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The Sherbrooke Project: Orthodox Theological Education in Quebec, Canada[1]

Fr. Steven Bigham
Chargé de cours
Université de Sherbrooke
Québec Canada

Quebec and Canada. What and where are they? Many people would know that Canada is a country situated in North America. Perhaps they would also know that it is the northern neighbor of the United States. Fewer, however, would know that Quebec is a province, one of ten, within the Canadian confederation. French speakers would probably recognize Quebec as the name of the French-speaking province, but that would possibly be the extent of their knowledge of Canada and Quebec. In summary, then, Canada is a country geographically located in North America above the United States, and Quebec is the French-speaking province, in the northeastern part of the continent.

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Traditional Quebec

The Canada and Quebec of today are the result of several centuries of conflict between France and England for the control of North America. Quebec City-therefore the province of Quebec and Canada in general-was founded as a French colony in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. At the same time, to the south, along the east coast, England was founding its own colonies. For some 150 years, these two world powers, and therefore their colonies, fought for hegemony throughout the world. In North America, this conflict ended when the French ceded Quebec-Canada to the British after the latter’s victory in the French and Indian War, 1756-1763. From then on, the northern tier of North America was a British colony, which after the War of American Independence, 1775-1783, evolved into the present political reality of the Canadian confederation.

After the cession of Canada to the British in 1763, England found itself faced with a new and difficult task: how to govern a vast territory populated with 60,000 French-speaking Catholics? At the time, there were no Englishmen in Canada, and England was obviously English speaking and very Protestant. Imposing English and Protestantism on this newly acquired population, which did not seem terribly interested in such changes, would have required an enormous army, conflict, and great expense. Therefore, the English crown and the French Catholic Church worked out a compromise. After the withdrawal of French political and economic authorities, the Catholic Church was the only institution left that had any authority among the people. The spheres of influence were thus divided. Protestant England would do nothing that touched the Catholic religion without the agreement of the Church, and in return, the Church would encourage the people to accept the new regime. Politics and commerce went to the British and religion to the Canadians, as they had then come to be called.

This situation lasted in general until the 1960’s when la Révolution tranquille, the Quiet Revolution, happened. The early and mid-20th century saw many European colonies around the world gain their political independence, and this movement had an echo in traditional Quebec, which was rural, French-speaking, and very Catholic. Families were very large, people had limited education, and there was little involvement in commerce. Many French-Canadians in Quebec saw this situation as an internal colonization. Since 1763, the majority of Canada had become English speaking in the other provinces, the now French minority being concentrated in Quebec. As a result, vast social, cultural, and political changes were made, and are still going on, to bring the Quebec population into the modern world. This process required that all essential levers of power be in the hands of the French-speaking majority in Quebec whose members now called themselves Québécois. For some, the natural outcome of la Révolution tranquille was the political independence of Quebec. For others, Quebec was far better off inside the Canadian confederation. This question has not yet been finally settled, each option having its advantages and disadvantages.

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Immigrants

Today, Canada is a country of people who have, at various periods, come from somewhere else. The Orthodox story in Canada is thus an immigrant story and began in the late 19th century when the Canadian federal government invited eastern European peoples, essentially farmers, to come populate and work the vast open spaces, the prairies, of western Canada. The first Orthodox to come were Ukrainians, largely from tsarist Russia, who brought with them their Orthodox faith. The first parishes were founded in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, the three prairie provinces. Some of the new arrivals stayed in Quebec, mostly in Montreal, the economic capital of Quebec, and the first parishes date from the beginning of the 20th century: Arab, Greek, and Russian parishes. The rest of the 20th century, up to la Révolution tranquille of the 1960’s, was a continuation of the general pattern in all countries that received immigrants: various Orthodox immigrant groups arrived, started communities and parishes, or integrated into existing ones with the intention of preserving their languages and cultures in their strange, new homeland. Each ethnic group organized itself in near isolation from other Orthodox groups, seeing in their national, Orthodox identity a sufficiently secure base for living and adapting to new conditions.

