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Father Henry Carr and Catholic education in Canada.

With the "contributions of Fr. Henry Carr" Catholic Insight resumes its history of English-speaking Canadian Catholics. Unlike the previous set of articles on nineteenth-century Canada, all written by one author, Dr. Murray Nicolson, the new series will have a variety of authors. Having seen the English-Canadian Catholic Church move beyond the basics of arrival and survival and the accompanying struggles that came with that, we need to examine different aspects of the Church which, taken together, will give us insight into our own immediate past. We begin with higher education.

Henry Carr was born on January 8, 1880, in Oshawa, Ontario, the eldest of the nine children who made up the Irish immigrant family of William Carr and Margaret Quigley. Henry received his early education in the local separate school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph; from there he went to the Oshawa Collegiate Institute. He was a bright lad, carrying off prizes at the end of each school year, but in his habitual modesty young Henry could not understand why he deserved such recognition. "Somehow at high school I got the reputation of being 'smart.' I honestly don't know why. I prepared my classes carefully, as I remember, but I was not a worker" [1]. Nonetheless he left the Oshawa Collegiate in 1897 with a gold medal for being the top student in Classics (Latin & Greek) and Mathematics. He was a better worker than he wanted to admit.

And work he did. During the summer of 1897 he got a job in a lithographing shop in Toronto putting metal borders on the tops of calendars to help defray expenses of the family at home. He lived with his Uncle Will and Aunt Bridget. Through Mother Dosithea, who had been local superior in the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Oshawa and was now in Toronto, Henry learned that there was a minor teaching post available at St. Michael's College. In return for teaching beginners' German, which he had taken in high school, to a group of students known as the 'Varsity class,' he could have board and room at St. Michael's College and be enrolled himself in the class of Rhetoric. He did not know what Rhetoric was, but it had to be some form of higher learning; the challenge appealed to him. He accepted the job, and the Basilian Fathers in charge of St. Michael's College accepted him. In fact, they shared accommodations: cloister, chapel, dining and recreation rooms. Henry had no intention of becoming a priest, but life with the Basilians in the College suited him in some strange way. He loved to read, to discuss weighty problems with peers and professors, to engage in sports, and yes, to pray, for he was a faithful if not fervent Catholic. At the end of the academic year 1897-98 his 'Varsity' students succeeded brilliantly in their German examination and he himself did rather well in Rhetoric.

His first year at St. Michael's College helped Henry Can to see a little more clearly what kind of world he had entered. The 'Varsity' students were a small group of Catholic boys at St. Michael's who planned to study law, medicine, or dentistry, but to enter the University of Toronto they had to submit to the same examinations as the students graduating from the public collegiates. In other words, they had to have both junior and senior matriculation. They were something of a fringe group as far as St. Michael's College was concerned, because St. Michael's was not a public school or a collegiate: it was a classical college patterned after the 'college classique' in France and Quebec, which gave a sound training in the humanities, especially in Latin and Greek, but did not confer a degree recognized by the Ontario Department of Education or by the University of Toronto. The nineteen-year-old Henry Carr saw at once that St. Michael's students (about 100 at the time) were at a disadvantage if they wanted to pu rsue any vocation other than that of the priesthood. Not that St. Michael's was a seminary, although many of its graduates did go into theology and were ordained priests.

What about all the Catholic boys in the province of Ontario who might want a university education but did not feel themselves called to the priesthood? Would the professions be closed to them forever? As Henry continued to study philosophy, to teach the Varsity students, and to discuss endlessly with his elders, it became clear, at least in his mind, that St. Michael's College would have to revise its whole program of studies to align itself more closely to the public system of education.


Henry himself, little by litfie, came closer to the Basilian Fathers with whom he had learned to live and work happily. In 1900, he entered the Novitiate of the Basilian Fathers, a one-year training school in spirituality, and in 1905 he was ordained a priest, having successfully completed the requirements for a university degree in Classics and the necessary courses in theology for ordination. That so much learning could be telescoped into four years is hard to imagine today, but some things were simpler in those days, and Henry, although he made light of it, was an indefatigable worker.

