By Barry Conway

Barry’s Bay — Depending on who tells the story, that little post-secondary educational institution that set itself up near here late in 1999 has, in the past 23 years, either become an inspiring cloister of authentic Catholics or else a misguided religious cult, hell-bent on the road to perdition.

With less than 150 souls again working and studying here this year — including about 100 undergraduates with the rest being professors, administrators and support staff — Our Lady Seat of Wisdom (OLSW) is no ordinary small liberal arts college. In fact, it’s so small that it might better be classified as a micro-college, given that most small liberal arts colleges elsewhere in North America have enrollments between 1,500 and 2,500 students.

Yet, despite its miniscule size, OLSW has made a name for itself not only locally but elsewhere, and not always in a good way. In the winter of 2008, two of its students drowned after the automobile they were in broke through the ice on Kamaniskeg Lake. In 2019, Uwe “Frank” Lieflander, who worked as a part-time choir director at Our Lady from 2007 to 2017, was charged with sexual assault of a former student, but still remains at large, presumably somewhere in Germany.

The College hired a law firm to investigate. The report issued by the law firm said, “while the College responded to the allegations of sexualized misconduct appropriately, the policies and procedures then in place, as well as its oversight of Lieflander, were, by themselves, inadequate to detect or prevent his inappropriate behaviour”. For its part, the College said it would strengthen its policies, procedures, and training in the relevant areas.

And during the recent COVID pandemic, a number of OLSW students have been at the forefront of protests on the streets of Barry’s Bay, all aimed at pushing back local public health measures instituted by all levels of government to stem the deadly spread of COVID-19 which as of July 14th has claimed 51 lives in Renfrew County alone, including 49 since last Christmas.

On the other hand, the College has launched the careers of over 650 undergraduates who eventually graduated with at least a three-year Bachelor of Arts degree at a cost to each of little more than $16,000 annually, or little more than half of what it costs at other Canadian universities. The college also has a remarkable record of marriages among its student alumni, so much so that it now is also known unofficially as a Catholic Mingle College. And, according to a study done by Renfrew County, Our Lady contributes more than $2.3 million annually to the local economy.

Over all of this, now presides Christine Schintgen who last month was named the new full-time president of the College. She’s been the College’s interim president since 2020, when her predecessor parted company for undisclosed reasons after barely a year on the job. Prior to that Dr. Keith Cassidy, a well-respected professor emeritus from the University of Guelph, had held the position for 10 years.

President Schintgen is no stranger to the College’s controversial history. She joined its faculty in 2003 when it was still known as Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, an institution with no degree-granting power but which offered a limited number of liberal arts courses that some universities accepted upon an upper-year OLSW student transferring to their campus.

Oxford Educated President

Dr. Schintgen (nee Marlin) was born and raised in Ottawa, the daughter of a Carleton University professor of philosophy. She is the oldest of six siblings; three younger brothers went on to business careers while one younger sister is a high-end fashion boutique manager, and the other a political analyst.

In 1992, she completed a four-year degree in English Literature at Carleton, before going on to Oxford University in England, where she completed an M.A. and Ph.D. in Victorian Literature.

Her grandmother, Hilda Van Stockum, was a successful novelist, so she grew up passionately reading Van Stockum’s books. Though born and raised a Dutch protestant, her grandmother converted to Catholicism and married a diplomat, a Polish Jew.

Despite the worldly aspects of her father’s family, her mother was pure Ottawa Valley Irish. An O’Brien, her mother’s older brother is Archbishop Brendan O’Brien who, at one time, was Bishop of the Pembroke Diocese.

“I came by a love of literature honestly via my grandmother, but my mother had a great love of literature as well, so I grew up on this stuff, and I loved it, and so that’s what I wanted to study. I wanted to be a writer.”