Another social factor encouraged immigrant groups to continue to live in their ethnic realities, otherwise known as cultural ghettoes, including Orthodox parishes: the immigrants who decided to stay in Quebec were confronted by the reality of what is called the Two Solitudes, that is, the French-English division, which is most felt in Quebec but which is psychologically present everywhere in Canada. Since the two main cultural and linguistic groups were already developing in near isolation from each other, it was much easier for the “cultural communities,” including the Orthodox, to maintain their cultural identities longer than in the rest of North America where one cultural and linguistic group dominated: English Canada and the English-speaking United States. All immigrants settling in Quebec, like those everywhere in the world, wanted to start a new life, better than the one they had left behind in the old country. So naturally, they were sensitive to the political, cultural, and economic realities of their new home. In the traditional Quebec, as noted above, economic power was in the hands of English-speaking Quebecers. It is not surprising then that the newcomers integrated nearly exclusively into the economically dominant, English-speaking minority.

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Orthodox Theological Education

The first, second language of the immigrant population, after their national language, has traditionally been English. Immigrant children, even Catholic ones, went to English schools, often having trouble getting into the French-Catholic system. Up until very recently, the schools were organized along confessional lines, Protestant and Catholic, with each confessional sector having its own English and French schools. At the time, again protecting its members from non-French, non-Catholic influence, the French-Catholic sector catered mainly to the French-Canadian population. The English-Protestant school system more willingly accepted immigrant children thus increasing the number of “English” students. The number of strictly English-speaking students would not have been as numerous if only native English speakers, Canadian and others, had been accepted. Naturally, the children identified themselves as Canadians, meaning English Canadians, not as French Canadians.

It is not surprising then that any Orthodox religious education in the parishes, or more widely in North America, was carried out either in the national language or in English. The Ukrainians established St. Andrew’s College in Winnipeg, Manitoba; the Russians founded St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York; and the Greeks set up Holy Cross Seminary in Boston. For higher theological education, Orthodox students went either to the old country or to Protestant, Catholic, or secular universities in North America or Europe. In the three English-speaking universities of Quebec—McGill and Concordia in Montreal along with Bishops’ in Lennoxville—there may have been individual courses with some Orthodox theological and spiritual content, but there was no organized program of Orthodox studies in these universities. That may seem somewhat strange because the growing number of Orthodox Christians in Quebec, mostly in and around Montreal, would have provided a natural clientele for such a program. However, none emerged.

One of the great changes brought about by la Révolution tranquille involved the educational system, which like the society in general, began a long period of dechristianization and secularization. The French-Catholic section became less and less Catholic; the English-Protestant system had long since ceased to be Protestant in anything but name. This process eventually led, as noted above, to the deconfessionalization of all schools, which became organized along linguistic and not confessional lines. Immigrant children were channeled into the French system so that now French is becoming more and more the first, second language of new immigrant families who speak neither French nor English. This is especially true for the children. No one can say that the social and cultural changes that have taken place in Quebec in the last forty years have been boring. They have often been exhilarating; they have also been the source of social tensions. Nonetheless, in the field of education as in other areas, the old, traditional Quebec disappeared, never to return, and everyone, including the Orthodox Christians who chose to live in Quebec, is necessarily carried along by the current.

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L’Université de Sherbrooke

In this context of social and cultural change, a very strange and unexpected thing happened. Some members of la Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie (Fatep) of l’Univeristé de Sherbrooke (UdeS), a Catholic faculty, wondered if it could be possible to establish a relation with the Orthodox community in Montreal and offer university courses in Orthodox theology. This was a strange and unexpected event for several reasons. First, l’Université de Sherbrooke is a French-speaking, public, provincial institution that grants degrees in all regular subjects. It is surprising, then, that a French, and not an English, university would think of such a project. On the other hand, it is not so surprising because l’Université de Sherbrooke has built up a reputation for innovation, daring, and creativity in university education. Second, the city of Sherbrooke is about a 2.5-hour drive from Montreal, with very few Orthodox Christians and no parishes.

