Huron’s legacy one of rare combinations

Ask Doug Leighton and he’ll tell you all about Western’s oldest affiliate, Huron University College.

“Things are changing very rapidly (at the university). At Huron, everything has changed, but nothing has changed,” said Leighton, who has taught History at the college for nearly four decades.

On Dec. 2, 2013, Huron celebrates its 150th anniversary. Leading up to that day, a full year of special events and celebrations are planned to make this a truly memorable occasion. It’s a legacy that waves its way through the church, the community and the region’s academic history.

Founded as an Anglican college and seminary in 1863, Huron, along with its founder, Bishop Benjamin Cronyn, an Irish Protestant, was intentionally bucking the religious trend of the time.

Going against the exemplar of recovering Catholic roots, set down the road by University of Toronto’s Trinity College, Cronyn had a vision for London’s new Anglican seminary. He saw it as a necessary local training ground for an Ontario Anglican clergy, yet he didn’t want it to be “high church,” Leighton explained, adding there was so much more in store for the college, even then.

“Cronyn had a wider vision of teaching theological subjects and other such things that ‘a gentleman ought to know,’” he said with a laugh. “It was a finishing school he had in mind for young men. He prized intellectual inquiry and he had a fond place for the liberal arts.”

Cronyn purchased Huron’s original property, called Rough Park, located on a block bound by Grosvenor, St. George and St. James streets. The college’s first class of 13 students was taught, in the winter of 1863, by Bishop Isaac Hellmuth, Huron’s first principal (and founder of Western).

Fast forward a decade and a half, and you’ll find Hellmuth as Huron’s second bishop, craving university powers, and a student body eager for a full undergraduate experience.

“Hellmuth was the educational mastermind; he decided to proceed and a legislation was passed in 1878 and something called the Western University of London Ontario was created,” Leighton said, explaining the founding roots of Western.

The college moved to its present location in 1951 and since, has seen exponential growth, with a modest beginning of less than 100 students on its present campus in the 1950s to more than 1,300 today. In 1956, Huron became co-educational with a Faculty of Arts (today known as the Faculty of Arts and Social Science) joining its Faculty of Theology.

Leighton sees the history of the college as defined by its bishops and principles, its milestones as something initiated by Huron’s leadership and nurtured by an ever-growing and increasingly diverse group of students, staff and faculty.

Principals that followed Hellmuth in the 19th century were gifted but served short terms, Leighton said, so the stability that came with the tenure of Charles Cameron Waller, who served from 1902-1941, would be a major landmark for Huron.

“Waller came and didn’t leave after five years. He got along with everyone, hired people to teach, stabilized the faculty, made use of local talent and gave the college a profile in southwestern Ontario and in the Anglican community,” he said, adding the local community has since had a proprietary sentiment towards the college.

“People have this inordinate affection for the college. Farmers who have never been here say ‘It’s our place.’ When fundraising drives are held, kids in Sunday school will kick in a dime and say, ‘It’s our place.’”

“Over the years, it’s become a more secular place in a sense that you could be anyone from anywhere and come here. But the Anglican flavour of the place is still very evident,” Leighton said.

“But today, it’s a very multicultural student population and rather than being just a Faculty of Arts and Social Science and a Faculty of Theology, it’s a multidisciplinary space that still happens to emphasize church training. Theology is still at the core of what we do, but there’s lots of students who never go to chapel and who don’t understand what those going, do.”

Huron’s Chaplain, Bill Cliff, echoed a lot of sentiments offered by Leighton.

“There was always this sense at Huron – they didn’t know they were being radically different. But they were,” he said.

“The first Aboriginal student at Huron, I believe, was in 1868 – Isaac Barefoot. He studied, and took a degree here and went on to work in the Diocese for 25-30 years. If you think about Aboriginal students at universities, it’s completely non-existent for another 100 years.”

Cliff noted the college has always been something like the proverbial ‘Island of Misfit Toys,’ being, on the one hand, a religious training ground for the Anglican Diocese, but on the other, making room for all religions.

“From early on, there were things like the Hillel Club at Huron, a Muslim Association. In the 1950s, profs were teaching about world religions and getting people to accept and understand religion worldwide,” he explained.

But what’s interesting to note, Cliff continued, is the religious life of the college has kept steady, with the college providing a consistent source of Anglican clerics to the community, while maintaining a growing parish and services of all kinds continuing in the chapel at the college.

“We are still an Anglican affiliated college – it’s a vibrant parish that’s always busy. There’s no other place on campus where you can be on your way to the library and see a church full of people singing hymns, or a casket and a funeral going on in the middle of a functioning school. It’s a rare combination.”