In 2018, Dr. Schintgen published her Canadian Sonnets, a collection of 20 original poems based on historical and religious figures. The book’s prologue includes a curious opening stanza: “My country is a land of ice and fire, of cynicism and passionate belief, where people huddle together to keep the faith, or leave their faith of origin with relief.”

In many ways, truer words were never spoken, certainly when considering the dichotomy, if not dilemma, which faces the local population concerning the future, if not nature of the College. But, indeed, the age-old problem of sorting out good from evil has intrigued her for much longer than her time in Barry’s Bay.

While at Oxford, she said she explored her faith more deeply.

“I’ve always been a Catholic, I’ve never ceased to be a Catholic, but at Oxford I came into a good circle of friends at the Catholic Graduate Society who had really good priests who gave fascinating talks and really great fellowship with other Catholics from all over the world that really broadened my horizons.”

Ultimately, it gave her a sense of belonging to a wide, international community that has stuck with her.

“It’s something that’s important to me here as well,” she added.

After graduating Oxford in 1998, she worked in Ottawa as a management consultant before going off to spend two years teaching literature at the University of United Arab Emirates. Yet, when that university offered to renew her contract, she returned home to Canada.

“The UAE wasn’t Saudi Arabia so I could go to church, I could drive a car; it was a pretty easy lifestyle, but it wasn’t where I was meant to be for the rest of my life. I knew that, so I came home and went to Madonna House.”

From the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2003, she lived in Combermere chopping carrots, grating cheese, and, she said with an impish smile, “waiting for God to send me a telegram or an email.” Then, a couple of Madonna House priests — one of them was Father Paul Burchat — told her that Barry’s Bay was looking for someone to teach literature at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom.

And so, in May 2003 she moved to Barry’s Bay to teach at the Academy but so too did Michael Schintgen, who arrived from Denver, Colorado and started teaching at the same time as she did. Within two years, they were married and now have three children, two who attend St. John Bosco Catholic School in Barry’s Bay, while one is home-schooled.

OLSW Growth

In many ways, the Schintgen family grew right along with Our Lady Seat of Wisdom. It had been started essentially in 1999 by a group of home-schoolers, many of them home-steaders who, like Christine, had been attracted to Combermere by Madonna House, a Catholic cloister celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and known internationally since 1947 for its bedrock works of Christian charity. 

“The basic story is that there were these families who had settled here largely because of their attraction to the Madonna House — like-minded people who were dissatisfied with the main-stream system of education and who came to live in the vicinity of Madonna House because they saw it as the centre of authentic Catholic spirituality. And they wanted to bring their kids up in that environment. But as their kids were getting to university age, they looked to places like Steubenville, Ohio.”

Steubenville is home to Franciscan University with a reputation for being very faithfully Catholic. It provides what Christine calls an ‘authentic’ Catholic education, and that’s what those Combermere homesteaders wanted for their children more than anything. But they simply couldn’t afford it. It costs well over $50,000 a year to study at Franciscan University now-a-days. So, back then a few wondered out loud, ‘Why can’t we have something like that here in Canada?’

On August 10th, 1999, some of those Combermere home-schoolers cobbled together their own articles of incorporation and approved the establishment of OLSW Academy for Studies in Christian Culture. That’s its full legal name. But there was no campus, no buildings — nothing but an idea — and so they invented something called Mater Ecclasia: a university without walls.

At first, it meant teaching in barns, teaching in peoples living rooms, but by the summer of 2000, Monsignor Ambrose Pick, the parish priest at St. Hedwig’s, got the Bishop in Pembroke to allow Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy to set up shop on the old Sisters of St. Joseph Convent property in Barry’s Bay, right next door to St. Hedwig’s Church.

John Paul Meenan, who remains on the College staff today, was one of the first people hired full time; there were others hired as professors or elected to the Academy’s board of directors and many who are still present and considered founders. By May 2017, the Academy was upgraded to a college, having been approved by the Ontario government to grant three-year Bachelor of Arts degrees in Catholic Studies.

