WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Deacon Matthew Durham wants to help people through the process of dying.
When Matthew Morden Durham was working as assistant to the mayor of Windsor, Ont., he was on top of the world. The money was good and he had a great social network.
So when he decided to leave that world to join a religious order, his acquaintances and friends were in total shock. “Are you giving all of this up to join religious life?’ they asked. “What are you doing?”
Durham was simply following his heart.
“My answer to them was, ‘God is calling me. I know you may not understand this but this is where God is calling me and I ask you to support me.’” They eventually did.
Durham joined the Basilian Fathers in 2005 and was ordained a transitional deacon at St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton March 18. He expects to be ordained to the priesthood Aug. 6 in Windsor, Ont., at Assumption Church, the parish in which he grew up and where his vocation was fostered.
For the past 18 months, Durham, 27, has been serving as campus minister at St. Joseph’s University College, one of several institutions run by the Basilian order across Canada.
As campus minister, Durham is responsible for faith development and faith formation among University of Alberta students.
“What I always saw within the Basilians was that they were continuously spreading the love of God and while they were doing it, they were joyful,” he said in an interview. “I also saw in them compassionate men and so I wanted to be like these men.”
Born and raised in Windsor, Durham was the third of four children in a devout Catholic family. His father was a company superintendent; his mother is the business manager of his home parish.
“My family has been very supportive of my vocation; in a very gentle and I would say almost discreet way. But they’ve always been encouraging and supportive of my decision to enter religious life and priesthood.”
From an early age, Durham felt drawn to the Basilian priests who ran his parish.
“At about five years old I began serving as an altar boy,” he recalled. “My family was very close to the Basilian Fathers and so, on a regular basis, we would have Basilians at our dinner table. The Basilian Fathers educated my siblings, so we were very close.”
Probably at around age 11, young Matthew began to feel a call to the priesthood but he didn’t understand what that meant. “You are 11 years old; what do you know?”
But the call was always there, growing within. The young boy continued to be involved in the parish, assisting with catechesis and youth groups.
The Basilians, for their part, continued to nourish his vocation. “They were always encouraging. Have you considered this way of life, of serving God and his people in this way?” they would ask Matthew. “It was a gentle nourishing but it was always there.
“Then they let me think on this; they let me ponder. They encouraged me to study what I love and I did.”
Durham completed a degree in fine arts and also studied philosophy at the University of Windsor.
During that time he also worked as assistant to the mayor of Windsor and did fundraising for a hospice in the city.
“I was enjoying what I was doing but I still had this call (within me), this internal longing for both religious life and the priesthood.”
In 2004 Durham took the first step in his vocation, joining the Basilians as an associate. The following year, 2005-06, he did his novitiate just outside of Houston, Texas. Then he returned to Canada to begin his theological studies at the Toronto School of Theology in St. Michael’s College.
Durham moved to St. Joseph’s College a year-and-a-half ago to do a placement in campus ministry.
After his ordination, he will continue doing campus ministry at St. Joe’s as well as lecturing in theology for undergraduate students.
In the near future, Durham would like to begin studies in hospital administration as a way to fulfill his dream to offer top spiritual care to those near death.
“Part of my possible journey could lead me to a centre of excellence where I’m then teaching physicians and nurses about the dying process,” he says. “How can we be compassionate men and women of God in these places of health care?”
This is not new for Durham. As a young man, he served as a spiritual care provider in the hospice for which he fundraised. Later, in his master’s thesis, he wrote about palliative care and theology and on the role of Christian hope in the dying process.
He was pushed further in the spiritual care field by the death of two of his closest mentors: a Basilian priest and a laywoman. “I journeyed with them during that time very closely. So they did pass away and then in my theological studies I began to be drawn (further) to this area.”
Dying is really a spiritual thing, Durham maintains. “We think of it very clinically and we think this is something for physicians and nurses and social workers. But dying is such an intimate, spiritual thing that I would like to continue looking at that area.”