Closure of All Hallows is a loss to third-level education as well as to church

Opinion: A significant number of its students came from families where there was no tradition of higher education

‘All Hallows was once a seminary. It always had a lovely atmosphere, but once vocations declined, it became a warm, humane college of higher education primarily for lay people.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘All Hallows was once a seminary. It always had a lovely atmosphere, but once vocations declined, it became a warm, humane college of higher education primarily for lay people.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

Sun, Jun 1, 2014, 12:01

Paddy McNamara, now deceased, left formal education at primary level and did his Leaving Cert after retirement. He then studied for a BA, and at 80 became the oldest graduate ever from both All Hallows and DCU.

Paddy’s story is very special, but it is just one of hundreds from All Hallows. The winding down of the college is a huge loss not only for the Catholic Church but for third-level education and north Dublin.

Fr Seamus Ahearne, parish priest of Rivermount in Finglas, sums up much of the feeling in a piece on the Association of Catholic Priests website. “A family member has died. That was the grief here in our parish yesterday. People couldn’t believe it was happening. The phones kept ringing. The sadness was profound. All Hallows was a home; a family; an oasis of hope; a holy place and a symbol of confidence.”

Many members of Fr Seamus’s parish had taken the Pathways course which explored faith, ministry and belief for adults, and for many of them, it was their first positive experience of education.

All Hallows was once a seminary. It always had a lovely atmosphere, but once vocations declined, it became a warm, humane college of higher education primarily for lay people. The Pathways course for adult learners was only one strand.

All Hallows was supervised by the Vincentian order, who emulated Vincent de Paul’s emphasis on social justice. A significant minority of its undergraduate students came from families where there was no tradition of higher education.

Many of them freely admit they would have floundered and even dropped out if they had been in the large institutions that are now being presented as the ideal by academics such as economist Dr Colin Hunt in his report National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030.

The students’ age profile was also unusual, particularly in its many postgraduates, many of whom were mid-career professionals.

For example, there is an innovative MA in professional supervision, taken by among others members of the police force, social workers, counsellors, therapists and parish pastoral workers. (Supervision involves a formal relationship where one’s work is discussed with and evaluated by an experienced professional.)

In many ways, All Hallows was like a dream university – small classes, dedicated staff and a particular focus on people who did not fit the standard student profile, side by side with more mainstream candidates. No wonder it did not survive. It is the antithesis of the current drive for third-level education to serve the market. All Hallows was not going to pull in big research grants for marketable enterprises. It just changed lives.

It is government policy to amalgamate small colleges into larger institutions. The Department of Education and Skills correctly claimed that All Hallows never achieved having the full number of students on courses that were eligible for State grants and fees, but neglected to mention that the department refused to countenance funding other courses where there would have been no problem in securing numbers.

The recession walloped State funding and private fundraising. The wider church also has to take some responsibility, because as one of the few places where people were trained for lay ministry in parishes, it deserved better support.

Finally, it was the victim of the bizarre fact that although the majority of the population claims to be Catholic, there is no Catholic university. In other countries, both Catholic universities and the presence of theological faculties in secular universities are taken for granted.

Many people will be watching with keen interest the proposed amalgamation of the Mater Dei Institute, the Church of Ireland training college and St Patrick’s College into one institute of education under the auspices of DCU. The president, Prof Brian Mac Craith, has promised there will be respect for the distinctive ethos of each institution.

Dr Andrew McGrady, director of Mater Dei, has paid tribute to the “vision and generosity of DCU” in the ongoing discussions and has pointed out that the proposal to accommodate diversity within a secular college, so that these institutes can continue to be of service to Christian education, is something worthwhile and new in Ireland.

However, there is a need not just for secular universities to provide space for religious institutions but for the contribution of independent faith-based education to be recognised as a source of social capital.

Several Catholic centres of higher education have closed in recent years. In 2010, in contrast, the German Council for Science and Humanities gave a ringing endorsement of denominational theological education at third level.

In Australia in the 1990s, a number of Catholic institutes came together with the idea of forming one Catholic university and were encouraged and funded by the highly secular government to do so.

In Ireland, we let a wonderful place such as All Hallows close down, and focus more on Jacqueline Kennedy’s letters than we do on the loss to education. Of course its ancillary work such as the conference centre and accommodation services will continue, but the loss of the core educational facility is so sad.

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