This fall, says President Schintgen, Our Lady’s enrollment is expected to hover about 100 full-time students with another dozen part-time students. Some will be coming from as far away as Europe, thanks to a new exchange agreement with IRCOM University in France.

“We’ve had students from Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, England,” she added. “We usually have many American students — 10 to 15 percent of our student body — but lately that’s been dwindling. The rest come from across Canada, many from Ontario and even some local students. We get kids from dairy farms and a lot of people from the GTA, southern Ontario, London, Guelph area.”

As of this summer, the Canada-US border is officially open for most people, but it is closed for any American student or student from any other country who cannot provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. As such, those American students are not being allowed to enter Canada and come to Our Lady.

“If you’re not vaccinated, you can’t get in?” says President Schintgen. “I don’t think we have any American first year students coming this year and we would typically have half-a-dozen.”

Common Cause with Evangelicals

But in its effort to reach out to ‘authentic Catholics,’ Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College has found common cause with two evangelical Protestant micro-colleges — namely Tyndale University in Toronto and Redeemer College in Hamilton. When it was still an Academy without degree-granting privileges, many Academy graduates either went to Redeemer or Tyndale to finish their degrees, rather than, say, St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish, N.S., St. Michael’s at the University of Toronto, or Brescia College, a small Catholic College associated with Western University in London, Ontario.

Indeed, the current Vice-President, Academic at Our Lady in Barry’s Bay — Dr. Natasha Duquette — spent six years at Tyndale prior to coming to Barry’s Bay. According to Dr. Schintgen, there’s something that Tyndale and Redeemer have, that larger, more conventional Catholic centres of higher learning lack.

“They are generally smallish, like us, and they are very committed to their mission as Christian universities. Often, we have more in common than what separates us. Whereas some historic Catholic universities, I don’t want to belittle other places unnecessarily, but they are not necessarily as focused on their identity as Catholic universities and colleges. It is more of an historical thing, but it’s not the emphasis that they have. It’s not at the top of their list when they are hiring people. They do many things very well, but it’s not at the top of their list to be focused on their Christian identity. But it is at the top of our list.”

And there’s the rub. In a phrase, given Our Lady Seat of Wisdom logic, major Catholic universities like St. FX or St. Mike’s are not as ‘authentically Catholic’ as some micro-colleges that aren’t Catholic at all. It boggles the mind of many locals, but apparently not those who lead or work at OLSW.

Future of OLSW

What then does the future hold for Our Lady Seat of Wisdom?

At present, President Schintgen has a three-year term that may be renewed in 2025. She also has an obligation to carry out a strategic three-to-five-year plan, as well as a ten-year strategic vision which will take the College to 2033. The biggest item of both of those agendas is finding a space that can hold the entire college assembly in one place at one time.

“We really need a big, multi-purpose building, the centerpiece which would be an auditorium that would also work as our cafeteria,” she said. “That is a real need. But that takes the kind of capital campaign that we are not even ready to start yet. So that’s at least a ten-year project.

“In the meantime, it’s still important for us to provide for our students…we are gradually acquiring the pieces that we need to make sure we provide good facilities for our students — that’s part of the shorter, strategic plan.

Basically, the plan, if not vision, is to eventually become more of a small, Catholic liberal arts college, or as President Schintgen says, “to educate the whole person in the Catholic tradition of the liberal arts. We want to continue doing what we are doing well, for a modest number of students. We already have most of the teaching staff in place, to offer what we want to offer for a four-year degree, which I should say is part of our vision; we’re in the process of undergoing assessment for a four-year Bachelor of Arts degree with four majors – Philosophy, Literature, History, and Classical & Early Christian Studies. We hope that will be successful and that we will be able to offer that soon.”

One bright spot on the horizon the president sees is the College’s Endowment Fund. It is beginning to grow at a faster pace, thanks to recent bequests from wills and estates.

“That is a game-changer!” she said.

President Schintgen says the College gets no funding from government.

