Redeemer Pacific College’s Founding Story
© Thomas D. Hamel, 2014, All Rights Reserved
Photo 2005, at Redeemer Pacific College, Langley BC
Sometime in the late nineteen eighties my wife Diane and I were taking some personal time together. On that particular day we took a drive along Vancouver’s north shore highway and began to take stock of our lives to that point. We were in our mid-thirties and had been blessed by the Lord with a growing young family and a successful small family business. We resolved on that day to “try to give something back,” to Him. We made a plan.
As a result, a few years later we had sold our business and I was ready to earn an education degree so I could teach the faith in the new Catholic high school where our children would soon attend. But where would I study?
Through people associated with the Charismatic Renewal we’d learned about a wonderful Catholic University in Ohio—the University of Steubenville—that encouraged students to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ while they were earning their degree. In the early years of our marriage we had committed our lives to Jesus as a couple, so Steubenville, which under President Father Michael Scanlan was the first in a late 20th century renaissance of Christ-centered Catholic universities, seemed the perfect place for my studies. Providentially, in the summer of 1990 I was able to sell our business for enough money to fund my degree work at Steubenville. But (and this is a recurring theme in this story) Jesus had other plans!
My program at Franciscan University would begin in the fall 1991 term. However, since I was not working from the fall of 1990 onwards I decided to pick up some degree credits at a local college or university starting in January of 1991. I interviewed at a provincially-funded community college and at a public university, but was disappointed with their exclusively secular world views. That’s when I decided to try Trinity Western, an Evangelical Christian University 40 miles west of us in Langley BC.
I began my courses at TWU on a cold and snowy day in January of 1991 at the ripe old age of 40! After attending classes at and touring public universities, the Christian atmosphere at Trinity Western was like coming home. I was struck by the friendliness of the professors, staff and students I met. I was warmly welcomed by the Registrar, Mr. Orville Little; a true gentleman. A kind staff member named Charlotte, who radiated Christ’s love, helped me choose my courses. Then there were the faithful, skilled professors such as John Anonby, Bob Burkinshaw, Barbara Pell, Doug Shantz, Carl Tracie, Phillip Wiebe, Mark Charlton, and many others, all of whom integrated their faith in Christ seamlessly as they taught their subjects with authority.
Most surprising were my fellow students, the majority of whom appeared to be from solid Christian homes or backgrounds. Though each had their individual personality and particular perspective, I had never before experienced such a cohesive community. The school gave the impression of being united in positive purpose—learning for the sake of serving Our Lord and bringing others to Him. One example of this atmosphere of faith: on visits to my friends at public universities and colleges when I was a young man I saw students dragging into class on Monday mornings after a weekend of debauchery. But at TWU on Monday mornings I heard students share stories of bringing other young people to Christ that previous weekend!
Then there were the “Chapels” at TWU. Every school day around 11 a.m. the entire campus would stop: no classes, and the vast majority of students would voluntarily trek over to the gym to worship Jesus Christ, singing hymns of praise; hearing solid Christian teaching from a variety of speakers, some internationally-known and some from the TWU community.
The president of the University, Dr. Neil Snider, would speak once a week at Chapel, and I grew to appreciate his leadership and vision for TWU, having learned that he had taken the school from a small junior college to an academically-excellent university of some 3000 students. I also learned more of the history of the University and how people like English professor Benno Friesen and his wife Marg worked tirelessly from TWU’s beginning in 1962 to extend Christ’s love in practical ways to the first students at the new college (and eventually, my oldest daughter Jennifer married Marg and Benno’s great-nephew Darren!).
One of my clearest recollections of the TWU Chapels in the 1990’s is hearing one of the “Chapel Songs,” entitled “My Tribute (To God be the Glory,)” and how this theme was repeatedly emphasized by Dr. Snider in his talks. The President was quick to reiterate that Trinity Western University was God’s work, not man’s, and breathing in the atmosphere of faith, I had no reason to doubt it.
In short, I felt like I’d fallen into a taste of heaven at Trinity Western and I wondered often during my studies there why we Catholics had not established something like this in South Western BC.
So I decided to forgo Steubenville and complete my education at Trinity Western. And though I eventually earned my degree at Evangelical TWU, the experience furthered my growth as a Catholic follower of Jesus. At TWU I witnessed firsthand the power of students, administration, staff and faculty unified in a common mission to make a positive difference in the world through God’s love. As it says in TWU’s mission statement:
The mission of Trinity Western University, as an arm of the Church, is to develop godly Christian leaders: positive, goal-oriented university graduates with thoroughly Christian minds; growing disciples of Christ who glorify God through fulfilling the Great Commission, serving God and people in the various marketplaces of life.
