Historical dictionary  vol.: 2  let.: O

Ottawa, University

The College of Bytown
At the end of September 1848, at a few paces from the cathedral of Bytown, a modest college, under the patronage of Saint Joseph, opened its doors to about sixty young French-speaking and English-speaking Catholics from the young town which, about twenty years previously, had been established on the banks of the Ottawa river. The foundation was in answer to the hopes of Bishop Patrick Phelan, coadjutor of Kingston, who, in 1844, had invited to Bytown the Oblates who had just arrived in the country three years previously. From that time the superior of the community, Father Adrien Telmon, had pleaded with Bishop de Mazenod, the Founder of the Congregation, to found an educational establishment.


Bytown, St. Joseph's College (AD)

Then, in 1847, an Oblate, Bishop Bruno Guigues, was appointed bishop of the new diocese. He also, was anxious to establish a secondary school on the spot for the young people of the little town and he also wanted to form priests for the needs of the ministry among a population that was just beginning to develop.

That was how the Oblates became committed to a work of education. They were essentially missionaries, but they were also ready to respond to the urgent needs of the Church. The first college was a simple wooden structure and was succeeded in 1852 by a fine building in stone on a site provided by Mr. Théodore Besserer in the developing area of Côte-de-Sable. The Oblates, therefore, found themselves entrusted with the definitive direction of the college and to that was attached the parish of Saint Joseph, which was also in the process of being founded in the same area. The two enterprises were to become one. That is what was laid down in the agreement signed in 1856 between the Bishop of Bytown and Bishop de Mazenod, Superior General of the Oblates. The college would no longer depend on the episcopal corporation and could develop freely under the direction of the Oblates.

The institution was to owe much to the man who was, from 1853 to 1886, the soul of the enterprise as professor and superior, Father Joseph-Henri Tabaret. He was a man of vision and of great heart, with a rare gift of practical sense, and for thirty years - apart from the three years in which he was Provincial in Montreal from 1874 to 1877 – he presided over the development of the college on the material, academic and spiritual levels on which its history was being written.

The number of students increased slowly. There were less than 100 before 1860. There would be more than 200 about 1870 and that would increase to 350 in 1889. Starting with about twelve Oblates in 1868, there would be 22 Oblate professors in 1888. The eight year course, of which the final two years were mainly in philosophy, would be added to by a four-year commercial course and then a course in civil engineering so that the college was able to provide a balanced program of classical and scientific culture as well as a good apprenticeship in the two languages of the country: French and English. As well as that, a new studies plan was adopted in 1874, providing greater space for science and mathematics and encouraging sports as an element of formation. That was to give the institution a special character for the future.

The University Charter
The government of Upper Canada had incorporated the College in 1849. When the name of the town was changed in 1861, it became the College of Ottawa and, in 1867 it obtained its charter raising it to the rank of University from the last Parliament before the Confederation.


University of Ottawa (AD)

The College had its own special identity. It was distinguished by its bilingual teaching and it served a large population of French Canadians as well as English-speaking students. The new capital of the country and the diocese had special needs. Those responsible for the institution believed that central Canada was justified in claiming a university like all the other regions to the south. Daring was needed for humble Ottawa College to claim this privilege. The efforts of the rector, Father Timothy Ryan, ably seconded by Father Joseph Théophile Lavoie, were successful in getting the support of the members of parliament. They presented a petition to the government requesting “for the honour of religion and for the greater benefit of Catholics for whom Ottawa College had been established… all the rights and privileges of universities already existing in the country.”

The legislative assembly introduced the petition of the College on July 3, 1866 and it was seriously discussed during the following weeks. Having been passed by the lower Chamber, it passed on to the legislative Council and was approved on August 1. On August 15 the bill received royal approval.

It was decided immediately to set up some superior faculties but circumstances caused that to be delayed for quite some time. The institution was constantly plagued with financial problems and those responsible were regularly obliged to exert their influence to ensure the necessary subsidies from the various governments. Being Catholic and bilingual and situated as it was in Upper Canada while also serving the part of Lower Canada (Quebec) which surrounded it, the College was always less favoured than other establishments of its type.

The Pontifical University Charter
Bishop Thomas Duhamel, who succeeded Bishop Guigues, was a former student of the College and wanted to follow the policy of Father Tabaret with regard to the future of the institution. His dream was to, eventually, obtain canonical status from the Holy See that would see it through while awaiting recognition from the civil authorities. The necessary steps were taken in that direction during his visit ad limina in 1878. By seeking canonical status for the College, Bishop Duhamel hoped to obtain support for the creation of an ecclesiastical province in eastern Ontario. He also wanted this mark of confidence to be a recognition of the dedication by the Oblates in the diocese since its beginning. Procedures were slowed down by the opposition to the plan of the Archbishop of Quebec and part of the Quebec episcopate. Then an apostolic commissary in the person of Bishop Henri Smulders was sent to Canada with the commission to make a survey of the university situation in the country. Eventually, Ottawa became a metropolitan see in 1886. Another visit ad limina in 1888 saw Bishop Duhamel’s plans come to fruition. On February 5, 1889, Pope Leo XIII issued the apostolic brief Cum Apostolica Sedes creating the Catholic University of Ottawa and, at the same time, Catholic universities were established in Washington and Fribourg

In his letter to Bishop Grandin to tell him the news, the Archbishop of Ottawa had no hesitation in writing: “What better could I obtain from the Holy See in recompense to those devoted Oblate Fathers who have worked so much and so generously in the diocese of Ottawa? In what better way could I give proof of and witness to my confidence. And, as well, is there anything better or more useful that I could have done for my diocese and for my country?”