“We want it that way, because we are a private college. We want the independence. We follow all the rules that we have to follow, but we don’t want more rules. If we were funded by the government, we’d have to follow more rules that we don’t want to have to follow.

“We scrape by in a way,” she added, given that last year’s operating budget was a little over $2 million. “So far, God has provided. I honestly have to say, God provides in one way or another.”

One of those ways that God apparently provides is the exemption the College enjoys from NOT having to pay local property taxes. Another way that God provides: Last year, the College received $379,975 from federal government wage subsidies due to the impact of COVID-19.

In real terms, however, the College only has two sources of private revenue: the money it gets from its students which its website says covers only about 70 percent of its annual operating costs, and the money it gets from endowments provided by private donors and that must make up the remaining 30 percent or roughly more than half-a-million dollars needed annually. The assumption then is that the College gets that top-up money from both private one-time or annual donors.

Large local companies such as St. Francis Herbal Farms, with a large plant located in Barry’s Bay, it is assumed is a significant donor, given that its chief executive officer, Paul Rivett-Carnac, sat on the College’s board. There is also John-Henry Westen, a Barry’s Bay resident and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of LifeSite website, which reportedly earns $2 million annually. Those earnings come from news reporting that feature a wild array of purportedly Catholic content more befitting Jimmy Swaggart at his pass-the-hat best and professional wrestling at its authentic worst. Whether LifeSite donates more than two-bits of free advice to the College is anyone’s guess, but there is a definite relationship with the College.

“I don’t think there’s anyone currently on staff here who’s a regular contributor to Lifesite,” said President Schintgen. “I’m not going to say there’s no connection — there’s overlap — some staff have worked there in the past….but currently, there is one person writing for Lifesite, a student worker who is not working for the college right now; she will return to us in the fall.”

While we do not know if Mr. Meenan, who operates the Catholic Insight website, donates to the college, there is little indication it’s earning the sort of money Westen achieves with his multi-national reach, reportedly numbering 20-million followers on the world-wide-web alone.

So, whoever the College donors are, that list of over 750 in 2021 remains private.

“Town and Gown” Problems

What is certain is that the College has survived living above the means provided by its student fees alone, yet there’s no indication the College expects to cease to exist in the near future. Still, there are many ‘town and gown’ problems that have seemingly gotten worse as time goes by, and that make the College’s financial issues seem almost minor.

 “There are tensions,” acknowledges President Schintgen. “There are tensions. At the same time, I think that Barry’s Bay is a lovely town. I love the people here. And our students are genuinely, for the most part, lovely people. A lot of the problems come from suspicion and lack of real interaction.”

Still, there is a local refrain that remains loud and clear from many quarters in Barry’s Bay. Essentially, the College is seen as a group of grasping carpetbaggers who arrived in town with next to no funding and quickly took over St. Hedwig’s church to the detriment of the Polish parishioners who lament the loss of their Polish Mass and control of their own parish. 

Currently, St. Hedwig’s has other, more serious problems. Father Norbert Cybulski is under investigation by his Bishop for historic sexual abuse, and Father Chris Shalla has been charged by the Ontario Provincial Police with numerous counts of felonious financial improprieties.  Both priests have close ties with St. Hedwig’s, with Father Shalla serving as priest more recently.

“We realize that the parish is for the parish first, and we are in a sense, beggars, but we do pay for the use,” said President Schintgen. “I’m not saying there’s no justification for parishioners sense of their territory being encroached upon by the College; however, I will say that we have been trying to be respectful of the boundaries we’ve been given and we’ve really tried to contribute as well. The altar servers often are students; the music ministry is often provided by students; readers sometimes are students and none of these things are paid at St. Hedwig’s.

“I can sympathize with people whose families have been at St. Hedwig’s for generations and who feel that they are being squeezed out and I just want to say that it’s never been our hope that that would happen,” said President Schintgen.

