Newman Theological College graduates return to classroom as teachers

Now that they are about to graduate, these students become the teachers.

Rev. Michael Bombak, a priest with the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Edmonton, and Brittany Ottens, a teacher at St. Catherine elementary school in Edmonton, are both graduating with master’s degrees from Newman Theological College – and both are returning to teaching in their own ways.

Both Ottens and Father Bombak are among the students who graduate this year from Newman Theological College. The Oct. 17 convocation ceremony, with a Mass celebrated by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, was livestreamed because of COVID-19 protocols.

In the time of COVID-19, “bubbles” have become a reference to social cohorts to protect against the virus spread. In his homily, Archbishop Smith spoke of the mission of NTC graduates to burst other bubbles.

“What I have in mind are the many other kinds of bubbles that have formed around persons or groups long before we ever heard of COVID-19, shields of self-enclosure that separate peoples from one another, or even estrange individuals from the truth of themselves. These bubbles are not externally imposed, but arise from within, formed often by false conceptions of God or misapprehensions as regards the meaning of human existence. Ironically, these bubbles are anything but protective. Rather, they yield easily to the virus of anxiety, and thus collectively become super-spreaders of despair. These are the bubbles that the graduates of Newman Theological College are sent to burst.”

This year, 29 students are graduating from the college. Last year it was 35.

“I’d give it a ‘five-out-of-five.’ It’s a great school,” said Father Bombak, who is graduating with a Master of Theology degree and plans to teach seminarians theology from an Eastern-rite perspective.

“I really enjoyed the work that I was doing there. They were very accommodating as far as being able to pursue what interests me.”

“There was always a festive atmosphere,” Ottens said of her time at Newman Theological College.

“Whether it was celebrating St. Francis of Assisi, St. John Henry Newman, any opportunity for people getting together, there always seemed to be some sort of celebration happening and trying to gather people together. I really fell in love with that,” said Ottens, who will return to the classroom with a Master of Religious Education degree.

“To find like-minded people, who are on a journey of faith, that’s a unique intersection.”

Each of the graduates has own story of how the college shaped their vocation.

For Father Bombak, it cemented his vocation as priest and teacher. Bombak was born in Edmonton and raised alongside his younger sister in a strongly Ukrainian Catholic family.

From a young age he felt a calling to the priesthood, but after graduation from Austin O’Brien High School his father convinced him to take more time for discernment. Bombak graduated from the University of Alberta in 2001 and became a teacher with Edmonton Catholic schools.

Rev. Michael Bombak, seen with his family, will teach courses that approach theology from the Eastern rite.Courtesy of Rev. Michael Bombak

During that time, he volunteered serving soup at the Marian Centre in Edmonton where he felt a calling again to make a greater commitment to his faith. It’s also where he met his future wife Kim.

“I actually took her to the Marian Centre on our second date. It was a gutsy move, but it paid off. She fell in love too,” Bombak laughed.

They married and had kids, but the call to the priesthood became louder. With a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn in tow, the Bombaks moved to Ottawa so he could attend seminary.

Bombak was ordained on Jan. 1, 2016. Shortly thereafter, Bishop David Motiuk of the Edmonton Eparchy tapped him for future studies. Bombak started at Newman Theological College in 2017.

While studying for his degree, Father Bombak was pastor at St. Olga parish in Vermillion and Descent of the Holy Spirit parish in Lloydminster and he taught a Grade 10 Christian Ethics (Religious Studies) class at Holy Rosary high school in Lloydminster. Managing the workload was only possible because “my wife is a saint!”, he said.

Father Bombak, 37, has five children and he is serving with St. Stephen’s Protomartyr Parish in Calgary. As a priest, he said it’s important to maintain a balance between physical, spiritual, and family life.

“Number one is your spiritual life. If you don’t maintain your prayer, if you don’t maintain your spiritual life and your priorities of being a disciple, and an apostle, and then a priest, then all those other things are going to fall apart,” Father Bombak said.

Father Bombak studied at Newman Theological College in person for a year. Then the remainder was through distance learning. The most challenging course? St. John Paul II’s anthropology.

“He’s just a brilliant, brilliant thinker,” Father Bombak said. “It was very difficult to wrap my mind around the depth of the concepts.”

Bombak – whose studies focused on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, as well as family ministry – starts teaching his first course, Marriage and Sexuality in the Christian East, in January, in part online using Zoom.

With the move of Holy Spirit Ukrainian Catholic Seminary from Ottawa to Edmonton, Bishop Motiuk hopes to provide his seminarians with courses that approach theology from the Eastern rite.

“I really enjoy teaching in the classroom. It was a struggle for us financially, and it was a struggle for us time-wise with a young family,” Father Bombak said of his time in seminary. “But it was also a struggle because I love teaching. I left it, but I never really did leave it because I kept being a student, and I’m still teaching.”

Brittany Ottens said her own experience at Catholic schools in Vancouver was so positive, it directed her educational path to Newman Theological College and to the marriage, motherhood and career that followed.

“I knew early on, even before I actually went into the classroom that I knew I wanted to be in administration. I knew I wanted to be a Catholic educational leader,” said Ottens, 31, who was trained as a music teacher. “My favourite part of my job, I learned pretty quickly, was preparing students to sing at Mass.

Brittany Ottens said she fell in love in Edmonton, with her husband John, the city and Newman Theological College.Courtesy of Brittany Ottens

Ottens moved to Edmonton to study at Newman Theological College after watching a YouTube video. “There was little resistance for me. Every step of the way was easy for me to come.”

In 2016, Ottens came to Newman intending to spend her one, required, in-person semester in Edmonton and then completing the remainder of her degree online. However, she soon fell in love with the college community, the city, its people – and her future husband John whom she met on campus.

Ottens returned to Vancouver briefly, but she moved back to Edmonton, to Newman and to a teaching position with Edmonton Catholic schools.

“Without Newman, my life wouldn’t be what it looks like at all,” said Ottens, a teacher at St. Catherine elementary school, and the mother of one son with another baby on the way.

Brittany Ottens said her own Catholic school education inspired her to become a teacher.

Ottens hopes her religious education degree will lead to a position in school administration, a goal that germinated from her personal experience growing up in Catholic schools.

“I recognized that it was a real gift, the teachers that I had imbued in me that sense of faith,” Ottens said. “I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew I wanted to teach in a Catholic school … The school is a place that can really support the faith journey and really form the child. I wanted to recreate the positive aspects of my Catholic education.”

“Music is my specialty. I still take opportunities to integrate my faith into it, whether it’s singing a song or talking about gifts that we have,” she said. “You try to integrate in [faith] as much as you can, no what matter your subject area is.”

This cohort of graduates has been very engaged in the life of the college, said NTC president Jason West.

“That’s very essential to our mission. We’re not just here to provide an excellent body of academic knowledge and communicate that to our students, we always want to be a part of the Church, so that means we have to be in communication with one another,” West said. “You can’t be in communion with people you don’t know.”

Newman Theological College, which has 203 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled this fall, has offered online classes for years, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.

New this year is the Bachelor of Catholic Studies degree program. Eleven seminarians are registered, and the college hopes to recruit more next year for a total of 20 to 25 students in that cohort. The college also plans to hire a full-time philosophy professor for the BCS program, as well as a person in marketing and recruiting to increase the student enrolment.

2020 Awards:

Emmaus Award: Brittany Noelle Theresa Ottens

Saint John Henry Newman Award: Reed W. Miller

Joseph N. MacNeil Outstanding Achievement Award: Kaitlyn A. Baier