Young Carr was still concerned with the plight of Catholic students in Catholic schools in Ontario (he was thinking mainly of St. Michael's in Toronto and Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario), none of which had the standards of the public system. They were virtually barred from entrance into the provincial university. Why not change the curriculum of the classical college into the first three years of a public high school? he asked himself. [2] It would be an experiment that could have far-reaching consequences. In 1906 he volunteered to take the first class at St. Michael's and teach all the subjects himself using the same textbooks as those found in the public collegiates. The Basilian authorities, with a few exceptions, were in favour of the idea and gave him a free hand. In two years rather than three, Father Carr brought his experimental class successfully through the senior matriculation. They were qualified to enter the University of Toronto. It became known as the matriculation experiment.

St. Michael's College

With this success at the high school level to his credit, Henry Carr felt encouraged to push for the recognition of St. Michael's as an Arts College in the University of Toronto. It was one thing to have high school graduates of St. Michael's qualified to register in the provincial university, but it was another matter to keep them at St. Michael's while they did their university course, or better still, to have St. Michael's courses recognized as fulfilling the requirements for a university degree.

Here again the pioneer to break new ground was Henry Carr. He summed up the problem this way: "St. Michael's from the beginning in 1852 has always taught the equivalent of an Arts course. The last two years of the Classical Course; that is, Belles-Lettres and Rhetoric, and the two years of philosophy were an Arts course. But they were not registered in the University. They received no credits from the University and received no degrees." [3] Carr had no disdain for the French system of education as given in the "college classique." He admired the sound training it afforded in logic, clarity of thought and expression, order and method (he was later on to call on some of the best scholars in Europe to come to St. Michael's); but he knew for a fact that the youth of Canada in the early twentieth century needed a different approach to fit them for competition in the new world. Could they be St. Michael's students and still graduate with a university degree?

Catholic-Protestant relations

There was also another problem to consider, namely that provincial universities were secular. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, the Church frowned on Catholic students going to secular state universities. The great English convert John Henry Newman had been refused permission by the Church to open a Catholic College at the University of Oxford. He then wanted to develop a Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland, but failed because the bishops there did not grasp the nature of a university. They continued to think in terms of seminaries under direct ecclesiastical supervision, rather than faculties and departments with their own independent internal controls.

In the United States, meanwhile, the tradition of separation of church and state made church colleges on state university campuses an impossibility. This led the Catholic community there to develop independent Catholic colleges, and once this was underway, to insist that Catholics send their sons and daughters and their money to these institutions. Sending students to state universities was frowned upon, indeed not infrequently denounced as a sort of treason to the Catholic cause, exposing young men and women to attacks on their faith. This was based on good evidence because the Protestant intellectual world-- and North America was certainly part of that--was profoundly hostile to Catholicism.

In Canada the situation was different from that in the United States, principally because here there was no "separation of church and state" doctrine, only Protestant hostility, a practical problem but not a constitutional one. Henry Carr does not seem to have been overly concerned. Protestantism itself--being divided against itself--was gradually losing control anyway, being replaced with secularism, which from one point of view seemed to be an improvement over Protestant prejudices and discrimination.

Ontario: University federation

In Ontario, it so happened that the University Act of 1906 was actually in the course of formation while the 'matriculation experiment' was in progress, but St. Michael's College had no place in the Act as an Arts College. Back in 1881, Basilian Father John Reed Teefy had obtained the right of St. Michael's to teach philosophy and history for credit, recognized by the University of Toronto, but not many students had taken advantage of it. Now seemed the time to push for what became known as "federation" of the smaller colleges with the larger provincial university.

Carr had two senior confreres make the request, Fathers Michael V. Kelly and Daniel Cushing. The University responded favourably and St. Michael's was included in the Act as an Arts College federated with the University of Toronto. As a later scholar, Laurence Shook, put it, "This event was an astounding one both politically and ecclesiastically...and it has profoundly affected the history of Catholic education in the whole of English-speaking Canada". [4]

Actually it was only with the first graduating class in 1910 that St. Michael's became regarded as a full-fledged federated Arts College. By that time further benefits had accrued; namely, St. Michael's students could take classes for credit in the sister colleges, also on the University of Toronto campus such as Victoria and Trinity which she herself did not offer. The degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred at the end of the four years by the University of Toronto, not by the colleges. Carr's vision had become a reality; the experiment of federation was an apparent success.