Surprisingly perhaps, Archbishop Duhamel received no more than moderate support from the Oblate authorities. They realized that the honour conferred upon them would only add to their problems of personnel and financial means which were already quite heavy. Once the deed had been done, the general council remarked in the minutes of its meeting on March 12, 1889, that “since we are unable to avoid this weighty responsibility, the best way to make it lighter is to bear it joyfully and appeal to all the means we have at our disposal.” Father Eugene Antoine, assistant general, wrote: “I trust that all feel honoured now and will not retreat when faced with any sacrifice to be made in living up to the hopes of the Church.”

The inauguration of the Catholic University took place on October 9 and 10, 1889 in the presence of numerous representatives of the civil and church authorities, and former students of the institution. Advantage was taken of the occasion to unveil statues of the two men who were mainly responsible for the ground work of the University of Ottawa: one to Bishop Guigues, near the cathedral, and one to Father Tabaret, in front of the College. It was an occasion to point out what the Pontifical Brief meant for the future of the University of Ottawa.

When the festivities were over, Father Célestin Augier started the edition of the statutes for the new pontifical university. They would be presented by Archbishop Duhamel the following year. On June 12, 1891, the Pope signed the apostolic letters Cum Nobis, which was accompanied by a gift destined to create a chair of theology.

The Ecclesiastical Faculties
The civil charter of 1866 permitted the conferring of degrees in the different disciplines then being taught in the universities of the western world: letters, sciences, law, and medicine. The important addition from the pontifical charter was that it enabled the University of Ottawa to confer degrees also in philosophy, theology and canon law. The philosophy and theology faculties began to function in 1889.

Beginning in 1848, Bishop Guigues had begun a humble seminary in the sacristy of his cathedral. In 1856 he entrusted his future priests to the care of the Oblates who housed them together with a certain number of their scholastics in a new building in the Côte-de-Sable. The future diocesan priests and the Oblates shared the same benches for studies during their four years of formation. However, with the intention of improving the quality of teaching of ecclesiastical subjects and withdrawing the scholastics from the distractions of university life, the latter left the Côte-de-Sable in 1885 and took up residence in Archville (Eastern Ottawa) in a new building which accommodated a community of four priests, seven Brothers and thirty-three students. It was to become the renowned Saint Joseph’s Scholasticate. As for the seminarians, they too went to live in a new wing of the College where they could, like the scholastics, benefit from a climate that was more conducive to prayer and study.

The duplication of courses in philosophy and theology caused by the separation of the two groups of future priests gave rise to the idea of transferring the seminary to a location nearer the scholasticate where, although still living apart, they could come together for the same university courses. It would, however, be a further fifty years before that happened.

Meantime, those responsible for the destiny of the ecclesiastical faculties and who, in turn had their formation in the study houses of France, Ireland or Rome, were eager to promote among their students that love of learning and pursuit of excellence which were to make Ottawa one of the privileged centres of formation for our future missionaries. During this era the professorial staff were specialists in ecclesiastical science of the calibre of Fathers Joseph Mangin, Michel Froc, Jean Duvic, Jean-Antoine Poli, Henri Lacoste, Louis Péruisset, Nicolas Nilles, François Gohier, Albert Antoine. Young Canadian Oblates, formed in Canada or in Rome, were to take their place as time went on. Distinguished among them was Father Jean-Marie-Rodrigue Villeneuve, future Cardinal-Archbishop of Quebec. From 1907 to 1930 his career was that of a young professor, administrator, and formator of future priests who nurtured the idea of developing in the capital city a centre of ecclesiastical studies that would draw students from the religious and diocesan institutes of the region. The apostolic Constitution Deus Scientiarum Dominus of Pius XI, published in 1931, was to provide ecclesiastical faculties with a new impulse towards greater academic quality. That was the source from which the Institute of philosophical studies for lay students was born in 1934 and, in 1937, the interdiocesan university seminary, which was placed under the patronage of Saint Paul.

The year 1935 saw the humble beginnings of a popular education centre of a pastoral character that soon became known as Le Centre catholique. The inspiration came from Father André Guay. The first and most widely known outcome was the little Sunday missal with the title Prions avec l’Église, forerunner to Prions en Église. It was soon to be followed by an English edition, Praying with the Church (Living with Christ). Many initiatives had their origins in the Centre, which became the publishing house Novalis in 1970. It became a laboratory where priests and laity together sought the answers to present-day questions in the Church.

