Passion and orthodoxy of namesake inspires new students at Newman Theological College

It’s a monumental year for Newman Theological College, which is celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the canonization of its namesake, Blessed John Henry Newman.

And for two new students, their enrolment has also come with some monumental life changes.

Paul Dansereau made the 700-kilometre move from Revelstoke, B.C., to Edmonton with his wife and three children – all under four years old – to study at Newman. He plans to spend the next two years working towards a bachelor’s degree in theology and possibly a master’s degree.

Paul Dansereau

Supporting a family while studying full-time is a daunting task for the 29-year-old. But Dansereau is set to tackle the challenge, driven by his hope of a better future for the Catholic Church.

“Looking at the state of the Church today, the needs of our time, and the call for the new evangelization – nothing fills me with more joy than doing this kind of work” with the Church, he said.

“One of my favourite quotes from [Catholic author] Michael Kelly is that the Church is not something we inherit from previous generations, it’s on loan to us from future generations.

“What we do today is for the Church of the future. What I’m doing today is for the Church of my kids and grandkids.”

As of the 2018/19 winter semester, 282 full-time and part-time students were enrolled at Newman Theological College. The student body is a combination of seminarians, lay people and Catholic teachers studying in the Master of Religious Education program.

A variety of events will be held over the coming year celebrating Blessed John Henry Newman, including a Mass and open house on the English cardinal’s feast day, Oct. 9. Newman will be canonized at the Vatican on Oct. 13. A Newman Theological College alumni reunion is also planned for June 12-13.

Joanne Mahwinney of Wheatley River, P.E.I., is enrolled in the online Master of Theological Studies program. Like Newman, Mahwinney grew up in a different Christian tradition, and the soon-to-be-saint played a pivotal role in her decision to become Catholic.

Blessed John Henry Newman

Her enrolment at Newman Theological College seems particularly providential. It was the University of Prince Edward Island’s annual Blessed John Henry Newman Dinner in Charlottetown that sparked her interest in Catholicism four years ago.

“God’s sense of humour is very evident! I have to thank Newman for where I am now,” said Mahwinney, who was also gifted a book on the 19th-century theologian and cardinal.

“There are so many quotes of his I’ve read so many times because I love the way he worded them.”

At 50, Mahwinney has lived much of her life as a Protestant, a biblical scholar and teacher at the Immanuel Christian School in Charlottetown. Mahwinney’s superiors at the school were supportive of her decision to become a Catholic more than a year ago, and she still teaches there today.

When she graduates with her master’s degree, Mahwinney hopes to immerse herself fully in the faith and to pass her knowledge on to her students.

“I’m amazed at how differently you live your faith and you think your faith as a Catholic,” Mawhinney said, noting the differences in how Protestants and Catholics interpret the Bible, the role of saints and other key theological areas.

“I really want to take the time to think Catholic, to read the Bible through a Catholic lens. And I really liked the sense of orthodoxy I got from Newman. They did not water things down and were committed to teaching the heart of the faith. That’s what I want to learn about.”

Joanne Mawhinney of Wheatley River, P.E.I. is enrolled in the online Master of Theological Studies program.Courtesy of Joanne Mawhinney

As her classes get underway, Mahwinney hopes her studies will apply to her vocation as a teacher “to teach what is true and see their world get so much bigger from it.

“Many people don’t know how to view their faith from a perspective of truth or from a theism that is rational. It’s important for me to learn that for myself and help young people. I want them to know there’s a reason for their faith.”

Paul Dansereau takes his inspiration from Cardinal Newman’s perseverance. In spite of the challenges and persecution he faced, Newman never abandoned his mission to grow and better understand his faith.

“He was a very controversial figure in his own day and age, and there’s so much we can learn from his example today,” Dansereau said.  “It’s pretty cool to be coming to study at Newman right around his canonization.”

Dansereau’s faith development has also come with challenges. He uprooted his family and left behind three jobs in Revelstoke where he worked as a postal worker, kayak guide, and mover for the company he owns with his brother.

He was introduced to Newman Theological College through his local parish. Sister Elaine Biollo, the faith formation director at the Diocese of Nelson, B.C., is a former teacher at Newman.

Dansereau studied online and graduated with a certificate in theology last year. His passion for the Church and his faith only grew through this experience. His faculty adviser, Prof. Stéphane Saulnier, encouraged him to pursue that passion further, even though he was hesitant at first.

“My immediate thought was, I’ve got three kids to raise. There’s no way I can afford to go back to school full-time,” Dansereau said. “But over the course of several months we took it to prayer and the more we thought about it and considered our options, we discovered it was actually feasible and doable. Nothing has filled us with more joy and peace since.”

What will come after his education at Newman Theological College is uncertain, but his dream is to work with a ministry like Dynamic Catholic or Word on Fire, founded by Bishop Robert Barron.

“We’ll see what the Lord has in store. He’s the one who put me on this journey.”

Editor’s note: This article was edited Sept. 6 to better reflect ecumenical understanding