Over the last week or two I have felt a certain desire or perhaps responsibility to write about my former place of employ, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, in Barry's Bay. I hesitated to do so as I felt that people would read it more as a revelation of the author than of the truth he was wishing - or trying, more like it - to convey. The catalyst of these comments is a post on Catholic Chapter House written by a former student of mine. Read it here.
Most of all what I feel obliges me to write is its terrible fiscal state. Now, a financial predicament is something an institution such as OLSWA is as desperate to hide as it is to reveal. "How will people take this news?" they ask. "Will they abandon us as a lost cause or will they dig deeper and save us?" What if it were the Toronto Maple Leafs? What if you found out that they were going bankrupt - would you help them with a donation or scoff, saying that such a useless 'company' deserves its fate? Back in Nova Scotia we found ourselves asking this very question all the time - about the coal industry in Cape Breton, the fishing industry, etc. The U.S. was asking itself this about GMC quite recently, and I'm sure still is.
What if OLSWA can't make it after all this time? It is entering it's twelfth year. Shouldn't it be well on its way to financial security, if it has made it this far? I have been involved in a lot of 'church things' over the years and so know how precariously they are financially by nature. When I started there five years ago they had sixty some students, and was just beginning its 'PhD experiment' so as to lay the ground work for provincial accreditation - I was one of the three hired that year (one of these currently remains). All was optimism then. Five years later, the expected enrolment of sixty-some students spells financial disaster from which it may not recuperate. Why? Mainly it is because its staff is much larger now. Another factor lies in the possibility that its donors have used up their reserves.
Very recently it had peaked at nearly 100 students, if you factor in the part-timers. An anticipated drop of 20 students from last year to this year means a loss of tuition revenue of more than $100,000. That is the average salary - I hate to say it - of 3 full-time OLSWA employees. Such a drop in revenue would never have been noticed at any of my alma maters. But perhaps this drop is but a blip on the screen, a statistical anomoly? Yet is it prudent to think so? Personally, I would operate if it were so, but that is just me. I like to take chances. All church institutions need to in order to survive their many seasons of lean.
But is it worth it?
That's the key question. Knowing the OLSWA staff as I do, scarcely any of them would ever doubt it was worth it. I was also one of those who would never question it. I'm writing now to think about it out loud. The blogger I referred to above doesn't seem to doubt it. Are her reasons strong ones? Are they decisive? Let's look beyond the all-too tempting 'superlative' ethos of 'the most Catholic' and 'only school that...' for a few moments.
What is OLSWA doing that makes it 'most' and 'best' and 'only'? The blogger mentioned two things: Catholicity and the liberal arts. I was taught that giving two reasons is often a sign that just one isn't strong enough in itself. For instance, to the question, why is divorce wrong, I might simply answer 'because it hurts children.' A strong reason. But what if the divorcing couple has no children? A weak reason. So, is OLSWA great because it is the best at Catholicism or because it is the best at the liberal arts, or because of both? The answer any half-aware supporter of OLSWA would give you is that it provides good education in an environment that supports and promotes the Catholic Faith - and hardly any other post-secondary institution in Canada can be said to do that. Okay, so no superlatives in that and I definitely find that a more palatable expression.
So, if it is good at this thing and this thing is important - and rare - does it not stand to reason that it should be supported? Seems like a open and shut case. However, one thing that working with Maryvale taught me very quickly is that environment is an extremely important component in economics. Location, location, location. OLSWA was placed where it was and kept where it was, not because of financial reasons, but because of the importance of quiet and seclusion - monastic virtues - in the educational process. There is something to be said for this. Yet is this seclusion what is killing the school? How many more students would be drawn to it were it in Toronto or Ottawa, etc? Is a school properly Catholic when and only when it is in the woods? No one I know would ever argue this. Well, it can't think of anyone who would argue this. Yes, the Madawaska Valley environment is spiritually nourishing. I have been nourished by it, and regret leaving it. I don't deny that. But cannot a good Catholic college exist in a city? Better a city college than no college at all? I love Barry's Bay and being there changed me for the better. Living and serving the poor in Halifax also changed me for the better...
You'll notice that I haven't nit-picked at OLSWA's ability to do what it claims it does - provide excellent academics faithful to the Magisterium of the Church. That strikes as beside the point, since it wants to do this very badly. The question is, should you support it so as to makes this a possibility, or to ensure that it remains doing this? I would never give money to the University of St. Paul's in Ottawa since it has no desire to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church. OLSWA does desire this and does desire to be academically excellent. Is that not enough? Will, of course, is never enough. Knowledge is also required: you must know what excellence in academics is and what Catholicism is. Money plus good intentions will get you part way there.
I am not asking these questions because I have it all figured out. I am asking them because I care about Catholic education. Is OLSWA special? Is it essential? Is it the only way? If so, then we must pour everything into it. Nothing he has done in the last few years seems to suggest to me that its bishop tends to think so.
I invite your thoughts.