To those who met Athol Murray for the first time, it would have been easy to mistake him for a steelworker or a farmer. He was, instead, a priest, one of the most remarkable Canada has ever known. With the Catholic Church and other churches beset with the scandal that was the residential school system, it is good to remind ourselves that there were some who, given charge of young lives, emboldened and enriched them.
It was said that Père Murray had “the mind of a Greek scholar, the vocabulary of a dock worker, and the soul of a saint.” Working with the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, he established Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan in 1927 as a place where young men and women, Catholic and non-Catholic, could come together for both learning and intensive training in competitive sports. Especially hockey, the priest’s favourite sport. The Notre Dame Hounds hockey team has a storied history, with at least 14 Hounds making it to the NHL.
Other alumni included Olympic Gold Medallist Delaney Collins, Order of Canada recipients Dr. Olive Dickason, Gerald Maier, Dr. Ray Rajotte, and Brian Feleskey, and current Minister of Defence Jason Kenney.
Père Murray was driven by the philosophy that “Every human life is insignificant unless you yourself make it great.” It was a point of view that his students took to heart, in class and in their adult lives.
The College was located on the windswept prairie with no running water and no central heat. Drinking water had to be hauled from ten miles away. Students were offered plain food, and they worked hard. They did not live in luxury. And they knew that even when they were in trouble for some reason, they were deeply loved.
When the Great Depression threatened to prevent many from coming to Notre Dame College because their parents couldn’t afford the $18 per month fee, Père Murray began to accept food for payment. He accepted students, not on the basis of their ability to pay, but on their desire for a good education. And the education was first-rate, earning for the college an affiliation with the University of Ottawa in 1933.
Notre Dame students also learned something about faith. Athol Murray had himself come to faith by chance, happening to pick up a ten cent copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions. One sentence in particular inspired him, when Augustine said “To him who does what in him lies, God will not deny His grace.” Athol Murray lived by that precept, depending on God to deliver all that was needed to keep his College alive. Instructors taught for their room and board.
Miracles of provision followed simple prayer. Once, a businessman asked Père Murray where the money for provisions would come from. “We pray,” said the priest. The businessman scoffed at him – and then went home and sent a cheque for $200, more than the amount needed.
Lives were changed. Hope was given. God was glorified. What a legacy!
- Lead photo: Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, Wilcox, Saskatchewan: Google Street View