At TWU I witnessed firsthand an impressive example of the value and power of a group of people striving to follow Christ as “intentional disciples,” always being “ready to give a reason for the hope that we have.” Discipleship in Christ—knowing, loving and serving Him—was, I learned in my history studies at TWU, a Christian imperative deeply embedded in the teaching of the Church from the first century. But true to human nature the fervency of believers went up and down with the ebb and flow of time, giving occasion for the rise of renewal movements such as those led by St. Benedict in the 6th century, the Abbey at Citeaux in the 10th century, and St. Francis of Assisi in the 11th. It seemed to me that a similar latter day renewal was very much alive at this Evangelical institution of higher learning in the countryside just outside of Vancouver, British Columbia.
I soon brought Diane out to TWU so she could share my experience. She attended chapel with me a number of times and took in some classes too. She was sold on TWU! We both agreed that this was the school we wanted our children to attend when they had finished high school.
During my final year I brought our oldest daughter, Jennifer, to TWU with me and she took in some classes and attended chapel as well. She was only in the seventh grade, but she recently told me, “I loved it!”
Of course I still had the joys and responsibilities of a father during the time I was attending University. Diane was the Chair of our local Catholic elementary school board, and she and I were particularly concerned about our children’s education. One day, when I had no classes to attend at TWU, we joined some other Catholic parents who were meeting with our Archbishop, Adam Exner, to discuss the state of Catholic grade school education in the Archdiocese of Vancouver. During our conversation the Archbishop commented that the Church in our area needed an authentically Catholic college to train grade school teachers in a faith-based milieu, the very thought I’d had since experiencing TWU!
A few days later I was back at Trinity Western attending one of Dr. Bob Burkinshaw’s excellent history classes. At the end of the class as Bob and I walked together up the steps from the lower floor of the Block Science building I told him about Archbishop Exner’s desire to have teachers trained at a faithful Catholic college and about my hope that someday Catholics in our area would found a post-secondary institution like Evangelicals have in TWU.
Bob’s reply surprised me. He encouraged me to approach TWU’s administration and propose a partnership between a new Catholic college and Trinity Western. He said that the college could teach liberal arts courses from the Catholic perspective, courses that would count toward the TWU degree. Bob said that he believed that TWU would be ready to entertain such a proposal and that I should spearhead it on the Catholic side.
As I said, I was caught off guard. At the time this took place it had been roughly 475 years since the Reformation, but even though a lot of time had passed there was still by no means complete accord between Catholics and Protestants. So though I was pleasantly surprised at how the staff, students and faculty accepted me, a Catholic, at TWU, I was nonetheless somewhat concerned as to how TWU’s board members and constituents might react to the prospect of a Catholic college being closely associated with their ardently Evangelical University.
So I stayed the course I was on. I graduated from TWU in April of 1995 and began classes in the teacher-training program at a large, very secular University in Vancouver the following fall. But after a short time in the program I decided it was not for me. I had majored in history at TWU and the majority of the courses I chose related to the history of Christianity. I consequently had a growing interest in becoming a theologian specializing in religious history rather than a grade school teacher. So I left the teaching program and started on a Masters in Theology degree from the University of Steubenville by distance education as a first step. The distance program—taking courses at home—was my best option because the time was drawing near for me to re-enter the working world. After all, Diane and I had 4 children and the money I’d made from selling our business was beginning to dwindle.
I began the Masters Program but at the same time did my best to get back into the world of business so I could generate an income. Starting and running business ventures had always come relatively easily to me. My parents had been in business, as had Diane’s, so perhaps that life was nurtured in our families. From the time I was 14 till I turned 39 I’d successfully retailed sewing machines, clothing fabric, carpeting and custom made draperies and blinds. But this time I had trouble getting a new venture up and running. Nothing seemed to work! I got a consortium of business associates together and raised pledges totaling a million dollars in cash and equity to open a McDonalds restaurant, but the venture went nowhere. We then negotiated with Carl’s Junior and Burger King. Again, nothing. I opened a drapery store in a neighboring town and couldn’t get that off the ground. I started a new carpeting outlet in my home town; again without much success. Looking back, it seemed that God had closed the door on any new business enterprise at that time in my life.
