Colleges and Universities have a long and storied history in the Catholic domain. Indeed, it was within a particular Catholic context that ‘the University’ as such came into existence. The Church continually sees the need for and places value in these places of inquiry and learning, for who is Christ if not the teacher par excellence? There are three post-secondary Catholic institutions in Alberta: St. Joseph’s College (Edmonton), Newman Theological College (Edmonton), and St. Mary’s University (Calgary). These three institutions have similar missions, mandates, and are jointly a net benefit to the larger project of Catholic education in Alberta. Our contexts are markedly different, however. 


As the Dean of St. Joseph’s, I’ll be presenting the unique context of St. Joe’s, as it is affectionately called. Sometimes St. Joe’s is called ‘the best kept secret at the UofA’. One of my jobs is to make it the worst kept secret. 


Who We Are: 

We teach and research in Catholic thought at the premier public research university in Alberta and one of the best universities in the country, consistently ranking in the top 125 universities world-wide. We allow for a space at the University of Alberta where questions of meaning, faith, and human thriving can be integrated and asked in a qualified academic framework, and this provides added value to UofA students, to the UofA at large, and to Catholic education in Alberta.


Some basic facts: 

  • St. Joe’s has 8 full-time tenure-track professors and 2 professors emeriti with PhDs from some of the best universities in the world (Toronto, Leuven, Cambridge, Alberta, Catholic University of America) 
  • We have a team of 20-25 talented, dedicated ‘sessional’ instructors, many of whom have terminal degrees in their field and extensive practical experience as educators or educational administrators. 
  • Our professors and instructors have cumulatively published over 20 books and 80 articles in the last 7 years, many in the most prestigious academic venues in their fields. 



What really animates St. Joe’s Academics is teaching. We are passionate about teaching within our context, to Alberta’s and Canada’s future leaders, and all our classes are UofA Arts options. 

We teach approximately 2000 students per year across +/- 70 courses and these cover the gamut of religious education, biblical studies, moral theology, history of Christianity, philosophy, science and religion and beyond. Our students regularly speak to the transformative impact of these courses on their personal, academic, and professional lives. St. Joe’s is a gem at the UofA and in Alberta – for there is nowhere else in Alberta that students at a public research university, who otherwise would not be educated by remarkable instructors in Catholic thought, take such courses.


Our Programs:

  • Certificate in Catholic Education: This Certificate is a four-course sequence designed to introduce students to teaching in the Catholic primary and secondary system in Alberta. The Certificate ladders from general exposure to Catholic fundamentals (the first two courses treating, broadly, the Bible and fundamental catechetics) to pedagogical issues of how to teach within a Catholic district context. In sum, the Certificate provides a broad exposure to both fundamentals of Catholic doctrine and practical issues of how to teach in a Catholic context. We have signed MOUs with 11 of the 18 Catholic school districts in Alberta for the Certificate, which allows the Certificate to be considered a ‘hiring asset’ in our collaborating districts and helps connect potential teachers to recruiting districts.
  • Minor in Christian Theology: In any given year, we have 30 to 40 minors in Christian Theology, which students choose to take as a supplement to their chosen course of studies at the UofA.


Campus Ministry, Chapel, and Residences:

St. Joe’s is a community with the larger UofA community, a place that many students call ‘home’ both literally and figuratively. We offer the only single-sex residences at the UofA, with spaces for 284 women in a newly built facility and 63 spaces for men in our historic building. These residences are a basic aspect of our community, as is our thriving campus ministry and chapel community. St. Joe’s offers daily mass and has 4 masses over the weekend, with 7pm Sunday mass catering in particular to St. Joe’s and UofA students. 


Final Thoughts...

St. Joe’s is a remarkable place at the heart of a major research university, where Canada’s future leaders can be exposed to the richness of Catholic thought and spirituality as they embark on the next phase of their lives. It is a place that, together with St. Mary’s University and Newman Theological College, benefits Catholic education in Alberta and the Church in Alberta and beyond.


