You can measure the distance between Vancouver and Thomas Aquinas College in southern California by counting the 2,000 kilometres of I-5 pavement that separates the Peace Arch border crossing from the renowned Catholic college.
But a better measure would take into account the historic, spiritual, and personal connections between the college and this country. And by that calculation, the two are as close as a Catholic family on Easter morning – a bond that is currently epitomized by the college’s new president, Paul O’Reilly.
As the 51-year-old O’Reilly looked forward to his formal swearing in as president of Thomas Aquinas College on Oct. 22 – the feast of Saint John Paul II – he took time to speak with The B.C. Catholic about his links with Canada and about the important future of the college he now leads.
O’Reilly grew up amid sectarian violence in Belfast, Ireland. After two of his uncles were murdered and two of his seven siblings became enmeshed in violence, his mother, Carmel (who was separated from her husband) left the country and settled in New Brunswick near Carmel’s brother, Ed O’Reilly, and his wife, Dorothy. Paul was just 16 at the time.
The family’s troubles were not over, though. Just seven months later – on a Christmas Eve – Paul and his siblings were orphaned when Carmel was killed in a traffic accident. Ed and Dorothy, who already had four children of their own, decided to adopt all eight of the orphans, who then took the O’Reilly name.
The blended family moved to Surrey the next year to open a Tim Horton’s franchise. They later moved to Bella Coola, where Ed began a logging business. Several of Paul’s siblings still live in B.C., as does his 87-year-old adoptive mother, Dorothy, who lives in Abbotsford.
With the guidance of a priest from the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Father Donald Neilson, Paul O’Reilly enrolled at Thomas Aquinas College, about 90 minutes northwest of Los Angeles. He is one of many Canadians who, in the half-century of the college’s existence, have travelled south to enroll in a college whose founders rooted the institution in the Catholic faith, a traditional approach to the liberal arts, a curriculum grounded in the great books of the western tradition, and, above all, a commitment to discovering truth in what was and remains a relativistic age.
O’Reilly met his wife, Peggy, at the college, and they have been blessed with 12 children.
“We had a remarkable group of founders who came together a little over 50 years ago to put together an academic program in response to – it wasn’t ‘wokeness’ but it was something akin to that – this view that there wasn’t an absolute truth,” O’Reilly said.
At the time, too many Catholic institutions were deciding to model themselves after their secular counterparts, with a smattering of Catholic courses on the side. “I think that has been unwise,” he said. “The tradition of the Catholic Church is extraordinary in understanding where education begins and ends, how the parts fit together. And our founders – we were blessed to have founders who understood that.”
O’Reilly said several of those founders attended Laval University in Quebec City, where they were greatly influenced by Catholic philosopher Charles De Koninck. It’s not a coincidence that after earning his bachelor’s degree at Thomas Aquinas O’Reilly himself attended Laval, where he pursued graduate studies in philosophy. His career path eventually led him back to TAC, where he became a member of the teaching faculty before becoming the college’s vice president for development.
“We owe to Canada an extraordinary debt of gratitude,” O’Reilly said, “for not just the Canadian students who come our way – and even some Canadian faculty members that we still have – but because of the formation they received at Laval, under De Koninck and some of the wisest men in the 20th century….”
The above comes from an Oct. 10 story in B.C. Catholic.