When I was a teenager I had learned to install the carpeting sold by my mom and dad’s home furnishings business. Now, at 45 years of age, needing income, I began to install as well as sell the few floor coverings I was able to retail through the drapery business I’d sold to an employee 5 years before. One day I was installing an outdoor carpet on a customer’s apartment balcony. The outdoor glue was very sticky so I had taken my shoes off (in an attempt to preserve my socks), and I was on my hands and knees with glue on my feet and fingers as I coaxed the carpet into place. While I was grateful for the work, I was also a little frustrated with my situation. So being on my knees anyway I decided to pray: “Lord, I’ve been through 4 years of university and here I am, on my knees. I can’t get a business going. I’ve tried it my way, now I’m willing to try your way. Please show me what you want me to do!”
And He did. A few days later, on Thursday, April 18, 1996 (having completely forgotten my balcony prayer), I was at the TWU campus borrowing some library books for my Masters course. On my way out the front door I ran into Dr. Bob Burkinshaw. He asked how I was doing. I updated him on my circumstances, but I also mentioned that I was still concerned about Catholic higher education and was therefore interested in establishing a scholarship for potential Catholic school teachers at TWU.
Bob said “that’s a good idea. But a better idea would be to start a Catholic college here at TWU.” If God, through Bob, was answering my prayer for direction, then I was finally ready to listen. I had been used to taking assignments from Dr. Burkinshaw while I was a student in his classes and he now gave me a new one. I was to write up a proposal to the academic Dean, Dr. Don Page, and Bob would set up a meeting.
I got right to work and completed the proposal in short order, delivered it to Bob, and on April 25th, 1996, one week after the our meeting at the library door, Bob and I were ushered into Don Page’s office. Frankly I wasn’t expecting very much. I was still concerned that something as unusual as this—a Catholic college at an Evangelical University—wouldn’t fly. But again, God had a surprise for me!
Bob and I sat down across from Don, who opened by saying: “Tom, I’ve read your proposal, I like it, and I’ve been waiting to work with Catholics in higher education for a long time.” It turned out that Dr. Page had enjoyed a productive working relationship with a Catholic priest while at the University of Manitoba and he, too, had seen that, for Evangelicals and Catholics, “What unites us is much greater than what divides us.”[i] Furthermore, Dr. Page said he had made Dr. Snider aware of our meeting and had been given the green light to proceed with discussions. Dr. Page told me to “go to it.” He gave me his leave to begin “networking” with Catholic businessmen, educators and clergy to ascertain the level of interest in a new Catholic college associated with TWU.
My first step was to establish a framework for relationship-building with my prospective Catholic partners in this enterprise, a framework that would protect and nurture the vision I had been given for (what might be called) an “Evangelical-Catholic college.” My belief was, and is, that the Catholic faith is at root based on personal faith in Jesus Christ, but I had observed that many of the Catholic colleges and universities in North America had drifted far from their roots in Christ and were held hostage to the skeptical spirit of the age.
This was not just my opinion. I knew many priests who were aware of the need for the renewal of Catholic higher education. One of them, who later became a Bishop, warned me to stay away from some of the Teaching Orders, which, he said, had become more secular than “religious.” I was also told, privately, by a TWU official that the University was well aware of the secularized nature of many “Catholic” universities and their professors and would not want the new Catholic college at TWU to be associated with them.
As I write this in 2014 it is becoming more and more common for Catholic clerical and lay leaders to emphasize the need for Catholic Christians to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ;” surely, the most basic and most evangelical tenet of orthodox Christian belief. For example, in the first year of his pontificate, Pope Francis proclaimed: “Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms” (Sermon for Easter Vigil, 3/30/13). And earlier Francis told an audience of religious leaders that it is essential for every Christian to have a “personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, Son of God,” (3/20/13). This proclamation, using such evangelistic language, is more common to hear in the Catholic world now, but it was not as commonly heard back in 1996.
Of course a personal relationship with our Lord is precisely what Trinity Western seeks to foster and nurture in its students, and it’s what Diane and I, and those parents who were with us in this enterprise, wanted for our students when they attended the new Catholic college. But if I brought this initiative directly to our Catholic leaders, however faithful they might be themselves, without first putting in place the pieces needed to guarantee the school’s “Evangelical-Catholic” character, I would risk a takeover by a dominant group of liberal Catholic educators who were not on board with the renewal that was occurring in places like the University of Steubenville. So before going to our good Archbishop, Adam Exner (himself a supporter of Steubenville), to gain his support, I resolved to bring him a “package” that was solidly “Evangelical Catholic.”
