God & man at Queen’s

The life and times of religious students on campus

The interior of Newman House, the Catholic hub on campus.
Credit: 
Supplied by Katie Moretta

Although it’s hard to believe, before 1912 Queen’s was a religious institution. 

From 1841 to then, Queen’s was under exclusively Presbyterian leadership and had a mandate in place to train the clergy of the Church of Scotland. 

During this time frame, the Theological College at Queen’s trained Presbyterian ministers who spread their religious values across Canada. 

When secular values became increasingly dominant at the beginning of the 20th century, the Ontario government vowed against providing financial assistance to religious higher education. In order to stay afloat, Queen’s became a secular institution. 

Before secularization, religious life was as important to students as their social life. And though there’s no longer a religious current running through the student body as there once was, there are still hubs of religiosity to be found. 

Within the University today, there’s the Office of the Interfaith Chaplain, which was founded in 1946. Headed by Kate Johnson — a Quaker and registered social worker — the Office offers services related not only to religion, but also to the general pressures of student life. 

According to Johnson, “[her] main role is to be around for students for whatever they want to talk about … sometimes it’s spirituality and sometimes it’s for financial issues.”

Johnson says there are challenges to being religious on a university campus today. She often feels as though people see academia and religion as incompatible, something she believes causes people to hide their religion from others. 

The chaplain’s office is meant to serve the needs of any religion, representing the diversity of beliefs that exists on campus today. 

“We are here to help make religion practical for people and to make them comfortable with themselves,” Johnson said. 

Today, there are many different faiths represented on campus. 

The major religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam all have large organizations which offer students the ability to explore their religious identity in an open and accessible way. 

In terms of the student experience, many of the religious clubs on campus cater to the newly religious, providing just as much of a social experience as a spiritual one. 

Christianity 

Like Canada, Queen’s is still predominantly Christian amongst those who call themselves religious. There are clubs for most denominations of Christianity connected to local places of worship close to campus.  

Like the Catholic Newman House, many Christian clubs offer meals and activities meant to introduce like-minded students to their beliefs. Sherley Vo is one of four missionaries at Newman House who are from the Catholic Christian Outreach (CCO).

At the Queen’s Roman Catholic Chaplaincy, or Newman House, Vo helps Father Raymond, a Queen’s Professor and priest on Wolfe Island, with administering religious duties and other events for students. 

One of the ways Newman House reaches students is through a faith study. According to Vo, most of the students are involved through the Discovery six-week faith program. Here, students learn a practical understanding of God in their life and show them how best to orient themselves.

Students like Megan Kenney, Arts ’18, got involved with Newman House through the Discovery program. “I had just been going to Church, rosary and all that stuff, before I got involved here,” Kenney said. 

While in high school, Kenney found religious life to be a burden. Compared to those around her — who enjoyed the mix of their spiritual life with school — Kenney made the decision to make a change at Queen’s.

She said she decided to prioritize religion in her life at a CCO conference. Here, she said  “people [shared] their faith with their friends and led them through Discovery.” 

At first, she said she was really scared to introduce her religious side to others because she felt that many used it to paint her as narrow-minded and treat her differently. 

Kenney eventually decided to be more open because “God is so all-loving and leads to being truly happy, [so] what would stop me from sharing that with my friends?” 

“It was amazing … the girls I asked were all Christian but not involved in Newman House like they were before [Discovery]”, she said. For Kenney, the experience of being a Christian was enriched because she shared it with friends.

Kenney and Vo both mentioned that Catholicism is a way to center their lives around a set of beliefs which help them deal with the temptations of student life. Kenney, though, says she probably will not be as involved in the Church in the future and plans to work outside of religious life. 

Vo says of being a Christian missionary on campus, “it’s like having someone who’s always there and we want to help show people that.” 

Judaism 

For Jewish students at Queen’s, the two organizations that provide a cultural and religious education are Hillel and Chabad. 

Like CCO, Hillel is a chapter of a larger group represented on campuses all across Ontario. 

The group’s intention is to create an environment for people to explore Jewish traditions and beliefs in an inviting and accessible environment.

Leah Lindy, ArtSci ’19, attends the occasional Shabbat dinner at Chabad and observes some Jewish holidays. 

“Chabad gives me a community reminiscent of home. Being with my peers and celebrating Jewish holidays is a cultural experience for me”, she said. 

Groups like Chabad and Hillel host Shabbat dinners, which is a Friday night dinner held to usher in the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. They also host dinners for holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana, among others. 

The organizations also provide Jewish cultural and educational events such as Holocaust Education Week which allow students to explore their cultural identity and connect with other Jewish students. 

Islam 

On campus, Islam is represented by the Queen’s University Muslim Students’ Association (QUMSA). 

The group provides an awareness of Islam to students through prayer teachings and Ramadan services, as well as meal services. On their AMS website, QUMSA lays out their goals. 

These are, among others, the dispelling of misinformation and misconceptions about Islam and Muslims. They aim to strengthen bonds between Muslim students and provide a space to meet, discuss and celebrate Islamic activities. 

Mona Rahman, the Coordinator of Research Activities and Communications in the Office of the Vice-Principal (Research) and a founding member of QUMSA, has been involved in the campus Muslim community since her student days here. 

“There is a rich history between the university and the Muslim community which makes our experience a bit unique, particularly those of us who have been around since before the Islamic Centre of Kingston was built in 1996”, she told The Journal over email. 

The establishment of QUMSA and the Islamic Centre has given Muslim students a sense of community and identity of their own on campus. 

Such a factor is reflected not only in the representation of Islam in the staff of the Chaplain’s office, but also by offering students a place for Friday prayers on campus, as well as places of worship open to all. 

The effects of having a voice in the Queen’s institution allows the needs of the religious students on campus to be heard. 

 

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