Dr. Matthew Kostelecky is the Vice-President (Academic) and Dean of St. Joseph's College at the University of Alberta. He holds a PhD in philosophy from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, specializing in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as a BA in philosophy from the University of Dallas. Prior to joining St. Joseph's College in 2009, Dr. Kostelecky was an Assistant Professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

One of the many unanticipated graces of my conversion to Catholicism seven years ago has been the experience of engaging in the richness of ‘Catholic culture’. Often, it’s something that I find most people assume they are familiar with – to some superficial degree they likely are  – and as a result of that limited exposure it tends to get dismissed out of hand as childish, boring, foolish, etc. Having formerly been one such person myself, I wanted to share a story about how I stumbled upon what I now consider to be a true gem of Catholic culture: All Saints Day.


It was at Mass on All Hallows’ Eve last year when I heard Father mention that a ‘plenary indulgence’ could be obtained by visiting a cemetery and praying for the dead during the octave of Allhallowtide. As someone who attended public school as a child, I will admit that the most prominent connotation of the term ‘indulgence’ for me has always been an illustration from my junior high social studies textbook, in which Martin Luther is featured pounding his theses onto the door of a church (which coincidentally was named ‘All Saints Church’) in Wittenberg, Germany. I was taught that indulgences were how the Catholic Church used to dupe illiterate peasants into thinking they could buy their way into heaven. Needless to say, I did not become Catholic because of some overwhelmingly persuasive theological argument in favor of indulgences. I did, however, find it somewhat strange that the priest had used the term (in public, at least). Did the Church still do this sort of thing? 


Fortunately, it was not the first time I had encountered some aspect of the faith that I have had to wrestle with, and so by now I knew better than to trust my intuition. The lack of nuance in popular portrayals of Church history and teaching is initially something of a scandal to the skeptical and investigative catechumen. I did some background reading in the Catechism and on Catholic Answers about indulgences. I proceeded to review some of the arguments criticizing them. Unsure whether I could really wrap my head around the theological arguments pro et contra, I decided instead to simply follow C.S. Lewis’ lead in Mere Christianity (see Chapter 7 ‘Let’s pretend’, in Book IV) and give it the old college try.  


The next day after work, my two eldest boys came with me to Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I went to Reconciliation afterward. The three of us then hopped in the van and drove the Henday around north Edmonton to Holy Cross Cemetery, where my dad is buried. It was a warm night, but very dark, and I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to be able to find the grave marker.


As we pulled into the cemetery, I was somewhat startled to see the grounds lit up in an eerie red glow. The boys oohed and awed in the back and I slowed down to try to make sense of what was going on. All throughout the graveyard there were hundreds or thousands of burning candles. It was also relatively busy, I suppose, for a graveyard – indeed, I could make out the silhouettes of probably a hundred or more people walking about in little groups among the flickering tombstones.


We slowly proceeded towards the general area in which I remembered burying Dad. Not being particularly familiar with cemeteries, I have to say that it was the prettiest I had ever seen – and not only seen, but heard. Stepping out of the vehicle, I was again pleasantly surprised to hear gentle singing and even laughter. I caught an Ave or two of the Lourdes Hymn in the distance. It sounded like most people were speaking Tagalog. The boys were silent, but wore delighted grins on their faces. 


Remembering that I had some small candles and matches in the emergency bag of my van, I grabbed them along with the flashlight to try and find Dad's plot. We were on the outer perimeter of where the cemetery had been filled, and, while we had a good view of the show going on in the older part, it was difficult to see much around us. 


“Dad, I think it was more over there,” my son offered. He was seven years old. I was skeptical he would really have even remembered the funeral, let alone the exact location of the grave in the pitch dark, but I passed him the flashlight anyways and turned my phone’s flashlight on. 


“Okay, you can go look…careful not to step on the graves, though. Don’t go too far.” 


The two boys ran off, bursting with excitement.


Within less than a minute they found my Dad.  


“Yeah, that’s him,” I said. “Kenneth Paul Cavanagh.” 


We stood there for a while in silence. I suddenly felt like I should have come here more often.


“Are you going to light those candles, Dad?” 


I crouched down and fumblingly lit it. Looking up at the boys, I could see the reflection of candlelight bouncing in the eyes of their glowing little faces. I couldn’t help but laugh. I had been kind of worried that this might turn out to be a bit of a morbid Dad-fail, and had even second-guessed bringing them with me at all. But here they were, just as if it were Christmas morning.


After a while I asked, tentatively: “Do you guys want to sing some prayers?” 


They nodded with enthusiasm. We had been practicing a few chants during Lent earlier in the year. We couldn’t remember all of the words by heart, so I pulled them up on my phone. 