And so I turned to the aforementioned Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS). FUS was the most renowned of the new Catholic “renewal” schools. Having its roots firmly in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, FUS had links to orthodox Protestantism in both its Evangelical and Pentecostal forms. The school’s president, Father Michael Scanlan, was reputed to have “a regular golf date with Charles Colson,” the Nixon aide who took a fall in the Watergate affair and thereafter accepted Christ and became the Evangelical leader who wrote the bestselling autobiography, Born Again.
I knew the details of Scanlan’s work from, for one thing, reading his autobiography, A Portion of My Spirit, in which he outlined his successful struggle to turn the University of Steubenville from a notorious “party school” into a campus that honored Christ. Later, after Father Scanlan and I became friends, he gave me a small tract that he’d written, called “Evangelizing the Catholic Campus.” In it I found a paragraph that summed up the reason why I chose FUS as the Catholic mentor for Redeemer Pacific College. Father Scanlan writes:
An authentically Catholic campus will be an effective instrument of rechristianization if it concentrates on adult conversion. A campus may be said to be Catholic to the degree that it creates an environment that fosters conversion to Christ and his Church. Students must be convinced of the need to own their faith, and not merely rent their parents’. But through the Word of God proclaimed with conviction, being instructed in the faith, and celebrating the sacraments, students are encouraged to encounter the Lord in a personal way, firsthand.
So I wrote a letter to Fr. Scanlan telling him about the wonderful opportunity I’d been given and asked if FUS would partner with RPC in this work. I mailed the letter on May 10th, 1996. Since Father Scanlan was away at the time my letter was forwarded to Dr. Michael Healy, the Academic Dean, for a response. Dr. Healy and I spoke by phone on June 3rd. He told me that FUS was “ready to be of service” and soon after I received a letter from him outlining his University’s commitment to help us build a Catholic college that would function well within the context of Trinity Western University. He also pointed out that FUS was an affiliate member of the largely Evangelical Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) where TWU also has membership. So in a way the two schools were already working together!
Four days later, on June 7th, 1996, I drove to the Archdiocesan offices in Vancouver with a 12 page letter to Archbishop Adam Exner that ended:
In closing, I ask you, Archbishop Exner, to consider the proposal I place before you: a Catholic college that can be economically established due to the generosity of a Christian body that recognizes the need our respective communions have for each other in this increasingly secularized society; a Catholic college guided by the University of Steubenville (a school whose “dynamic orthodoxy” has proved a boon to the Church). . . . I believe that what we have accomplished so far could, with your help, lead to the establishment of a Catholic institution that will have a great impact for Christ on this province for many years to come.
I also asked Archbishop Exner if he would make his direction and advice available to the Redeemer Pacific College Committee and I invited him to consider appointing an Archdiocesan representative to it. Though the college was established and would be administered by lay (non-clergy) Catholics we of course wanted the Archbishop’s direction and approval in matters of faith and morals. In asking for these things and for his blessing we were essentially asking to be recognized as a “Catholic” institution, a designation which cannot be applied to a school without the local Bishop’s consent.
I left the letter with Archbishop Exner’s secretary, and on August 20, 1996 I spoke by phone with the priest who headed up the education portfolio for the Archdiocese. The priest said the Archbishop had decided not to give his official support to our initiative at that time. However, the priest also encouraged us to continue with our efforts, stating that “the Archbishop’s approval is not required for . . . Catholic laypeople [to] start a college. . . . Thomas Aquinas [College] in California did not get the approval of the Archdiocese when they started. But once a college is identified as a Catholic institution, it needs the local bishop to grant his blessing.”[ii]
This response was on the one hand encouraging but on the other hand somewhat disappointing because, for one thing, the Archbishop’s official approval for the initiative at this early stage would have helped our committee raise the funds that would help us carry on. My personal savings were fast disappearing and successful fund-raising would allow me to continue to work on the project full time. Without full time attention the project was likely to stall or die.
But by God’s grace committee-member Jim Marland, himself a Catholic TWU grad, soon found some funding that would supplement my savings and allow me to lead the initiative for another year!