The Orthodox reality is for most inhabitants of Sherbrooke a distant one. The Orthodox communities are concentrated in and around Montreal. Nonetheless, it was in the Fatep that the project was conceived. Contacts were made with some leaders of the Orthodox community in Montreal, and after a series of negotiations, a certificate program was established which grants a recognized university certificate to any student who completes ten undergraduate courses in Orthodox theology, courses taught by Orthodox professors. It was a bold adventure, launched in the late 1990’s and has been progressing ever since. The program has developed beyond the certificate level to include a bachelor’s degree in Orthodox theology, that is, a three-year program, after high school and post-high school, but not university, studies. This program has been integrated into the already existing Catholic bachelor program. The project now also includes masters and doctoral degrees in Orthodox theological studies. Students take the courses, not in the city of Sherbrooke, which would made no sense since the clientele is 2.5 hours away, but in a suburb of Montreal, Longueuil, next to a metro station and the bridges crossing the Saint Lawrence River. It is there the l’Université de Sherbrooke founded a campus extra muros offering its many programs to interested students in the Montreal area. The Orthodox theological courses are given in French and English and have full academic accreditation. Progress is not easy, but it is steady. The experience has been enriching for everyone.

The founders had and have several goals. The first is of course to provide a quality Orthodox theological education for the students, but secondly, they want the project to be an instrument for integrating the Orthodox minority into the society in which it lives: the post Révolution tranquille Quebec. Thirdly, the project wants to continue to open the French majority to new horizons, in this case the Orthodox Christian theological and spiritual tradition. Lastly, the project seeks to make available to people of whatever origin, who are seeking meaning in life, a spiritual tradition that provides answers to some of the basic questions of human existence: Who am I? Why do I exist? What is the meaning of life? What does it all mean? Although the courses are Orthodox in content, any and all are welcome to take them.

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Collateral Activities

The organizers of the project have not been satisfied simply to offer courses, important as that is. They have also tried to branch out into other areas. For the moment, there are four promising extensions of the course work offered by the Fatep.

1. The Colloquia. Every year in the spring, generally before Pascha, there is an all-day colloquium, held on Saturday where invited guests present talks on various themes of interest to all. These colloquia are very well attended, around 100 participants each year, and the presentations are printed and made available for the next colloquium. Such gatherings are a good means of publicity for the university program, as well as an educational tool for those who cannot take courses.

2. The Academy of Toronto. The Fatep has established an official relation with the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Toronto (Ontario) to grant university accreditation to theological courses given at the Academy, established in Toronto for the training of priests in the diocese. The students there must meet the academic requirements of the Fatep, and in exchange, the University grants credits for their work. Again, this relation has proved very rewarding for all participants, and some other groups in Canada have made inquiries about establishing similar agreements. Time will tell.

3. Books. The Fatep has also begun publishing books written by Orthodox professors. Everyone hopes that making such texts available will become another instrument for accomplishing the goals of the project.

4. The International Scene. In June 2006, the Fatep made a big jump onto the international, Orthodox scene by sending a representative to the International Congress of Orthodox Theological Schools, held in Joensuu, Finland. Although the Orthodox project at the Fatep is still in its infancy, everyone wants to create contacts with others who are pursuing the same goals: teaching the ancient Orthodox faith in the modern world.

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The Future of the Sherbrooke Project

Well, the vision is vast, the challenge daunting, and the resources limited, but with God’s help, the future is bright.


Note

[1] First published in Orthodox Tradition and the 21st Century, University of Joensuu Publications in Theology, Joensuu 40, Finland, 2007, pp. 93-97.

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© 2008, Steven Bigham. All rights reserved.
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