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“They were part of our lives” – A History of The Basilians retold by Dr. Michael Higgins

October 23, 2023

Dr. Michael W .Higgins, the inaugural Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought at the University of St. Michael’s College, has had a long relationship with the Basilians.

The Congregation of St. Basil with its charism of Education and Evangelization has served as an essential part of the Canadian educational fabric. 

“They have been an important foundational piece in the history of Catholic higher education in the country. It’s very safe to say that without the Basilians we would not have had the kind of Catholic Higher Education that we have today.”

Since 1971, Dr. Higgins has produced 4 books on Thomas Merton, 2 radio series, and a television program, earning him the reputation of an internationally respected Merton scholar. 

“But that’s not what I set out to do! I set out to be an internationally unknown expert on the Victorian period. I do a lot of teaching of theology but I’m not a theologian; I’m actually an English professor.”

That was a natural course of direction for Dr. Higgins because he had been a seminarian in the 1960s with the Scarborough Foreign Mission Society.

“Catholicism is in my blood. It was not surprising that I would find an area where I could bring the  religious sensibility into contact with the aesthetic sensibility, because art, religion and literature don’t come together beautifully in Catholicism.”

This holistic, interdisciplinary approach made him the perfect candidate for employment at St. Michael’s College School in 1974, where he began teaching English and religious studies, and where his relationship with the Basilians matured.

Many Basilians from the school became friends, in particular Father Norm Fitzpatrick, Father Gord Kennedy, Father Tony Kelly, and Father Jim Carruthers.

“Among many things, my work at St. Michael’s College School with the Basilians allowed me to pursue my doctoral work, teach theology at St. Michael’s College, Erindale College and St. Paul University in Ottawa, write for many publications and at the same time teach at the school. It was a privileged relationship and I am grateful to this day..”

Dr Higgins described his relationship with the Basilians as “a long history of creative fraternity”. Throughout the many years he had worked, and was friends with the Basilians, their intellectual curiosity, flexibility and openness contributed to his career and to his intellectual and spiritual growth.

“They weren’t terrified by the new, they had a good sense of tradition, but they realize that sometimes traditional ways of doing things have to change. Some of them were visionaries. They had a view of the importance of education that transcended the curriculum and some of them actually developed their own mode of being a teacher, a pastoral presence, and a mentor. Father Bob MacKinnon – a drama teacher at St. Michael’s College School–and I would go to the theater in Toronto all the time. For him, this was as important as teaching.”

On a more intimate note, Dr. Higgins shared his account of the Basilians outside the classroom and the parish halls.

“They were our friends. You never had a sense that they were outside of your experience, you know? They would come over for dinner with us – my wife and I. They spent time with one of our children when they were very young. They were part of our lives.”

Dr. Higgins is hopeful that this relationship will continue on with the present day Basilians: “I’m very glad to be back and to see the Basilian spirit live on in Father Kevin Storey and the General Council, as well as the Lay Associates.”

In a similar light, Dr. Higgins expressed  his view regarding the new  Basilian-Jesuit collaboration. Dr Higgins’s extensive study of Catholicism led to the study of the Jesuits, co-authoring The Jesuit Mystique in 1995, which was published in Canada, England, and the United States, and became a CBC IDEAS series..

“The  ability of the Congregation of St. Basil  to foster community, combined with the Jesuit commitment to scholarship, have combined to create a partnership that is fruitful and sustainable. The resilience of the two organizations speaks to a special moment in Catholic higher education.”

As an academic, Dr. Higgins retired from Administration, but not from the intellectual life, alternating between different roles and responsibilities. But at the heart of his profession, Dr. Higgins’ religious background allows him to see his work as more than a profession; it is a vocation.

“My faith contributes to my vocation as a Catholic educator, and in many ways, as you have seen, the Basilians have nurtured it and allowed it to thrive. “

Dr. Higgins is currently in Rome chronicling the Synod on Synodality and working on a book that details his important historical event.

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