I persevered with Archbishop Exner too, and the Redeemer Pacific College committee met with him a number of times from late 1996 to early 1997. I discovered that Exner had a high regard for Trinity Western University because he had earlier attended lectures by the TWU education department’s Dr. Harro Van Brummelen and was impressed by his approach to Christian pedagogy. Through our meetings Exner learned more about TWU’s capabilities and became more and more interested in having Catholic school teachers trained through the proposed TWU/RPC partnership. As well, Exner had been associated with the Franciscan University of Steubenville over the years and was a strong supporter of their work putting Christ back into Catholic higher education. Our association with FUS was another plus with Archbishop Exner.
On February 12th of 1997, about 8 months after I took my letter to the Archbishop’s office, he announced that he wanted our lay initiative—Redeemer Pacific College—to be officially recognized as a Catholic institution. His requirements for obtaining his official approval were that we present our business plan to him and that we bring him assurances of FUS and TWU’s cooperation with RPC. We fulfilled those requirements within 4 months and on June 13, 1997 Archbishop Exner sent me a letter by which he designated the nascent Redeemer Pacific College an officially approved Catholic institution—the first-ever lay initiative in higher education in the Archdiocese so authorized.
What had been accomplished so far? In less than 14 months after TWU’s Dr. Don Page gave me the University’s “go-ahead” to network with Catholic leaders to gather support for the TWU/RPC partnership, both Franciscan University and the Archdiocese of Vancouver were “in.” (In fact, Franciscan had assigned two first rate theologians, Dr. Stephen Miletic and Dr. Andrew Minto, to assist me in establishing the “dynamic-orthodox” character of RPC. Both had administrative as well as academic experience and we soon became great friends).
With this support in place RPC could now concentrate on completing the details of its agreement with TWU, and then begin preparations to open for students!
But then we hit a major “snag” (that later showed itself to be a huge blessing).
Part of the reason that Archbishop Exner was sold on the RPC/TWU partnership was that there would be no need to build expensive facilities for the new Catholic college—we would simply lease space on TWU’s campus, as both the University and RPC had agreed in early discussions.
However, on December 17th of 1997 I received a phone call from a TWU vice president who asked for a meeting as soon as possible. I met him in the cafeteria where he told me that one of the University’s associated denominational colleges had contacted him and pointed out that a condition of that school’s association was a requirement to construct their own campus on their own property. My TWU friend said he had checked the records and it was true. Therefore, in order to be fair to all parties RPC would have to have its own campus too.
This was quite a blow since the RPC Committee had no money to purchase a property near TWU (it had to be close to Trinity Western because our students would be taking courses at both schools). Nor did RPC have money to purchase or construct a building. And even if we had the money, there was only one property that would fit the bill: a rambling farmhouse on two acres just outside TWU’s entrance road. But the property was not for sale.
Nevertheless it would have been perfect for our small “start-up” College. In my mind I could see how the old farmhouse could be converted to offices and classrooms. It wouldn’t be beautiful, but it would get RPC going. And just maybe, I thought, the Archbishop might be willing to put up the money.
So I surreptitiously took photos of the property—from the vantage point of the University; from the freeway adjacent to the property; and from the roadway fronting the property—and mounted them on a large sheet of poster board. This I took to the Archbishop and his administrators and told them of our new need for a campus. Would Archbishop Exner be interested in buying it? He said he would consider the idea.
On January 30th of 1998 the Archbishop came to the TWU campus and he and I met with president Snider and his administrators. The Archbishop was looking for assurances that TWU was serious about completing the RPC/TWU association agreement as soon as possible. After receiving those assurances, Archbishop Exner took in a Chapel service with the TWU officials and me. On that very day at chapel, by God’s grace, the campus pro-life club made a presentation. Of course this impressed the Archbishop since the pro-life cause is deeply embedded in Church teaching. As well, Archbishop Exner visibly enjoyed the vigorous chapel music (complete with a “Praise and Worship” band—“It’s like a youth rally—every day!” exulted the Archbishop). Finally, as he was leaving the gym where Chapel was held, a young girl who was a Catholic student at TWU ran over to the Archbishop and enthusiastically said how happy she was to see him there and how much she was enjoying her time at TWU! If I had set up this meeting (I hadn’t!) it couldn’t have come at a better time.
3 months later, on April 27th, 1998, the TWU Board of Governors ratified a Board Executive approval (made a few days before) that made the RPC/TWU negotiations toward mutual cooperation official. The Board also reiterated that a separate RPC campus would be a condition of the final agreement.
