Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
With the World Cup of Hockey wrapping up soon and the NHL pre-season already underway, Canadians are easing themselves into hockey season and getting excited about their favourite players and teams.
But the game isn’t just about the people on the ice, as Monsignor (often called Père) Athol Murray knew. Murray was a Catholic priest, an educator, and a posthumous Hockey Hall of Fame inductee for his work in building the game on the Prairies.
Murray was born on January 9, 1892, into a wealthy Toronto family. When Murray was four, his mother died and he was sent to live with relatives. He moved to Montreal to attend Loyola College when he was eight, and bounced back to Toronto to study at St. Michael’s before returning to la belle province for Ste. Hyacinthe College, near Quebec City.
He told his biographer, Jack Gorman, that his grandfather had stressed the importance of bilingualism in Canada, which explains his Quebec and Ontario schooling. Murray went to Laval University before landing back in Toronto to go to Osgoode Hall Law School.
It was there that he discovered the jolt of inspiration that would shape the rest of his life.
The young law student bought a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions and came across the line “He who does what in him lies, God will not deny his Grace.” Murray quit law school and decided to become a priest.
He entered St. Augustine Seminary in Scarborough. He was ordained in 1918 and was dispatched to Regina in 1922, on loan from the Archdiocese of Toronto. He started an athletic club for boys in 1923, which became known as the Regina Argos Club—reportedly, it was originally created for the benefit of a group of Protestant boys caught stealing candy from a church.
In 1927, he was sent south to the town of Wilcox after the parish priest there died of tuberculosis. Apparently, Murray arrived in a car packed with Protestant boys from the Argos Club, who followed him to the rural St. Augustine parish to continue playing basketball and hockey with him as their coach. According to an article by Patricia Robertson on the Slapshot Diaries:
The motley entourage pulled in front of the parish house with a flourish and went in search of a key for their new home. Observers said once Murray secured the key from the Catholic sisters down the street, he tossed it away and never locked the parish house again.
The boys were enrolled in Notre Dame High School, run by an order of nuns, as Murray worked to expand the educational opportunities. In 1933, he officially established Notre Dame College in Wilcox, affiliated with the University of Ottawa.
To convince Ottawa that it was a proper institution of higher learning, he collected a library using his many connections to businessmen and politicians, including John Diefenbaker. It featured impressive medieval manuscripts.
Murray had decided that you didn’t need to be Catholic to enrol at Notre Dame, and if you didn’t have the money for tuition, you could work it out by paying in beef or grain. He was the force behind the Notre Dame Hounds hockey team, and alumni from the college have gone on to greatness in the game. Their numbers include Wendel Clark and Curtis Joseph, two former Maple Leafs.
Hockey and an education for young boys seem simple, but Murray fought hard to keep the school afloat through the Depression and after. In the 1960s, the boys were going hungry and Murray called his friend Diefenbaker, who was prime minister at the time, and told him he needed help. Diefenbaker’s ministers sent Spam rations leftover from the Vietnam War out to the prairie school.
Notre Dame archivist Terry McGarry told Slapshot Diaries that Murray had an understanding with some locals. “There was a baker in Regina whom Père used to ask for day old bread after their hockey game in the city,” McGarry said. “The baker would say to Father, ‘I’ll go have a look in the back’ and that was the secret signal to take four fresh loaves from the front shelf.”
Murray loved the classics and his calling, he wasn’t tidy, and McGarry says he preferred a plaid shirt to his robes—and he always had a cigarette on his lip. On the plaque dedicated to him in front of the former Murray family home in Toronto he’s described as “a salty priest of unshakeable faith.” He has been quoted as saying, “I love God, Canada, and hockey—not always in that order.”
Murray was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1968 and inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1972. He died in 1975 and was buried next to the Tower of God, a monument he built to represent Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in Wilcox.
The foyer of the tower says, “The Three World Religions give a conception of God which has never been transcended for greatness, elevation and beauty, and a knowledge as profound as there has ever been of man’s weakness and wickedness and power to find God.”
He was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998 in the Builder category. Notre Dame was renamed Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in 1981.
After Murray’s death, former Conservative MP Jason Kenney’s father, Martin, took over running the school.
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