. “We will try to have moderate increases while keeping in mind the needs of the staff to make a basic living.”

Christine Schintgen, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom’s academic dean and chairman of its literature department, points out that the enterprise began with a “meat-and-potatoes” curriculum, incorporating theology, philosophy, history, logic and Latin.

She describes these core disciplines as ranking among those that “any person should have [studied] to consider himself educated from a Catholic perspective.”

The catalog has since expanded to 42 courses, including math, science, literature, languages and social sciences.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom now offers one-, two-, and three-year certificate programs, and is building a fourth-year curriculum. Adding this final year is one of the requirements the academy must meet to receive accreditation. Currently, students wishing to earn a traditional bachelor’s degree must transfer to another institution to complete their studies.

There are also logistical requirements the budding institution has to meet to be designated as a degree-granting institution. For example, accredited schools in Ontario must accumulate a certain amount of capital that is unspoken for by day-to-day expenses.

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, despite its low tuition, runs in the black, thanks to the generosity of the staff, Corkery said. But it now needs more donors and investors — both to meet the Ontario government’s capital requirement and to begin building a small campus.

Yet, for the students attracted to Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a degree sometimes seems an afterthought.

“A degree wasn’t as important to me as what I was learning,” third-year student Laura Vanderhulst says. “I feel prepared for life after college spiritually. I feel so much closer to my faith and what I feel what God wants me to do.”

She is considering whether to transfer to Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, for her fourth year.

For students and teachers, being around like-minded Catholics is a big draw. Schintgen has found it “liberating.”

“Catholicism permeates all subjects, which isn’t to say that the perspective will always be articulated explicitly, but it is a shared ground,” she says. “I don’t have to muzzle myself. You can take for granted that there is a shared heritage.”

This Catholic heritage extends to the greater community of Barry’s Bay, first settled in the mid-to late-19th century by Polish and Irish immigrants. “There still is a very strong, vibrant faith,” says Meenan. “The parish is strong and the bishop is supportive.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for spiritual direction,” he adds. “Madonna House, a Catholic lay apostolate, is down the road. There are a lot of home-schooling families in the area who help with the apostolate and see the need for Catholic education.”

Monta Monaco Hernon writes from La Grange Park, Illinois.


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