On September 9th, 1998, after long consideration, Archbishop Exner called me to say that the Archdiocese would purchase the property adjacent to the University for the RPC campus—if we could get the owner to sell (and for a reasonable price).
On September 17th, 1998 our real estate agent presented the owner of the property with an offer. But the owner told her he would not sell, and that he was going “to stay there the rest of his life,” and there was no further response.
At this point I admit that I was the “doubting Thomas” who was “of little faith.” I was sure that was the end of our long journey toward opening a Catholic college at TWU. But again, the Lord had other plans.
On September 29th, 1998 I was sitting at the desk in my office at TWU contemplating what I would do with my life now that the RPC/TWU association was rendered impossible. Just then I received a phone call from one of the officials I’d been dealing with (I don’t remember who) and while I was on the phone my daughter Jennifer, who was now a TWU student and had been visiting with me, heard the fax machine start up. She watched closely as the machine gave birth. As the fax came out I saw a look of shock on her face. She started waving her hands, trying to interrupt my phone call. I didn’t respond immediately so she slapped the fax down on my desk.
It was a newspaper obituary notice for the owner of the property—the man who wouldn’t sell!
It turned out that the property owner had died in a car accident on September 26th, 1998; just 9 days after our real estate agent had visited him! And now we knew that RPC would have a good chance at purchasing the property, because it was now vacant.
But an even bigger surprise was in store for me.
Three days after I received the fax, on October 1, 1998, I was in an orientation meeting for new professors at TWU. I had been attending this series of meetings so I could learn how the University acclimatized its new academic hires. At this particular meeting Dr. Snider was the guest speaker. I sat down with the rest of those attending and then Dr. Page, who led the meetings, said that Dr. Snider was there as “the keeper of the flame” to tell the new professors about the history of Trinity Western University, and to show how God’s providence had cleared the way for the establishment of the university back in the 1960’s.
Then Dr. Snider took the podium and began to tell a story about how, in the mid-twentieth century, the original Trinity Western College committee had approached the farmer who owned the property that the University now occupies and asked if he would sell his holding so a Christian college could be built. The farmer (Dr. Snider continued) refused to sell, but shortly thereafter died of a heart attack, thus clearing the way for Trinity Western to purchase the property and establish western Canada’s premier Christian institution of higher education!
I’ve since learned that TWU’s founding story had been published years earlier in On the Raw Edge of Faith: the Miracle of Trinity Western College, by the school’s first president, Dr. Calvin Hanson. But the first time I’d heard it was sitting in that class three days after I’d learned that the same scenario was playing out for our little Catholic group wanting to occupy the property adjacent to TWU. I was astounded!
As soon as I left the classroom I called Diane on my cell phone to tell her how Dr. Snider had told the new professors how God had used a sad situation—the untimely death of a landowner who wouldn’t sell—to establish something that He, the Creator and Lord of the universe, wanted to happen. It seemed too much of a coincidence that Redeemer Pacific College would now be able to establish a school virtually on the same property by exactly the same means; a landowner who would not sell had died unexpectedly and the College, which couldn’t operate without that property, could now “move forward!”
God’s hand in this may have seemed obvious, but nevertheless I started to feel badly about the RPC project being reborn in this manner. Was I an accessory in a death?
So I called Steve Miletic and Andy Minto, my two Steubenville advisors, who, after all, were theologians and could perhaps explain this, and they assured me that I bore no responsibility, it was simply a matter of God using a bad situation to bring about something good. Nevertheless, it certainly taught me something about God’s immanence. It didn’t take a great leap of faith to believe that He knew what was happening here and He wasn’t averse to turning bad to good when things became humanly impossible.
Shortly after this, on January 18th of 1999, TWU and RPC initialed an agreement that made the College a “Teaching Center” of Trinity Western University. It was an unprecedented agreement whereby an orthodox Catholic college became an integral part of an Evangelical Protestant University (my alma mater, as a matter of fact). Should Catholics and Evangelicals rejoice at this? I believe so. Jesus Himself had prayed to His Father:
My prayer is not for [the Apostles] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23).
Clearly, Christians’ witness to the world will not be fully effective until whatever measure of unity Jesus has in mind for us is achieved. It was satisfying but humbling to be a part of a movement of God that brought serious believers in Jesus a little bit closer to His will for us.
