Emmanuel College Alumni Profile: Hugh McKervill, Class of 5T9
The Emmanuel College class of 1959 reunited on campus on June 19, 2019 for their 60th reunion. They socialized and reminisced about their time as Emmanuel College students and the full lives they have lived. Hugh McKervill is one of these alumni.
What drew you to become a student at Emmanuel College?
I was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1931. My parents, who were immigrants from Northern Ireland, met and married in Toronto. While I was still an infant they returned to Northern Ireland, and it remains my emotional homeland to this day.
Following the end of the Second World War, my family - now including my brother and sister – returned to Canada on the ship Empress of Canada. We disembarked at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I was a teenager at that point and I eventually met a delegation of young people from the local Presbyterian Church. They invited me to join them for an afternoon of bowling. This led me to become deeply involved in Church youth activities. One day a few years later, to my utter amazement, the minister said to me: “You should think about going into the ministry.”
One Sunday morning my dad and I decided to try Dundas Street United for a change. The sermon that morning was on the text: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” The rest – as they say – is history. I made up my mind that day to become a minister, and this eventually led me to study at Emmanuel.
Can you tell us a bit about your time as a student at Emmanuel College?
I had grown up with absolutely no expectations for university education, even at the undergraduate level, so I began a career as a carpenter/joiner. After seven years of construction work, I became a college student. Three years later, in 1956, I entered Emmanuel College armed with a general arts and science degree from Waterloo Lutheran College.
At Emmanuel, I experienced almost constant joy. I relished the opportunity to study broadly. I loved the serene and secure atmosphere of the college’s solid granite with portraits of learned principals gazing down at us. I relished the camaraderie among my thirty male classmates, especially our ping pong games played in the basement cloak-room. Four of us formed a barbershop quartet that became popular on campus, and eventually won the Canadian Inter-Varsity Barbershop Competition.
What was it like in the 1950s on campus?
The University of Toronto’s campus with its mixed architectural styles and its vast lawns and gardens was an oasis surrounded by the ceaseless hum of the city. Plays at Hart House, football games at Varsity Stadium, the various college libraries, and coffee shops galore where we debated endlessly made it a stimulating place to be.
Daily life at Emmanuel was formal by comparison with most other faculties; certainly by comparison with campus life anywhere in Canada today. For example, we tended to dress conservatively, and this was expected of us.
In the all-male Burwash Hall, especially Gandier House which was reserved for theology students, daily life was governed by ample trappings of Victorian tradition. Each morning, full bacon and egg breakfasts were served cafeteria style in the great hall. But at lunch and dinner, shirt, tie and jacket were required absolutely. Grace was said or read, usually in Latin.
Back in the living quarters late evenings were characterized by a few residents drifting together in the plain kitchen to make tea and toast. This would often lead to lively theological debate that went on into the wee hours. It was an experience of stimulating exchange conducted in an atmosphere of civility and tradition. I am eternally grateful to have been part of it.
Course studies were intense. As a result, though germination would be slow, seeds of my own eventual theological and ecclesiastical discontent were probably sowed at that time. I eventually became active in the anti-Vietnam war movement.
What was Toronto like in the 1950s?
The post-World War II wave of immigration, of which my family had been part at the end of 1947, continued into the 50s with large numbers of immigrants still arriving mainly from Europe.
The 1950s was a time of economic expansion and development in the city of Toronto, as evinced by such notable achievements as the 1954 opening of the subway’s Yonge Street line. Work on the impressive CIBC building had commenced away back in 1929, but by the fifties, Toronto was still a predominately low-rise city.
Had we students possessed the money or the time we could have eaten our way around the world, for Toronto was already an amazing amalgam of ethnic and linguistic communities: little Italy; little Portugal, Greektown, Chinatown etc. In reality, however, because of penury on the one hand and a heavy load of studies on the other, our ventures beyond the confines of the campus were infrequent.
The city was referred to as “Toronto the Good” (especially by Montrealers) because of its strict controls on the consumption of alcohol in public places. The city’s first bar, The Silver Rail, had opened in 1947 and by the mid-fifties there still weren’t many cocktail lounges for a city of over a million inhabitants.
Where did you think you would go with your degree?
I intended to become a United Church minister.
Where did your MDiv degree ultimately lead you?
In 1959, after graduating with a BD degree – later recognized as M.Div. – I was ordained into the United Church of Canada and remained in ordained church ministry for ten years. I worked for four years in Bella Bella, a remote Native village on the north Pacific coast of British Columbia, four years at Trinity United Church in Kitchener, Ontario, and two years at Port Hope United Church.
I enjoyed ministry, but I was eager to be involved in more practical activities that would have tangible, positive outcomes for the human condition at the individual, community and national level. So, I soon took a new role as Social Development Officer with the Federal Department of the Secretary of State.
I worked closely with citizen organizations and provincial and municipal agencies to promote the Federal Government’s social policies related to national unity, multiculturalism, human rights, women’s issues, youth participation, and community development. I was stationed in New Brunswick with a territory of responsibility that included Prince Edward Island.
I found myself doing many of the same things I had been doing in the Church, however my parish was now two full provinces, and I was unrestrained by any denominational definitions. Instead of delivering Sunday morning sermons I spoke at conferences and workshops and – although the word would never be used or implied, I had a pastoral type relationship with many groups of people attempting to effect social renewal.
In 1979 I was appointed as the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s Regional Director in charge of operations in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. I held the job for fifteen years before retirement. I found it tremendously satisfying. In a sense, the Human Rights Act was a sort of legal Bible, more practically applied to human distress than verses of Holy Scripture.
Do you have any words of wisdom to share with our current and prospective students?
Study hard. Enjoy your time there, for it is a rich privilege. I think it is wise of us who have had the enrichment of a theological education to be humble, and willing to continually re-examine the tenants of our faith.