Ottawa’s House of Studies

By Sean Hatchard

Local college helps students dig deep within themselves, writes Sean Hatchard.

Cloaked in anonymity, it’s tucked away in a nook in the heart of Centretown.

The elaborate, gray-stoned building stands out among its neighbours. The towering steeple of the Pariosse Saint-Jean-Baptiste looms over the entire facility.

Inside its classrooms, students go through the rigours of philosophy and theology — its two specialties.

It’s one of Ottawa’s least known educational institutions — the Collège Dominicain de philosophie et de théologie.

The college, located on Empress Avenue, has been in Ottawa for more than 100 years.

Over the years, men and women, religious and non-religious students, have experienced a philosophical and theological culture based on the Dominican tradition of teaching, which is deeply rooted in its 13th-Century origins.

Dominican College student-turned professor-turned president Michel Gourgues says the school occupies a unique niche in the Canadian university world.

“There are not many schools which are as small and as specialized as we are in the programs we have,” said Gourgues, 60, president since 1988.

“Even though now the school is not exclusively for Dominicans, we are still known better abroad — because we’re so specialized — than we are known right here in Ottawa.”

The predominantly French-speaking college was modeled from the outset on the traditional “House of Studies” of the Dominicans, a religious order established by Saint Dominic in 1216 in the south of France as an Order of Preachers. At the core of its ministry are research, reflection on faith and teaching.

In 1909, it was given official recognition by the Order as a university-level school serving Canadian Dominicans, who had come to Canada from Paris.

The college was granted a civil university charter by the government of Ontario in 1967, with the right to grant degrees in philosophy and theology. Since then, it has been open to anyone interested in acquiring the academic characteristics of the Dominican Order.

It now houses about 120 Canadian and international students and a teaching staff that includes 14 full-time professors.

Gourgues says the college prides itself on the quality of the academic formation it provides.

“It’s the first priority, the quality of the teaching before any publications and research,” says Gourgues, who graduated from the college in 1971.

That’s a testament Jocelyne Lefebvre can confirm.

The 51-year-old Dominican College students’ association president earned her Bachelor of Theology from the college back in 1973, and after taking her masters in Quebec, she returned to the Ottawa school for her doctorate.

“I knew this college was very demanding of its studies. We work hard, but they give us the help we need,” says Lefebvre, a native of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.

“It’s hard, but after we are done here, there are many benefits. For example, in theology, you have to learn six languages, so after I’m done I can go out and read in Hebrew.”

Maxime Allard is also a familiar face at the college. The 40-year-old philosophy professor, also the school’s registrar, is one of many former students who have returned to the college to teach.

“We have a tradition of the presence of students here, so the professors don’t really have office hours, you’re available to the student all the time,” says Allard, who began lecturing in 1994.

“Students are invited to come for lunch and it’s a community. There isn’t one table for professors and another for students, everyone eats together. So you can joke together or discuss seriously together, so that builds ties along the way. As a professsor, I try to keep on that tradition.”

Allard used an illustration of a colleague to drive home the point.

“There is a 77-year-old teacher, who used to teach me and still teaches here, and he said, ‘I never thought I’d be teaching to people with torn jeans, wearing earrings and dyed hair, but they are intelligent and they are fun,’ ” Allard says.

Allard says that’s the type of rapport that is established between professors and students of all different religions and nationalities.

While the college only receives half of the normal subsidy from the provincial government because it isn’t federated, Allard says the school stands apart from public universities, which are often geared toward job preparation.

“Philosophy doesn’t prepare you too much for jobs, but it prepares you to think, so we’re not oriented directly with jobs or careers,” says Allard, who stresses the philosophy department studies both continental and analytical traditions.

“It’s more to learn how to think and organize your ways of making sense of reality and whatever you do after that is going to help you.

“I have had classmates who have done philosophy and are now lawyers and financial consultants. So the idea is that thinking and organizing your thoughts rationally can come in handy in any type of field you end up in.”

For Lefebvre and the rest of the students, the diversity of the college that includes international students from as far away as Japan, Africa and Latin America, is a real eye opener.

“Every Thursday at noon students come and speak about their personal evolution — where they have come from , where are they going, why are they studying — and that is really nice because the people come from everywhere,” Lefebvre says.

While the college is tucked away in a Centretown cranny, word is spreading fast that this is more than just another school . . . it is a playground experience that approaches life in a way its’ students will not soon forget.