In an official ceremony in St. Basil’s Church on Thursday, October 4, Dr. David Sylvester formally assumed the role of president and vice-chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College. Dr. Sylvester is the eighth person to receive the appointment since the position replaced that of college superior, the title that Basilian leaders took when presiding over St. Michael’s from its founding in 1852 until 1954.
In his first public act as president, Dr. Sylvester acknowledged the role of the Basilian Fathers in building the institution. Though the professor-priests who taught generations of St. Michael’s students have generally moved into retirement or memory, the Congregation of St. Basil continues to play an active role in the life of the school. According to the by-laws of St. Michael’s, the Basilian superior general chooses 4 of the 21 members of the Collegium, the University’s primary governing body.
Dr. Sylvester also expressed gratitude for the work of Armand Comte de Charbonnel, Toronto’s second bishop and the founder of St. Michael’s, John Elmsley, who donated the land on which the campus and church stand today, and the Sisters of Loretto and St. Joseph, who worked and taught alongside the Basilians in the earliest years of the institution. He also acknowledged the many famous teachers and scholars who established the school’s reputation on a global stage. The legacy of these figures makes a moral claim on the community of the institution today. “How will we honour, cultivate and build upon their work?” the president asked during his remarks.
St. Michael’s is “at a crucial crossroads,” Dr. Sylvester continued. In a world that increasingly “trumpets fake news,” and in a Church subject to a variety of internal and external pressures and crises, “the need for what [our institution offers] has never been more pressing.” In order to make best use of this opportunity for a renewal of the historic mission of the school, the president said, a “recommitment to our historical strengths” is required. With reference to Fr. Don McLeod, CSB’s homily from the community Mass the day before, Dr. Sylvester concluded: “No one who takes up the plow should look back.” In place of a misleading nostalgia, he encouraged the St. Michael’s community to take a forward-looking approach to new problems and possibilities.
President Sylvester’s remarks came after an academic procession, a formal robing ceremony and greetings on behalf of numerous organizations. Archbishop of Toronto and St. Michael’s Chancellor Thomas Cardinal Collins mentioned the “two wings” of faith and reason that carry the school, and Principal Randy Boyagoda shared an anecdote about explaining “this St. Michael’s thing” to a journalist with reference to a “great tradition” of intellectual diversity at the institution. Dr. Meric Gertler, president of the University of Toronto, suggested that the relationship between the U of T and St. Michael’s models one way of imagining secular and religious partnerships in university settings. He quoted an old saying: “Geography has made us neighbors; history has made us friends.”
These comments provided context for the remarks that followed on Dr. Sylvester’s unique fittingness for his new role. The Rev. George Smith, CSB, former superior general of the Basilians, described the president as comfortable in the worlds of both religion and academia; he characterized Sylvester’s accomplishments at King’s University College at Western as “transformative.” The heads of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and Universities Canada similarly praised Dr. Sylvester’s tenure at King’s as well as his work on a variety of academic boards and associations. Dr. James Ginther, dean of the Faculty of Theology, recognized dozens of other institutions and organizations that had passed along their greetings in the lead-up to the event.
Clad in the robes of St. Michael’s after doffing the academic gown of Fordham, where he received his Ph.D. in medieval history, Dr. Sylvester left the platform in St. Basil’s to David Johnson’s “Trumpet Tune in D Major.” The St. Michael’s Schola Cantorum also provided a cappella music during the ceremony.
The president later met well-wishers on the cobblestones of Elmsley Place, and a string quartet played on the porch of Windle House during a reception that continued through the afternoon. Though the several days prior had seen a large amount of rainfall, the sun emerged hours before the installation, and the sky remained clear to the end of the day.