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Colby Cosh: Schools across Canada continue the march toward de-Vanierization

 Jean Vanier Catholic School in Elk Island will be renamed St. Nicholas Catholic School.
Jean Vanier Catholic School in Elk Island will be renamed St. Nicholas Catholic School.

Spare a thought for students in Catholic schools across the Dominion. Some of them, in facing the challenges of returning to physical classrooms when the viral storm has passed, will be returning to schools with entirely unfamiliar names. I speak, of course, of attendees of the many Canadian schools named after Jean Vanier (1928-2019), the philosopher and advocate for the cognitively disabled who was revealed in February to have been an inveterate seducer of women attached to religious communities he led spiritually.

The problem for these schools goes beyond a simple Me-Too-era revision of a public figure’s reputation. Vanier never took holy orders, and if his private life merely reflected the habits of the old sailor he was, that would be one thing. But Vanier exploited (non-disabled but vulnerable) women who saw him as an authority figure, and he used a blasphemous, un-Catholic variety of patter that conflated sex with prayer .

Simply refusing to believe the accusations is not much of an option. Vanier seems to have learned his tactics from his own spiritual “father,” the Dominican Thomas Philippe (1905-1993), and had helped to protect the charismatic Philippe after the French church got wind of his cultlike nighttime activities in the 1950s and canonically deposed him. Thomas Philippe was the older brother of Marie-Dominique Philippe (1912-2006), who, stop me if this surprises you, also founded a Catholic community and was posthumously found guilty of conduct that the present Pope described as “sexual slavery.”

New names

On Friday I read that the Elk Island Catholic school board has received permission from its archbishop to rename Jean Vanier Catholic School in Sherwood Park, Alta. , a suburb of Edmonton. This Jean Vanier school will henceforth be named after the school’s patron, St. Nicholas. St. Nick has rarely been associated with the odour of scandal since his death in the year 343, although I for one feel he might have been a touch more generous in distributing Micronauts back in 1978.

This got me wondering about Canada’s other Jean Vanier schools, of which Wikipedia lists 10 , all surely destined to wink out of existence one by one like distant fires being extinguished. One such school, the École Catholique Jean-Vanier in Kirkland Lake, Ont., has completed the process of settling on a new name: it will now be the École Secondaire Catholique l’Envolée du Nord —the “school of the Northern Flight.” The new name is something to do with the Ascension of Jesus, but that kind of thing is above my theological pay grade.

Other schools bearing Vanier’s name were in various stages of swallowing the bad news when the novel coronavirus devastated their agendas. When the scandal hit the press in late February, Catholic boards with schools in the onomastic line of fire — without any exception I can find — immediately expressed horror in one way or another. In Collingwood, Ont., Jean Vanier Catholic High School instantly permitted students to abandon uniforms emblazoned with the condemned name; since that empty school is expecting to get a new handle before the end of the school year, those tainted garments may never again be worn.

Many spokesmen emphasized that time would be required to perform the necessary consultations with staff, students and parishioners, and a couple of boards seem to be waiting for their clientele to demand action. But most have acknowledged that the writing is on the wall and, at a minimum, resolved to strike committees or set bureaucracy in motion.

There are interesting signs that education officials have noticed the sheer absurdity of having eight schools in Ontario named for one person during his lifetime. (It’s a small mercy, surely, that none of the schools thinking of ditching John A. Macdonald’s name switched to Jean Vanier’s before the beans were spilled.) Toronto’s Catholic board has not moved yet on changing the name of Scarborough’s Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School, but local trustee Mike Del Grande has said that the change should happen, and moreover that new schools should not be named for persons who have not been “ dead for decades .” The Halton Catholic board intends to have a new name for Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary in Milton by September, and has introduced a policy of naming schools only for saints .

National Post
Twitter.com/ColbyCosh

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1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

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