The civil Faculties
The turn of the century brought years of trials for the University. The greatest of these was, without doubt, the fire that completely destroyed the main building of the institute on December 2, 1903. Rebuilding began immediately. The plans were drawn up by A. O. von Herbulis, an American architect, and the first stone was laid on May 24, 1904. Nevertheless, for obvious financial reasons, later extensions did not follow the lines of the majestic structure planned at the beginning.

Another trial was of an institutional nature. It was the long and painful conflict among the Oblates working at the University on the subject of the cultural vocation of the institute. Starting in 1874, the College had become progressively English speaking. This new orientation was not in keeping with the original plans of Bishop Guigues and Father Tabaret. The cause of the French-speaking Oblates, who were then engaged in struggling for recognition of the Francophone status of Ontario, eventually bore fruit and, from 1901 onwards, the French programs began to find their right place. Peace was gradually restored with the establishment of the Saint Peter’s Province whose members were the English-speaking Oblates and of Saint Patrick’s College, which was entrusted to that Province and was exclusively at the service of English-speaking Catholics.

The University had not only ecclesiastical faculties. The secondary school and the Faculty of Arts constituted the normal course of a university student. Following the authorization of the Charter and the needs of the clientele, a whole series of schools and Institutes were added on: music, nursing school, commercial science, library science, psychology, teachers’ training college. Then, in 1945 came the creation of the Faculties of medicine, law, social science, the school of applied science (future science Faculty) and the school of physical education.

At the end of the Second World War, there were more than 3,000 enrolled in the student body, of whom about one thousand were full time. Ten years later these numbers had reached 4,200. The greatest change, however, was in the makeup of these students. It had been a simple college, with, it is true, a few programs of higher studies depending mostly on the ecclesiastical faculties. The University was now becoming the model for the principal Canadian institutions of higher learning. Ambitions that had been there for more than a century were now being realized. Until now they had been but a dream.

The creation of the new University of Ottawa
This development was becoming increasingly expensive. The University had always kept its characteristic of being Catholic and as such it was not eligible for the grants of the government to non-confessional institutes. The Congregation became aware that it could no longer maintain financially the growing needs of an institution of these dimensions. Besides, the impossibility of continuing Oblate replacements of personnel made it advisable to restructure the University entirely. The authorities were eventually obliged to seek an urgent solution to the ruin that threatened the institute. In 1964, tedious negotiations were begun with the provincial government of Ontario.

Since July 1, 1965, the aforementioned “University of Ottawa”, heir to the little College of Bytown, has taken the name of “Saint Paul University”, preserving both the civil Charter and the pontifical charter that governed it until then. At that time the government created a new institution bearing the title of “University of Ottawa” to which Saint Paul University ceded most of its goods and property. The two universities, by mutual consent, became a federated ensemble and shared among them the existing faculties and schools and consider themselves to be complementary to one another. Saint Paul University will retain the ecclesiastical faculties and the new University of Ottawa will have the civil faculties and will be eligible to receive from the government the subsidies necessary for its development.

At the time of receiving the ecclesiastical charter in 1889, the personnel of the University was made up of about forty Fathers, scholastics and Brothers. In 1960 they were about one hundred, with a further forty engaged in the houses of ecclesiastical and Oblate formation in Ottawa.

Between 1848 and 1965, the College of Bytown, which was to become the University of Ottawa, had twenty-five rectors. Here we will mention the names of those who served for longer mandates or who have otherwise left a special mark on the institution: Charles Napoléon Chevalier (1848-1849), first superior; Joseph-Henri Tabaret (1853-1864, 1867-1874, 1877-1886), second “founder” of the University; Timothy Ryan (1864-1867), rector at the time of receiving the civil Charter; James McGuckin (1889-1898), rector at the time of receiving the pontifical Charter; William Murphy (1905-1911); Louis Rhéaume (1915-1921); Gilles Marchand (1930-1936); Joseph Hébert (1936-1942); Philippe Cornellier (1942-1946; Jean-Charles Laframboise (1946-1952); Rodrigue Normandin (1952-1958); Henri Légaré (1958-1964); Roger Guindon (1964-1985), the last Oblate rector of the University before the separation of Saint Paul University and who, in 1965, became rector of the new University of Ottawa until 1985.

Alexandre Taché, o.m.i.

Sources and Bibliography

Cum Apostolica Sedes. Centenary of the pontifical Charter 1889-1989, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, 1989, 85 pp.
Carrière, Gaston, o.m.i., Histoire documentaire de la Congrégation des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Est du Canada, Ottawa, 1957-1975, 12 volumes. See especially Vols. 2 and 6.
Carrière, Gaston, o.m.i., L’Université d’Ottawa (1848-1861), Ottawa, Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1960, 96 pp.
Choquette, Robert, L’Église catholique dans l’Ontario français du dix-neuvième siècle, Ottawa, Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1984, 365 pp.
Guindon, Roger, o.m.i., Coexistence difficile: La dualité linguistique à l’Université d’Ottawa, Ottawa, Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1989- , 3 Vols.
Missions OMI, passim
Simard, Georges, o.m.i., L’Université d’Ottawa, Québec, Imprimerie L’Événement, 1915.
Université d’Ottawa: un héritage pour demain University of Ottawa: A tradition for tomorrow, Ottawa, 1990, 112pp.


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