Completing the TWU/RPC agreement was a milestone, but there was still work to be done to get RPC up and running—lots of it! After some hard work by our real estate agent the property at 7720 Glover Road, just outside TWU’s gates, changed hands and was turned over to Redeemer Pacific College on August 9th, 1999.
We had to have the old farmhouse ready for students by our opening day, September 6th, 1999, just 28 days after we took possession of the property. The magnitude of the task can’t be overstated. As of this writing in 2014 I still have plenty of photographs that I took over our first days on the RPC site. Here’s how it was:
There had been at least 4 travel trailers in various states of repair scattered around the site while the deceased owner had been living there. The owner had made some additional income by renting the trailers to TWU students as living quarters. As well, there was a very large teepee on the property next to the road leading into the TWU campus. I had been told by TWU officials that a student once lived in there—quite a feat considering the wet west coast climate! As well, there was a small shack (also rented to students) at the bottom of the property where the Salmon River runs past TWU. The shack boasted an outhouse down by the river.
Only one of the travel trailers remained when RPC took possession of the property, the rest, along with the teepee, having been removed by the owner’s family. The remaining trailer had been unoccupied for about a year and had blackberry bush vines intruding through the windows. The trailer was attached to a large carport situated at the side of the house. The trailer would have to be removed.
The rest of the upper level of the property bore the marks of long-standing use as a storage area for landscaping materials—the rocks and bark mulch that had been piled around the yard. Closer to the river we found an old swimming pool, made useless by the year or so of neglect after the owner died. When we got on the property there was a dead rat floating in it, which gives you an idea of its condition. The pool, which was a health hazard, would have to be removed.
Around the pool stood two structures—a gazebo and the aforementioned shack that had housed a student. Toward the highway side there was a feeding-station for the horses that had roamed the property.
We had also discovered during the purchase process that a large area of the property had been used as a dumping ground for contaminated soil, probably from a foundry of some kind because of the high heavy metals content. Like the pool, this would also have to be removed.
The house itself was 2500 square feet of small rooms which had been progressively added to the original small structure that had been built in the 1920’s. The building would have to be completely renovated to provide space for one medium sized classroom, offices, a chapel and study areas.
RPC had virtually no money to do this work, so how would we turn this unsuitable building and unsightly mess into an institution of higher education in less than a month?
For the renovations and removal of contaminated soil I again turned to Archbishop Exner, who responded generously by providing two carpenters, Peter and John, to do the majority of the interior construction. The Archbishop also fronted the money for the cost of removing the contaminated soil. In fact, he believed so strongly in RPC’s mission and its value to the Archdiocese, especially because we would be training teachers for Catholic schools, that he didn’t charge the college a penny to occupy the property or for the Archdiocese’s contribution to the renovations.[iii]
All the other work to get the College in shape for students was done by my family and friends—no charge! Our longtime Chilliwack friends, the Grimards, Kranabetters, Gillespies, and Abreders; my Mom and Dad Lou and Yvonne; along with my brother Mike and his wife Judy; my sister Pauline and husband Jock Southgate; my four children and many of their friends from St. John Brebeuf High School in Abbotsford, worked long hours with us painting, powerwashing, mowing three foot high lawns; breaking apart the old rental buildings, and on and on. Reg Grimard, for example, single-handedly demolished and filled in the old swimming pool, and a bunch of us tore apart the upstairs bathroom, pulling out the bathtub only to find thousands of empty hazelnut shells behind it stored there by the vermin that occupied the house (I met one in the basement on the first day there. We looked at each other and ran in opposite directions!).
The fact that family and friends played a huge role in the actual physical labor underlines the fact that the quest for an “Evangelical Catholic” college was a grass roots affair. This lay initiative was a good example of the Catholic Church’s teaching on “subsidiarity” which states, “In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, [no] larger society should substitute itself for the initiative and responsibility of individuals and intermediary bodies.”[iv] We parents wanted something better for our children than the secular education offered by those who tax us. The Catechism also teaches that “As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions.”[v]
In fact, many Catholic families eventually benefitted from choosing the TWU/RPC partnership for higher education, and it’s my intention that some of their stories will be told at a later date. However, suffice to say that in our case all four of our children attended Redeemer Pacific and Trinity Western and their lives were changed profoundly and positively. Please indulge me as I briefly tell you what God has done in their lives.
