A loss of faith With graduation of its last six students, U of W closes book on theology program

As six theology students receive their degrees from University of Winnipeg this week, their graduation signifies the end of an era.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/06/2019 (1210 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As six theology students receive their degrees from University of Winnipeg this week, their graduation signifies the end of an era.

The convocation ceremony on Friday will be the last for the theology program that educated Christian ministers, chaplains and church workers for the last 136 years.

“Theology kind of carries the story of the University of Winnipeg,” said Widney Pervil, who graduates with a master of divinity, and also carries the dubious honour of being the last student admitted into the program.

Michael Thibert (clockwise from top left), Widney Pervil, Lilli Williams and Ji-Yung Jennifer Choi are the last students to graduate from the U of W's theology program, which dates back to 1883. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

“For the university to lose that, they are losing a big part of their history.”

Originally from Haiti, the 34-year-old Pervil is one of six students — four graduate, and two undergraduates — who completed their divinity degrees during a concentrated “teach-out” of the program.

The university closed the program due to declining enrolment and a funding cut from the United Church of Canada, senior executive officer Chris Minaker said via email.

Theological education at the University of Winnipeg dates to 1883 with the creation of a department of theology at Manitoba College to train Presbyterian ministers. Manitoba College merged with Methodist-run Wesley College in 1938 to become United College, and then the University of Winnipeg in 1967.

The faculty of theology prepared students for ministry in the United Church until the early 1970s.

For the last five decades, theology courses at U of W attracted students preparing for the ministry for a variety of Christian denominations, as well as training spiritual directors and chaplains, recalled Rev. Mac Watts, dean of theology from 1978 to 1985.

“When I came in 1978, there was already an ecumenical student body,” said Watts, who previously taught religious studies at the University of Manitoba.

He said the main difference between the theology and religious studies was theological study assumes a religious commitment instead of being purely academic.

“It’s like you’re in the faculty of law and you’re preparing for a profession,” said Watt. “You’re within the (faith) community and you’re preparing for a career in it.”

In 2013, the U of W dissolved the faculty and replaced it with the United Centre for Theological Studies, after the United Church cut all funding. Several students are still completing master of arts degrees in theology though the centre, James Currie, vice-president academic, said in an email message.

United Church officials understood theological education would continue at the University of Winnipeg with the transition from the faculty to the centre, said John H. Young, executive minister of theological leadership.

“Certainly, the United Church in 2013 agreed the faculty of theology could end and it would be replaced by the centre and that would be a way for theology to continue,” he said in a telephone interview, referring to the University of Winnipeg Act which required the United Church to agree to the dissolution of the faculty.

“It was clear it was passed with certain conditions.”

Michael Thibert (From left), Lilli Williams, Widney Pervil and Ji-Yung Jennifer Choi are four of the six members of the last class of theology students to graduate from the University of Winnipeg. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press)

Minaker said in an email message the “university is in compliance with the act.”

Whatever the politics around the cutting of theology courses, students mourn the loss of a program that attracted a diverse student body and promoted interaction with many faith traditions, said Michael Thibert, a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg who works as a spiritual and cultural care provider.

“You start seeing God in a wider context,” said Thibert, who will graduate with a bachelor of theology and previously obtained a diploma in Indigenous spiritual and pastoral care.

“The peripheral vision is expanded to take in things you ordinarily wouldn’t look at.”

That wider perspective attracted Rev. Ji-Yung Jennifer Choi to transfer from a denominational school to the University of Winnipeg to complete her divinity degree.

“I think I was really stretched out during these courses and discussion with colleagues,” said Choi, 47, who fit in her courses between working part-time as assistant minister at the Korean Fellowship at Portage Avenue Church and running her immigration business. She was ordained to the ministry in 2017.

For Pervil, who completed his degree in three years while working full-time as a chaplain, theological studies broadened his understanding of the world.

“It has changed me in terms of being able to find theology in everything around me,” said Pervil, who plans to complete a doctorate and return to Haiti to teach. “Theology is not just in the Bible, It’s all around us.”

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Brenda Suderman

Brenda Suderman
Faith reporter

Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.

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Updated on Wednesday, June 12, 2019 8:38 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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