“Pater noster, qui es in caelis…” 


After that we sang a Salve and then Attende, Domine (wrong time of year, I know, but an easy one for kids). We said the Apostles Creed together in English and prayed for our family members, especially my Dad. Then we just stood there looking at the lights for a while. None of us really felt like leaving. 


Eventually I decided to be the grown-up and get my kids to bed. But on the way home I found myself gently chuckling over my former apprehension about indulgences. It had been such a memorable night, and I was now filled with an almost overwhelming feeling of gratitude for God's gift to us of the Catholic Church, which has endowed us with such timeless and beautiful culture. 


Brendan Cavanagh is currently Director of Government Relations and Advocacy at the Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association.

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you. - St. Augustine


There are opportunities in a lifetime that humble us from thinking that we know many things to realizing that we do not know nearly enough. For me, the Master of Religious Education (MRE) Program at Newman Theological College was one of those rare gifts.

The MRE has not only become a game changer in my life; it has become a crucial road sign for my spiritual journey. In my studies, I was introduced to the writings of the Catholic apologists, the Church Fathers, the Popes, and leaders of the Christian faith. I was re-acquainted with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the General Directory of Catechesis, and the Catholic Social Teachings. Most importantly, I was able to trace Salvation History throughout the Old and New Testaments, feeling more deeply God’s prodigal mercy and extravagant love for me. With the support of family, Edmonton Catholic Schools, the Newman Theological College’s teaching and support staff, and the accompaniment of my cohort, I renewed my commitment to Jesus as the center of all Scripture and the salvation of humankind.

The courses were designed to encourage not only private reflection and personal work, but also the gathering of information, the sifting through of resources and the collaborating with like-minded colleagues in and out of my school division. Being at the receiving end of instruction was a refreshing break from my regular duties.

What started out as an academic and professional challenge morphed into a layered gift that peeled off as each course was completed and still continues to surprise me today by its unfolding. Yet, the impact of the program did not end on its completion. With the understanding of the program’s content and the acquisition of the skills that it honed; I became more intentional about “faith seeking understanding.” I discerned writings more closely, questioned statements more deeply, tried to forgive more easily, aimed to serve more freely, and dedicated to living more in the moment.

That is not to say that finishing the program was easy. Over the course of four years, I had to rotate my dining chairs to prevent each one from getting a permanent dent from my nightly reading and writing to complete assignments. When I finished the program, I re-upholstered the full set! Lots of work, but every minute was worth the effort.

What I received from the MRE program I now consistently use in my roles as a Junior High Religion Teacher, School Chaplain, All-City JH Choir Director, and Parish Music Coordinator. It is a privilege and a blessing to be able to continue my faith journey and intersect it with my professional path so closely. 

As we move forward into the future, I hope that many more educators will avail themselves of this wonderful opportunity and enter through the doors that will ultimately open to amazing possibilities.


Read more about Newman's Masters in Religious Education program here.


Beth Pecson is an accomplished choral director, music teacher, pianist and church musician working in Edmonton, Alberta.

For the past 30 years Beth has taught with Edmonton Catholic Schools as a music specialist and a Junior High Religion teacher. She was a recipient of the 2017 Excellence in Catholic Education Award given by the CCSSA (Council of Catholic School Superintendents of Alberta). She received her Master of Religious Education Degree (with Distinction) from Newman Theological College and was the recipient of the 2017 graduating class's Emmaus Award.

She has highlighted her students, from kindergarten to high school, at various division liturgical and fine arts celebrations and at local, provincial, and national music festivals.

Beth directs the Monsignor Fee Otterson Junior High School Choir and the ECSD (Edmonton Catholic School Division) All-City Junior High Choir.

She serves as the music ministry coordinator of Annunciation Catholic Church and lives in Edmonton with her husband and their four beautiful children.



This past year I had the remarkable opportunity to be part of the Diocese of Calgary’s synodal leadership team.  The task was enormous; the way forward was uncertain and the learning curve was straight up!  Though this territory was uncharted for me, I was inspired immediately when I read the Vatican documents explaining the synodal process.  The goals were aspirational and shared through the language of scripture and faith.  I was moved.  I was hooked!  I remember thinking to myself (and saying to others), “How do these guys at the Vatican have the ability to really ‘get us’?  To understand what we need and long for?  How do they express it in words that clarify God’s love and the mission of the Church in such an effective way?’’