A blessed event

A blessed event McGill University

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McGill Reporter
November 2, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 05
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A blessed event

Ceremonies celebrating the endowment of chairs aren't that unusual an occurrence at McGill. But the inauguration of the Kennedy Smith Chair in Catholic Studies on Monday was a little out of the ordinary.

The organ music at the beginning (courtesy of music professor John Grew), the procession of dignitaries in academic gowns, the bagpiper drawing the ceremony to a close, the presence of a full-fledged cardinal to give the undertaking his blessing -- say what you will about Catholics, they know how to do things in style.

The chair, established by Leon and Mary Elizabeth Podles to honour the memory of her father, will be filled initially by English professor David Williams, an expert on, amongst other things, the Bible's influence on literature.

The chair's creation is accompanied by the establishment of a new Catholic studies program that will begin offering an 18-credit minor next September. The chair will be largely responsible for developing the program.

"It's difficult to think of an institution that has had a more profound effect on our history, our philosophy, our art, our music, than the Roman Catholic Church," notes Dean of Arts Carman Miller.

Miller says the program will steer away from the teaching of Catholic theology and will instead focus on the various ways in which Catholic thought has influenced the world.

He adds that the new program is a welcome addition to a faculty that already offers well-respected programs in Islamic studies and Jewish studies.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte heralded the creation of the program and the chair as "a marvellous idea for this prestigious university.

"This is welcome news in Montreal's Catholic community. This will provide Catholics and non-Catholics alike with the chance to study and reflect upon the history, philosophy and literature of the Church."

Turcotte hoped the program might contribute to "the ongoing process of breaking down barriers and building links" between Catholics, other Christians and members of different faiths, as people from different religious traditions get to know one another better. "May God bless this effort."

History professor John Zucchi played a key role in setting up both the program and the chair. Zucchi is the president of the Newman Association of Montreal, an organization that was established in 1950 largely to assist Catholic students at McGill in spiritual, educational and recreational matters.

The Newman Centre at McGill is involved in academic activities connected to Roman Catholicism such as courses in the Faculty of Education that deal with Catholicism. It also serves as home for McGill's Roman Catholic chaplaincy, provides counselling to students and oversees McGill's annual Newman Lecture.

The centre organized a conference on fatherhood two years ago. An ad for the conference attracted the attention of Leon Podles.

"It was the first time we ever advertised in the U.S.," says Zucchi. That ad ended up paying big dividends.

Podles attended the conference and was impressed. He was less impressed with the centre's quarters, which were badly in need of repairs. To the delight of the centre's staff, Podles offered to make a substantial gift towards improving the building, creating a relationship that would ultimately lead to the Kennedy Smith Chair.

Once discussions began getting serious about establishing a chair, Podles said he wanted it to be located in the Faculty of Arts. "He be in a central faculty and he liked the idea of it being in arts, in the heart of the University," says Zucchi.

A unique aspect of the chair is that it will be a rotating one with new scholars occupying it every two years or so.

Miller relishes the idea of using the chair to attract prominent academics from different disciplines to McGill. The chair might go to a scholar in art history for a few years, then to someone in sociology or anthropology.

"It's an opportunity for us to bring in an interesting variety of people with different ways of looking at Catholic studies."

The first chair-holder, David Williams, is very much a McGill insider. Miller says that was deliberate.

"Very few people know McGill better than David Williams," says Miller of the former president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, a former chair of the Department of English for more than 10 years and a longtime member of Senate.

"In the early stages of the program, we felt it was important to have a leader in place who would be very familiar with the University and its processes," says Miller.

Zucchi notes that McGill already has many existing courses containing content related to Catholicism and they will be incorporated into the program. Williams will teach the program's introductory course on Catholicism. Zucchi says seven new courses have been created for the program. Students will be able to take classes in subjects such as Catholic Intellectual Tradition, Catholicism and Moral Culture and Canadian Religious History.

Kennedy Smith, the man the chair is named after, was the chief executive officer and chair of Ben Venue Laboratories, a major developer of the freeze-drying technique and one of the first makers of penicillin in North America.

His son Edward spoke about his father at the inauguration for the chair, noting that Kennedy Smith had been raised "in a very Protestant milieu" in Pennsylvania "where the word Catholic was probably not heard unless it was bracketed by 'crooked Irish' on one side and 'Democratic politician' on the other."

Smith went on to marry a devout Catholic and to raise six "very argumentative" Catholic children, among them, Mary Elizabeth. Smith held his own during years of friendly philosophical jousting with the members of his family over religious issues. Then he shocked the lot of them by secretly taking instruction from a priest and converting to Catholicism, a move intended as a surprise for his 50th wedding anniversary.

Edward Smith says he doesn't really know what prompted his father to take that decision. The mystery of faith is also a central component of Roman Catholic tradition. One more item for the Kennedy Smith Chair in Roman Catholic Studies to tackle in the years to come.

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