Elsewhere in Canada

Eventually the idea would be applied to Catholic colleges throughout Canada. Assumption College of Windsor and Brescia College in London, Ontario, were the first to follow, in 1919. The idea further influenced the Archbishop of Edmonton, Henry O'Leary, who in 1926 asked Vatican permission to "look after the students on the campus of the University of Alberta." He didn't ask, "May I build a Catholic college on the campus of a secular university?" He foresaw opposition from the Americans and the Canadian Jesuits who had adopted the American model of starting independent institutions--away from provincial universities. No, instead he asked--"May I open a hall to look after the interests of Catholic students already on the university campus." The request was readily granted. It led to the foundation of St. Joseph's College in 1927-8--much to the annoyance of some American Jesuits who sent a delegate to Edmonton to speak against it.

The Edmonton approval, in turn, encouraged the foundation of a chair in Thomistic studies on the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon in 1926, which in 1936 turned into St. Thomas More College federated with the University of Saskatchewan. Later on, others followed in British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and again in Saskatchewan, where the Jesuits finally adopted the Thomas More model in 1966. In almost all of these the example of St. Michael's in Toronto was invoked as a self-explanatory reason.

Mediaeval studies

The story of Henry Carr's educational prowess does not end with the fact of federation at the undergraduate level. After World War I (1914-18) Carr was anxious to have scholars of international repute come to St. Michael's College in Toronto. The idea was to strengthen the staff certainly, especially in philosophy, but also to give students an opportunity to hear and chat with some of the leading Catholic thinkers of the day: Maurice de Wulf from Belgium, Sir Bertram Windle from Britain, Father Gerald Phelan, a native Canadian (graduate of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium), and Professor Etienne Gilson and philosopher Jacques Maritain from France.

To Carr's mind, scholars were more important than buildings. It is perhaps not surprising then that when Etienne Gilson raised the subject, Carr should show immediate interest in the possibility of a centre at St. Michael's College for post-doctoral research in mediaeval studies. Several of the visiting professors were specialists in one discipline or another of the Middle Ages. When elected Superior General of the Basilian Congregation in 1930, Can sent five promising confreres to universities in Europe, and one to Harvard, to get the best training they could in history, canon law, palaeography, vernacular literature, philosophy, theology. They would form the nucleus of the teaching faculty of the new Institute of Mediaeval Studies, which opened in 1929 and was to receive a pontifical charter in 1939. Carr in later years referred to the Institute, by now known as PIMS (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies), as the greatest work of the Basilian Fathers. Typically he refused to take credit for it, but wi thout his vision and perseverance it may never have come into existence.

To write of these three exploits (matriculation, federation, the founding of the PIMS) in a few brief sentences could give one the impression that they were accomplished with relative ease. Such was not the case. The cooperation of Church and State in the matters of matriculation and federation came only after lengthy and difficult negotiations; as for the granting of the papal charter to the Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Carr said it was the fruit of much prayer, penance, and perseverance.

Spiritual director

Much could be said about Henry Carr as an administrator and religious superior, not to mention his expertise in coaching football and hockey. These aspects of the man have been ably treated by Edmund J. McCorkell in his book Henry Carr, Revolutionary. [5]

Carr was also something of a giant in the domain of spiritual direction. He wrote countless letters to priests, sisters, and brothers of religious congregations, sharing his insights into the works of the great spiritual writers, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, correcting false notions of holiness, encouraging anxious souls in their spiritual journey. But apart from a few pamphlets, he wrote nothing for publication. There are no series of books by Carr lining the library shelves. Copious notes have been taken from his lectures by devoted students and typed up, but they defy classification. Carr's mind did not think in terms of ordered categories. He wrote as the thoughts occurred to him, and while each thought could be significant in itself, the sequence leaves the reader in a state of puzzlement. So too, it seems, with his lectures in philosophy and theology. Some of his students thought he was the best professor they ever had; others the worst. All agreed that Carr was provocative, n ow stimulating, now exasperating. He dictated questions, numerous and unconnected, and offered an answer to none of them. It was up to the student to find an answer or at least to try.

