Kenneth Munro is the author of St. Joseph's College-University of Alberta.


Kenneth Munro is the author of St. Joseph's College-University of Alberta.

December 7, 2015

When Henry Joseph O'Leary became the second archbishop of Edmonton in 1920, he dreamed of building a Catholic college that would educate students in the Christian intellectual tradition.

He originally wanted a stand-alone Catholic university but ended up settling for a college affiliated with the University of Alberta. The arrangement was similar to the one St. Michael's College had achieved 20 years earlier with the University of Toronto.

That's how St. Joseph's College at the U of A came to be in 1927. Administered by the Basilian Fathers since 1963, the college teaches undergraduate courses in applied ethics, philosophy, religious education and theology. In total, 29 theology courses and nine philosophy courses taught at St. Joe's are listed for credit in the U of A's faculty of arts.

According to Kenneth Munro, author of the recently-published St. Joseph's College: University of Alberta, O'Leary soon realized his hope for a stand-alone Catholic university was not practical.

For one, University of Alberta president Henry Marshall Tory and Alberta Premier Alexander Rutherford both opposed the idea. They wanted only one non-sectarian university to serve the population of Alberta.

Tory believed small sectarian colleges were unable to offer the scientific education required in the 20th century and favoured Christian denominational colleges affiliated with state universities. He believed the Church could inject goodness into the life of a state university.

With this in mind, the U of A began to offer land for Church colleges on campus in 1910. The Methodists and Presbyterians quickly took advantage of the offer.

Bishop Emile Legal, O'Leary's predecessor, was excited about the possibility but was unable to get things rolling. He invited the French Jesuits, who set up a college across the river and taught in French, thus failing to gain affiliation.


O'Leary realized a Catholic college affiliated with the U of A and built on the university grounds was the most viable option. He wanted the Basilians to operate it but when this congregation was unable to come, he turned to the Christian Brothers of La Salle, who managed the college from 1926 until 1963.

At more than 500 pages, Munro's book provides an extensive, detailed history of the college. However, he is careful to give readers valuable information about all characters involved and some of the political struggles.

We learn, for example, that as O'Leary negotiated with the U of A, there was a heated debate in the Catholic hierarchy over what type of colleges and universities they should support - stand-alone institutions or affiliated Catholic colleges on existing university campuses.

Father George Dale, with strong support from the Jesuits and several bishops, proposed establishing one stand-alone Catholic college for Western Canada and rejected Catholic colleges affiliated with secular institutions.

O'Leary disagreed and went ahead with his University of Alberta project, eventually striking a deal that would see St. Joseph's affiliated with the university. That agreement wasn't ideal but was practical, the archbishop conceded.

Munro is well qualified to write the history of St. Joseph's College. He is a professor emeritus at the U of A, where he taught for 40 years. He was academic dean of St. Joseph's during his last four years of active service at the university.

In April 2013, Father Terry Kersch, current president of the college, and Father Don McLeod asked Munro if he knew of somebody who could write the history of St. Joseph's College.

Since Munro was nearly a year into retirement and searching for a project, he offered to take on the job. Kersch and McLeod accepted his offer.

The main point of the book, Munro says, is to tell the story of the man at the centre of the college's origins - Archbishop O'Leary.

"Here we have a bishop who had a vision for a men's and women's college on a secular campus, which would provide sound academics, a residence for both men and women, and a community in which all Catholics on campus could congregate."

O'Leary built the college with a grant from the Carnegie Foundation in the U.S. However, the Christian Brothers who ran the college only had teaching experience in primary and secondary schools, not at the university level.


Munro said rather than focusing on academics, the brothers emphasized the residence in order to nurture and develop Catholic young men to be leaders in the community and in their Christian faith. "By de-emphasising their academic mission largely because of their innate deficiencies, they left the college with their initial ambition unfulfilled."

Munro said the brothers did their best, but did not have the means to teach at the university level and lacked the reputation to secure a respected place for Catholic scholarship at the U of A.

Pressure from members of the Catholic community led to the ousting of the Christian Brothers in 1963. They were replaced with the Basilians, who have strengthened the academic dimension of St. Joseph's to the point it is now a leader in teaching the Catholic intellectual tradition.


One project incomplete when the college opened its doors in 1927 was the residence. O'Leary could only find sufficient funds to build a male residence.

"In the last 90 years several attempts have been made to build a women's residence to complete Archbishop O'Leary's dream, " writes Munro. "Under the guidance of Archbishop Richard Smith, finally, Archbishop's O'Leary's dream has been realized." A women's residence next to the college was opened this fall.

St. Joseph's College, the book, can be purchased at the college or from Friesen Press Bookstore.