By Zara McAlister
Offices litter the corridors of the Wemple building on the King’s University College campus in London, Ontario. But the office close to the campus chapel at the end of the hall stands out. There’s a small white terrier sitting outside of it. Wagging her tail, she’s eager to greet anyone who walks by — and so is the person inside.
The office belongs to Rev. Michael Bechard, the 42-year-old Roman Catholic campus chaplain. He and Audrey, the dog he rescued, are there together before mass begins at noon on Wednesday.
|Photo by Zara McAlister|
|Rev. Michael Bechard brings his dog Audrey to work every day.|
Mass is part of Bechard’s regular schedule as a campus chaplain. Clad in white and purple clerical robes, he stands in front of 10 students during a service in the small chapel. It’s Lent in the Christian calendar, a time for prayers, penance and fasting.
During his sermon, Bechard acknowledges Lent can be a hard time for students, who are busy juggling exams and final papers on top of searching for summer jobs. This Lent, he is encouraging students to try to alleviate other people’s pain and suffering.
After mass is over, he greets a student who attended.
“This is one of my best friends, Teresa Benincasa-Sweeting,” he said. Bechard has been her pastor for 12 years. Benincasa-Sweeting, 33, enjoys his sermons because he makes the liturgy accessible and relatable to students.
“I’ve seen him become more confident in his preaching over the years,” she said.
Bechard has some down time before he teaches a liturgy and sacraments class in the same building. He is one of two campus chaplains who teach courses and has been doing so since 2000 when he completed his studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.
The pastor’s daily schedule may appear rigid, but he says he does more than just conduct mass or teach.
“Prayers are the only rhythm in my schedule; everything else is up for grabs,” he said.
“That’s why I love my job. There’s little routine. Every day I get to do something and meet someone new.”
As a pastor, he makes meeting someone new a priority, says Annette Donovan Panchaud, a fellow minister on campus. Panchaud often spends time with Bechard running free coffeehouses to feed the mentally ill and the homeless at the Sisters of St. Joseph hospitality centre on Dundas Street. Between jam sessions with the student choir, Panchaud says, Bechard is often the first person to go over and speak with some of the marginalized people, who are otherwise ignored on a daily basis.
Besides connecting with people in times of sorrow or joy, Bechard is the glue that keeps all of the ministers together, she says.
“He always knows what the other chaplains are doing.”
Bechard works closely with campus chaplains of other faiths to reflect on common experiences and bring people together. For example, after students use cadavers for their medical and anatomy classes, the chaplains hold services to honour the bodies. They also conduct communal Remembrance Day ceremonies and have memorials for students who died or committed suicide.
When it’s time for class, Bechard takes off his ceremonial robes to reveal jeans, a light blue buttoned up shirt and a brown leather jacket, which he says is comfortable attire suitable for teaching.
A student walks into the classroom, and he rushes over to tell her he likes her new hairstyle. He knows many of his students from his chaplaincy on campus, and he likes to see them in another context.
|Photo by Zara McAlister|
|Rev. Michael Bechard teaches his small liturgy and sacraments class at Wemple Hall.|
His teaching style is laid back. When a student asks about the class average on the last assignment, Bechard responds, “You had to be higher than God to get above a 90 per cent.”
The pastor’s face lights up when he starts talking about student final term projects, which reminds him of his own interests.
This summer, Bechard will once again become a student. He plans to travel to Ireland to study Celtic spirituality with a group of monks who have PhDs. Once class is over, he will join the monks on a spiritual retreat.
“I love those off-the-beaten-track trips when you can learn about new cultures and traditions.”