Basilians celebrate humble bicentennial

St. Thomas More College, the federated Catholic college at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, is one of the educational institutions established by the Basilian order, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary. (Image from

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[TORONTO – Canadian Catholic News] – It’s funny how 200 years can sneak up on you, but the Basilian Fathers plan to celebrate their bicentennial quietly, modestly, prayerfully, humbly.

“Our ancestors would shoot me for bragging about the Basilians, because we’re not hardwired that way,” Basilian superior general Fr. Kevin Storey, CSB, told The Catholic Register as plans for the 2022 year of celebrations are still coming together.

“Let’s say I was going to brag about the Basilians. I would say that, for a congregation that is tiny, tiny, tiny in reality — compared to Dominicans, Franciscans, anything like that — I think we have the highest percentage of doctorates of any religious order in the world,” Storey said.

The Basilians don’t collect graduate degrees in fields as widely divergent as physics, philosophy, education and of course theology to land better jobs or impress their friends and family. Their roots are in teaching. As their motto — “teach me goodness, discipline and knowledge” — implies, they strive to do it well.

The Congregation of St. Basil came together rather gradually in the shadow of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, teaching school in the Ardeche region, south of Paris, France. Though teaching in a Catholic school might be a fairly safe career choice in Canada today, it was dangerous work in the first decades of France’s Third Republic. Catholic clergy were treated as enemies of the state, forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the republic over and above any loyalty to the pope. Any hesitation would be overcome by the guillotine.

Before the turn of the 19th century, Fr. Joseph Lapierre was asked by Archbishop Charles-François d’Aviau Du Bois-de-Sanzay of Vienne to take over Catholic education for boys in the rural hill town of Saint-Symphorien-de-Mahun, at the north end of the Ardèche. By 1802 the school was expanding and the handful of priests and seminarians moved their school south to Annonay.

In 1822, on the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, the 10 priests and seminarians working at the Annonay school formed a sort of association. Religious orders were banned. Until then they were simply the teaching priests of Annonay. But when they made a commitment to one another, they chose the Greek philosopher and theologian St. Basil the Great as their patron. In the fourth century St. Basil had argued in favour of studying pagan literature and engaging with non-Christian ideas. The Basilians had chosen a patron who did not want to retreat into an intellectual ghetto.

Ever since then, the Basilians have been on the move.

In 1850 the decidedly French bishop of Toronto, Armand François Marie de Charbonnel, was trying to figure out what he could do for the Irish Catholics he was called to lead. He remembered his Irish teacher from his own education in Annonay and called Fr. Patrick Malony to come help him. Eventually there were four Basilians in Toronto, just enough to found St. Michael’s College in 1852.

“To have 10 founders who sent 40 per cent of the community over to the new world to be able to do some ministry — that generosity of spirit, that trust in wherever we’re going, still is part of our DNA,” said Storey.

Over time the Toronto Basilians came to be the main hub for a growing North American mission of teaching in high schools and universities and pastoring parishes. In 1922 the North American branch of the order was separated from the French foundation, with its curia (administrative headquarters) in Toronto. The two branches came back together in 1955, but Toronto remained the centre.

From Toronto, the Basilians spread out across Canada, founding St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, St. Joseph’s College in Edmonton, St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Assumption College in Windsor, St. Thomas University in Chatham, N.B. Most of these became affiliated with larger, provincial universities, securing a place for Catholic education in the first rank of Canadian higher learning.

But the Basilians also went south to found the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, the Aquinas Institute and St. John Fisher College, both in Rochester, N.Y.

Along with the universities, there were high schools, including St. Michael’s College School, Bishop Michael Power High School, St. Basil the Great College School and Fr. Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School, all in Toronto.

In 1961 the Basilians ventured further south into Mexico. They have pastored and taught in Mexico City, Puebla and Tehuacán. Following from there have been their schools and parishes in Colombia.

Storey recognizes that once again the centre and the future of Basilian life is shifting, just as it shifted from Annonay to Toronto 100 years ago. The future of the Basilians will be Hispanic, in Mexico, Colombia and the United States.

“There is a kind of passing of the torch in the Basilian congregation,” Storey said. “Vocations are really blossoming in Mexico and Colombia. Vocations are not blossoming in Canada and the United States.”

The year of bicentennial celebration for the Basilians will begin in prayer.

“We’re inviting every Basilian to make a spiritual pilgrimage of important people and places in their lives — whether it was their first place of ministry, whether it was a spiritual director, whether it was a church or a retreat that really helped turn them around,” Storey said. “We’re inviting people to make that spiritual pilgrimage.”

In the summer the pilgrimage will be a little more concrete with Basilians travelling to Annonay June 5 and then Rome June 12, where they will receive a blessing from Pope Francis. The year will culminate with a November Mass in St. Basil’s Church in Toronto.