As every college and university president knows, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Sometimes, whether you’re riding shotgun over thousands or just a hundred students and only a few dozen faculty and staff, there are bound to be outriders, even though the majority may be good neighbours, good citizens. Yet, even most locals show considerable understanding and grudging forgiveness to the college students, for actions sometimes foolish, if not dangerous. 

Take, for instance, reports of students using Stafford Mountain where the town’s water tower is located, as a place for late night parties on autumn and spring weekends. More than a few locals have heard about the frustration of local OPP constables trying to scale that hill in the centre of town in the dead of night, only to find bonfires, empty liquor bottles and used condoms. So much so, one town wag with a police scanner, suggested renaming it ‘Condom Hill.’

Or the time some students reportedly managed to get to the top of the Metro Supermarket roof and have a party there after midnight. It’s the stuff of any college town. And in many ways even forgivable as perhaps youthful hijinks. Still, President Schintgen says, “People should feel free to call the cops on students whenever they are doing anything illegal or untoward. We can’t send our security all over town to police the town, that’s not our job.”

St. Hedwig’s Church.

COVID Pandemic

But the behaviour of both students and faculty during the COVID epidemic seems a bridge too far for many people locally. It’s not just an academic problem. Real people’s health could be impacted as a result of misinformation being spread by websites associated in one way or another with the College and, more so, local people’s health could be affected because of a refusal of various pro-life groups associated with the College who would not follow, when off campus, sound medical advice from the Renfrew County District Health Unit.

Worse, even when the College itself nearly lost members of its own to COVID, the College didn’t seem to want to live up to its own motto: “The Truth will set you free.” Rather, the College administration repeatedly denied it had any connection with any of the local protests and denied any of its own people were suffering from COVID, citing reasons of privacy or medical confidentiality; yet Barry’s Bay is small enough to know many things the College wished could be kept secret weren’t.

The latest irritant, if not impediment to rebuilding a diminishing trust between town and gown seems almost too improbable to be believed. Over the summer, townspeople in Barry’s Bay became aware that the College had started a gun club and that according to the College’s own website, it was intended to teach students how to shoot morally in order to protect themselves, their possessions, their family, etc., and ultimately to hunt. Or as the website stated before being changed, “Armam Ignis Moneamur (AIM) is dedicated to creating a culture that understands, respects, and uses firearms in a moral way. Through safety, training, education, practice on a range, and proper use of firearms, members will be aided in defense of self, the vulnerable, possessions, and country, as well as hunting and sport-shooting.”

“Learning to hunt animals is perfectly legitimate,” said President Schintgen initially, before agreeing to have a closer look at the Gun Club’s website description and prior to saying it would be changed.

“I don’t think there’s any problem with people learning how to hunt, it’s a hunting area; it’s part of the local traditions here to do that. There’s a kind of a home-steading movement in the area and that has influenced the reason for a gun club. It’s part of the culture of the families of our students and they want to be able to survive hunting their own meat.”

So, whether it’s a gun club once seemingly dedicated primarily to self-defence or whether Interpol will one day capture Mr. Lieflander and extradite him back to Canada, Ms. Schintgen can be pretty certain her life over the next three years as a College president is bound to be full of more town and gown irritants, if not choices between good intentions and the proverbial road to hell.

What she may not know is that a little more than a century before those home-schoolers joined forces to create Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, there was another bit of religious fervor associated with Combermere, and long before there was a Madonna House. Back in 1894, there was a charismatic Methodist minister, an oratorical wonder named Ralph C. Horner.

He was from Shawville, Quebec and ordered to minister to his new flock in Combermere.  But he took umbrage with that assignment and had a rather dim view of the locals. So, instead of preaching conventional Methodist wisdom and serving the Combermere community, he went AWOL and started his own ‘authentic’ Holiness movement. It was all the rage in Eastern Ontario and Alberta until it wasn’t; but after he died in 1921 nobody much remembered him.