Why would a Texan move her family up to Calgary to become a president of a Catholic university?
I get asked this a lot so it’s probably about time I write down my story.
It was early last year, in January of 2022, that, out of the blue, I received a Facebook personal message from a friend of mine saying that she was helping a university with a search for their next president. She explained in her message that, because it was a Catholic and liberal arts & sciences university, she couldn’t think of anyone better than me to apply for the job. Would I be willing to at least talk over the possibility with her?
Well, I have to admit, that even though Jennie and I worked together quite closely for a number of years at Baylor University, and I trusted her, I was not eager to respond. After all, I had been living in Waco almost 18 years, I was enjoying my work there serving students, my parents lived there, we had a great community of friends, and both of my sons were attending Baylor. Nevertheless, I kept thinking of the message. Combining my Catholic faith, what I had learned about working with students for 18 years, and my love of the liberal arts & sciences … I had to admit that I was intrigued.
I consulted with my husband of 27 years, Terry, and he started researching the opportunity. As an American family that had never traveled to Canada, we were embarrassingly ignorant of where Calgary—even Alberta—was located. It turned out that one of Terry’s close friends had spent 25 years working up here and he quickly noted that Calgary is conveniently located quite close to the Rocky Mountains. We adore the Rocky Mountains and had spent nearly every summer camping for weeks in the Rockies in Southern Colorado. Once I finally agreed to speak to my friend Jennie about the opportunity, things happened quite quickly. By the next evening, I learned that the search committee wanted to interview me. From there, I started learning a lot about St. Mary’s University in Calgary, Alberta.
As I was preparing for the interview and only six days before I was to travel to Canada for the first time for the interview process, my son Jordan happened to meet a Ukrainian deacon from Ottawa, Fr. Deacon Andrew Bennett, at daily mass on Baylor’s campus. They struck up a conversation and it turns out that Fr. Dcn. Bennett knows Calgary quite well and even knows St. Mary’s University. When I made that connection, my first question to him was, “What is the Catholic community like in Calgary?” After all, if I was going to consider moving my family from Texas to Alberta, I knew that we would need to find a strong faith community to be a part of. Fr. Dcn. Bennett responded emphatically that, if he didn’t live in Ottawa where he does his research and work, he would live in Calgary precisely because he had found a vibrant community of Catholic faith. He then introduced me, via email. to a number of families and a priest in Calgary. The outpouring of warm welcomes I received made me feel as though this might be a place we could consider home. We even made contact with a couple of families where one or both of the spouses was from Texas!
After a grueling day of presentations and interviews at St. Mary’s, I called my husband late at night to share that Jennie had just let me know that the Board of Governors intended to extend an offer for the job as president in the coming days, he did not pause. His immediate response was, “Well, it’s obvious that this is what God wants us to do.” And, while I typically take a lot of time to make decisions—often wavering some as I consider options—I too felt confident immediately that this was the right next step for our family. I have never wavered from that confidence. And, that’s the answer to the question: I felt called.
Two parts to my calling: Community and Confidence
The past year has been a wonderful whirlwind of activity for me, the family, and, yes, St. Mary’s University. Welcoming me as their first female and fourth president and vice chancellor has been an adventure for the university for certain! I have been embraced with open arms on campus and across the Calgary Catholic community. While some days, I feel that my American personality can overwhelm some Canadians, I admire how the St. Mary’s community has adopted a courageous mindset, looking boldly into the future, embracing innovative approaches and continuing to grow deep roots in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.
When I was asked to write something for Faithfully, I knew that I wanted to offer two thoughts: one centered around community and the other centered around confidence.
First, I want to express gratitude to you, the faithful of the Diocese of Calgary, for the warm embrace that you have given me and my family. So many of you have invited our family into your homes, you have prayed for us, we have celebrated mass together, shared meals, and more. You have embraced us as members of this community. And, in a strange way, just as Fr. Dcn. Andrew testified to what a great Catholic community there is in Calgary, the Catholic community in Calgary feels like something that I have been called to work to enhance in my job as president.