First, our oldest daughter, Jennifer, graduated from TWU with a History degree in 2001 and then a BA Honors in History in 2003. She then went on to graduate with an MA in History from the University of Saskatchewan in 2009. Jen was an intern to President Snider for a year prior to her MA work and was involved in the development of the University’s Laurentian Center in Ottawa. She worked for me in recruiting and publicity at Redeemer Pacific College for a number of years and now works in publicity for Signal Hill, a Christian organization that advocates for human rights—especially for the unborn. Jen married Darren Friesen, a History major whom she met at TWU, and we now have 3 wonderful grandchildren: Benno, Cate and John!
Our second daughter, Emily, after earning a 2 year diploma in Performing Arts in 2002 at the Rosedbud School of the Arts in Alberta, topped that up with a year of Theater and Music at TWU along with some courses at RPC. Emily is now working in our hometown and is a prolific and successful actress and producer with the Chilliwack Players Guild. Emily is happily married to the love of her life, Matthew!
Our son Jeff graduated from TWU in 2008 in Honors History. He graduated from the law school at the University of Western Ontario in 2012 and is now practicing in Vancouver. Jeff is also a Captain in the Canadian Armed Forces. He married Michaela, a TWU-RPC student who graduated in 2010 with a Science Degree and went on to do a Masters in Neuroscience at Western!
Our youngest, Laura, graduated from TWU in 2009 in General Studies followed by a B.Ed from Trinity Western in 2010. Laura was part of a Chapel Band at TWU, and attended Trinity alongside her future husband, Robbie, a TWU Human Kinetics grad. Robbie graduated with a Masters of Physiotherapy from the University of Alberta in 2013 and is now a physiotherapist in Calgary. And Laura has the job of her dreams teaching faith in Christ at a large Catholic High School in that city. Moreover, she is also the school’s Chaplain!
My wife Diane loves TWU. So much so that she went to work there in 2003 as the Administrative Assistant for Alumni and Parent Relations and then became Parent Relations Coordinator in 2004. Diane made her mark at TWU, becoming the originator of the famous “Mom Hug” at the request of many students lonely for home, especially around exam time!
My family’s stories are just a few of the many accounts of lives with a dedication to Jesus and the service of His creation that began at Redeemer Pacific College and Trinity Western University. These stories couldn’t have been written if this unique partnership had not happened. And it’s fitting that some of the beneficiaries of God’s provision through this partnership were there at the beginning, literally clearing away the debris and building the future.
Due in part to all this hard work, but due primarily to God’s grace, the new Catholic college at Trinity Western University opened on September 9th, 1999, just before the turn of the century. I named this College Redeemer Pacific because it was my intention to give all the honor and glory to our Savior, Jesus Christ, and it was my hope that every student, teacher and administrator associated with the College would come to know him personally and deeply.
It’s all God’s grace, but He works through people too. I wish to thank Dr. Neil Snider, Dr. Don Page, Dr. Bob Burkinshaw and all the other faithful servants of Jesus who made our Catholic/Evangelical cooperation possible from the TWU side. Dr. Snider was a wise source of good advice and solid support for my work during some of the more challenging days in my presidency at RPC. Furthermore, I have been told by trusted sources that Dr. Snider more than once stood up for the RPC-TWU partnership as TWU deliberated on the subject. I am grateful to Dr. Snider, Dr. Page and Dr. Burkinshaw—and of course Archbishop Exner—for listening to God’s Holy Spirit with openness to this “new thing” He was doing at the turn of the last century (c.f. Isaiah 43:19).
I had 12 grace-filled years as president of RPC. It was an amazing time, watching God work in the lives of the students through those years, and of course it was also a time that was full of unexpected challenges. But those are other stories that must wait for the book I hope our Lord grants me the time to write. For all of those years at RPC and TWU I give thanks, quoting Dr. Snider:
“To God be the Glory!”
[i] Pope John XXIII, quoted by John Paul II & Pope Francis.
[ii] RPC diary June 6th 1996 to October 28th 1997.doc
[iii] Archbishop Exner retired in early 2004. 7 years later, on December 9th, 2010, RPC purchased the Glover Rd property and building from the Archdiocese at market value. The Most Rev Adam Exner was a great supporter of RPC: even though the college was not owned or administered by the Archdiocese, during his term of office the College also received annual “seed money” funding (which ceased shortly after his retirement).
[iv] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1894.
[v] Ibid 2229