Sr. Eileen Schuller

Sr. Eileen Schuller

September 22, 2014
LASHA MORNINGSTAR
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

Two academics with close ties to the local Catholic community have been elected to the Royal Society of Canada.

The appointments of local mental health advocate Austin Mardon and Sister Eileen Schuller, a renowned expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls who teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., were announced Sept. 9.

Schuller was appointed to the society's division of the humanities while Mardon was chosen as "a specially elected fellow" because of his advocacy on behalf of the mentally ill. They were among 90 people across the country elected to the society this year.

Mardon enthused, "I found out about it June 25, my birthday. It's one of my best birthdays I have ever had. I was elected by 75 per cent of the membership."

Afflicted with schizophrenia at age 30, Mardon still managed to earn a doctorate in geography as well as to receive honorary doctorates from the University of Alberta and University of Lethbridge, to be named a member of the Order of Canada and to receive other prestigious awards.

"It's (the Royal Society of Canada) an academic honour," explained Mardon. "It is not just purely advocacy."

He believes the honour will advance his cause because he is the only person in the world elected to a national academy of science who has schizophrenia.

"There might have been people who had it, but did not declare it for obvious reasons – systemic discrimination," he explains.

Mardon disproves the common disparagement against people with schizophrenia, advocating that those afflicted take their prescribed medications and writing articles that reach out to the public.

Given his medical condition, Mardon is considered disabled. But at the moment he is volunteering to work with students working on books discussing post-traumatic stress syndrome, plus a book with his wife Catherine.

The advocate also serves on various committees and volunteers his time. He also currently serves in an unpaid position as assistant adjunct professor with the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre.

RECOGNITION GIVEN

Mardon says admission to the Royal Society "is a sign that someone with schizophrenia can actually get recognized in the hallowed halls of learning: Maybe there is a weather shift in the way people are perceiving mental illness in our society and around the world."

Austin Mardon

Austin Mardon

The Mardons are presently soliciting funds to create a scholarship for disabled persons attending Newman Theological College. Their goal is $10,000 and to date they have collected $1,500.

Schuller, another Edmonton native, was honoured for her work with the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Royal Society said, "One of only a handful of international researchers responsible for the scrolls' initial decipherment and publication, she has been instrumental in educating other scholars and the general public about the scrolls and their significance."

Schuller taught in Halifax for eight years and one of her students was Archbishop Richard Smith. She had been doing her doctorate studies at Harvard in the 1980s and the scrolls had been around for 35 years, but not yet published.

"So there was an initial move to bring in some younger scholars to work on them," explains Schuller. Her doctoral supervisor worked on the scrolls and it was through him that she came to work on the documents.

Schuller had taught at Newman College and St. Joseph's College before that and "I also worked in the diocese in liturgy." She was also a presenter during the Nothing More Beautiful series at St. Joseph's Basilica in 2011.

Now a professor in the department of religious studies at McMaster University, Schuller was asked what she wants people to know about the scrolls.

Her voice rose with enthusiasm, "They are a very important manuscript discovery.

"They opened up Judaism at the time of Jesus in the Second Temple period in a whole new way. We simply have so much information, so much stronger sense of the diversity and complexity, and the developments in thought within Judaism at that time.

"So I was particularly interested in Jewish liturgy as the background to some of the developments in Catholic liturgy that were taking place after Vatican II. I've always worked on texts that have to do with prayers, psalms and liturgy."

URSULINE TRADITION

Schuller attended St. Mary's High School in Edmonton and entered the Ursuline Sisters of Chatham, Ont., in 1964. "The Ursuline tradition has always been devoted to education and they were fine teachers," she remembers.

But what prompted her to become a sister?

There's a long pause and wee sigh.

"I always find that a hard question to answer.

"The heart has its reasons for the heart to speak. There was a sense of call to serve the Church through teaching and study. There has always been a place in the Church that sees this as a ministry."

"It has developed in different ways over my life. I spent about 12 years of my life teaching in a seminary situation in Edmonton and Halifax and felt a great call to that. And I've appreciated working in the public university setting."

McMaster has students of all religious backgrounds and many of them want to explore the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Found in 1946-47, it took until 2009 "to make sure they (the scrolls) were all translated, to prepare and work so people could study this material," says Schuller. The initial understanding completed, "We are really at a whole new scrolls research."

This means branching out into sociological, literary and rhetorical aspects of the scrolls.

At the moment, Schuller is working on a long-term project focusing on a particular text. Called the Thanksgiving Psalms, it has been published and Schuller is now writing a commentary.

NO IMMEDIATE RESULTS

"Scholarship is lonely work: You do not see immediate results," she explains. "Working on a small little piece of a big picture now gives the way Christians and Jews were interacting during the time Judaism was being formed.

"It brings up questions such as where did we come from, why did we part ways, what do we share in common, what is most distinctive of most traditions?

"It's a real blessing to have been able to work on the scrolls," says Schuller. It has given her the opportunity to live in Israel and an appreciation of the Jewish world in which Jesus lived.