Two observations should be made as a possible explanation. First, he attached a lot of importance to friendship, the fruit of kindness and genuine charity. He was a kind man who dealt with others in a kindly fashion. This was especially true in his relationships with non-Catholics. He once said that university federation was only as strong as the friendship and good-will of the participating parties. "Insist on right, and you will get what you deserve-- nothing. But act as a friend and be a friend among friends and the most cumbersome legal machinery will roll smoothly on." [6] Friendly exchange took place wherever Carr was present, and his presence could not go unnoticed.

A second aspect of Carr's life was his genuine piety. He prayed long hours and did penance, especially when faced with difficult situations. In his retreat conferences he stressed the importance of prayer, not as one reads about it in books but as one actually practises it day in and day Out. Some of his random reflections reveal a deep understanding of the presence of God in our every-day world: "An actual acquaintance with an understanding of all the tomes in a philosophical library cannot compare with the knowledge of God actually present as He manifests Himself in the taste of an orange...." [7]

Seeing the Creator in created things all around him formed the basis of Carr's understanding of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas: "Scholars study books. A Thomist studies concrete physical things...this red rose in my hand, this handful of earth, this sea-gull on the lawn before the house. He ponders it. He sees the hand of God working in it". [8]

The presence of Jesus

Jesus Christ was someone real for Father Carr, someone close to him, someone who gave meaning to the expression "the Church" so often used but so seldom understood: "If I try to explain the Church to you, and if I do not bring you face to face with Christ so that you feel He is there before you as He was with His Mother and Joseph in Nazareth; if you do not realize that He is there as truly as other persons who are in the same room with you, people whom you can see and hear and feel and talk to, as truly as he did to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus; if you do not feel His presence like that, I have failed to explain the Church, and you do not understand the Church". [9]

Anyone that conscious of the Divine Presence is bound to have a special effect on all with whom he associates. It is probably the key to the sharpness of Carr's vision, to the gentle manner in which he communicated with others, to the evenness of his temper, and to the joy he felt at each new discovery, be it in a new book, a new acquaintance, or a new event.


Carr's greatest consolation as an educator was the students, Catholic and non-Catholic, to whom he tried to communicate the thrill of learning. It pained him to see students treated as numbers, measured by percentages: "You cannot add human beings, immortal souls. One of them is of infinitely more worth than the school building, and all the money all the teachers earn all their lives". [10] When the University of British Columbia conferred its degree of Doctor of Laws on him in 1955, the citation read as follows:

"Very Rev. Henry Carr, C.S.B., a scholar of outstanding attainment, who throughout a lifetime devoted to the education of Canadian youth has been an inspiring and challenging teacher, a fearless champion of Christian principles, and a leader of great vision and discernment. His qualities of heart and his spirit of real Christian charity have brought him the affectionate esteem of generations of students and of all those who have been associated with him during his illustrious career."

When the present author received his Grade XIII certificate in 1944, and his Honours BA from the University of Toronto in 1949, while being registered at St. Michael's College, he was totally unaware of the role played by Father Henry Carr in the saga of Catholic higher education in Canada. That was a pity. This brief article makes small amends, too little, but maybe not too late. The Catholic Church in Canada has benefited enormously from the life and work of Father Carr; it will remain forever indebted to this great man who was a bold educator of extraordinary vision.

Kevin K. Kirley, C.S.B., a priest in the Congregation of St. Basil, is presently archivist for the Basilian Fathers, Toronto.


(1.) Carr Archives, Memoirs I

(2.) Carr to Scollard, Letter, 21 March 1963.

(3.) Carr to Scollard, Letter, 21 March 1963.

(4.) Laurence K. Shook, C.S.B. The Basilian Teacher, Carr Symposium 1963, p.295

(5.) Edmund J. McCorkell, Henry Carr, Revolutionary, Toronto,

(6.) Carr Symposium, 291, The Basilian Teacher, 1963.

(7.) The Heart of the Matter, II, 20.

(8.) Ibid. II, 21.

(9.) Ibid. VI, 6,7.

(10.) Life and Death, 166, 167.
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Author:Kirley, Kevin K.
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
Previous Article:No! to 'Duplessis orphans' (Canada).
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