St. Mary’s University is located in southeast Calgary, off McLeod Trail at Bannister Road. If you have been in the area, you have likely noticed one of the oldest structures in Calgary, a tall red Water Tower that lights up at night. As an institution that was founded in 1986 by laypeople in Calgary, St. Mary’s has a unique position in all of Canada. It is one of the only independent (that is, stand-alone) Catholic universities in all of Canada. You may have noticed that most universities in Canada are not faith affiliated in any way. And, those universities that are Catholic are typically federated or affiliated with a large public research university. Think of St. Joseph’s College that is on the campus of the University of Alberta of St. Michael’s College in relation to the University of Toronto.
Just like our Water Tower shines at night, our unique position offers us tremendous opportunity to be a shining beacon for Catholic (and non-Catholic) students and community members all over Canada. It seems to me that Canada very much needs an authentic and flourishing independent Catholic university that offers quality degree programs, preparing students for future careers and to live a life worth living. I would love to invite you to be a part of the St. Mary’s University community. We want our campus to become a gathering place for Catholics across the city – a place for the young and old—to gather for fellowship and intellectual formation.
This year, we have a lecture series entitled Inspiration Unplugged. Be sure to come to campus for our next lecture featuring Dr. Troy Davies from Catholic Social Services of Alberta. And, save the date for Mary’s Festival, an all-day, outdoor family festival on June 1 on our campus! I believe that St. Mary’s University can become the pre-eminent Catholic university in Canada. To achieve this, we need everyone, especially the Catholic community from the Diocese of Calgary, coming around to support what we do and sharing the story of our beacon of light.
As I sat at my computer, preparing to set a vision for the St. Mary’s community even before flying up to Calgary, I contemplated for the first time that Mary had resolute confidence. And, while I had never before had a serious devotion to Mary (I grew up Protestant), my heart cried out, “Okay, Mary, if you want this to happen, you are going to have to imbue me with the confidence I need.”
Obviously, Mary answered this cry as I have found a resolute assurance, and I have needed this confidence every step of this journey. However, confidence has not just fallen on me in a personal / Marian devotional way. I have also felt a deep sense that confidence is exactly what the Diocese of Calgary needs more of these days. Let’s be honest—it does feel that the Church has taken a beating in recent years whether we’re talking about the lasting impact of COVID, wrestling with the Church’s role related to residential schools or even ongoing attacks on the nuclear family by many entities across our society today. How can we have confidence in the face of wrestling honestly with the issues we face today? It’s certainly not by retracting or turning inward into bastions of separation from the world, although some days that may be tempting.
So, during this time that our shepherd Bishop McGrattan is calling all of us to renewal, I invite you to consider that you, as a beloved child of God, are called to confidence. The Latin base words that form the word indicate “with faith.” And here I will make reference to the little way of Thérèse of Lisieux. She emphasizes in her biography a total and absolute confidence –not in self or plans or anything or anyone else—no, confidence in the absolute goodness of the Lord. Rather than choosing a self-reliant “confidence in me” as Maria in the Sound of Music sang about, I must offer myself in complete reliance to God, flinging myself into God’s loving embrace daily. This exercise, especially when practiced regularly, helps me get out of my own head. It frees me from self-reliance and all of the trappings that come with thinking that we have to solve our own problems. Putting myself into the gaze of Jesus imbues me with grace, and it’s grace that sets us free from self.
I encourage you to contemplate walking with confidence in God’s absolute goodness. And, if you are not doing so already, I encourage you to build into your regular routine coming together with others in our Calgary Catholic community. For me, weekly prayer / fellowship gatherings with a small group of friends grounds me and makes all of the difference.
In closing, I want to encourage you to follow what we are doing at St. Mary’s. You will not want to miss the Inspiration Unplugged Lecture series. At the next lecture, we will hear from Dr. Troy Davies, president of Catholic Social Services of Alberta, focused on the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet on November 23rd with doors opening at 6:00 pm. Mostly, I want to invite you to pray for St. Mary’s University. Pray that we would continue to build a university that uplifts the Catholic community and that reflects Mary’s simplicity, purity, clarity, and confidence.
Written by Dr. Sinda Vanderpool, President and Vice Chancellor, St. Mary’s University, for Faithfully.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers