Early History and Founding Members

With the closing of the Second World War and the end of the Great Depression, the mid-1940s marked the beginning of significant social change in Canada. The promise of peace and stability ignited a renewed sense of hope for prosperous, new beginnings across the country. In Montreal, a similar kind of energy had taken hold of a young group of English Catholics keen on breathing new life into Quebec’s education system.

At the time, Quebec public students were only required to attend school until the ninth grade, and universities had no formal post-secondary education program. This meant working adults without a high school degree looking to return to school were left with very few options. What’s more, with the return of army veterans and the arrival of newly settled immigrants following the war, demand for post-secondary education for adults hoping to build a better life for themselves was growing. 

Nevertheless, institutional interest in adult education remained low. And in response to a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of public education and a desire for more stimulating discourse, a group of 4 spirited students – Charlotte Tansey, Veronica Smyth, Stanislaus Machnik and Roberta Soden Machnik – saw an opportunity to take control of their own learning.

Tansey, Smyth, and the Machniks met in the early 1940s while attending a series of adult evening conferences at Loyola College, a Jesuit college in Montreal, given by fathers Bernard Lonergan, Emmett Carter and Eric O’Connor, among others. Despite being popular with adult students, the conference series was far from satisfactory: lectures were offered inconsistently, on a voluntary basis and were wholly dependent on staff availability. Eager for more sustained intellectual exchange, the four students would regularly carry on their discussions at a nearby coffee shop well after class. In 1944, upon learning that Loyola’s adult evening conferences were being cancelled due to a lack of funding, the group endeavoured to develop courses of their own, designed to encourage thought-provoking discourse and serious inquiry. With the help of Cardinal Emmett Carter, closely affiliated with the Montreal diocese, and Father O’Connor, Tansey, Smyth and the Machniks started “The Catholic Adult Education Committee” in the fall of 1945 with the aim of providing lecture series of university quality by recognized scholars and subject matter experts.

Through the courtesy of the Montreal Catholic School Commission, their first lectures were given out of a rented classroom at D’Arcy McGee High School at the corner of Jeanne-Mance and Pine Avenue in downtown Montreal. One of their early courses – a series of 25 weekly lectures led by Bernard Lonergan entitled “Thought and Reality” – attracted a diverse mix of approximately 45 students including academics, business professional and their wives. Overall, a total of 90 students registered that first year.  

In 1948, with the support of individual and corporate donors, the newly incorporated Thomas More Institute – named in honour of the famous Catholic humanist and philosopher – began operating out of its new offices at 2054 McGill College Avenue. By this time, adult education initiatives were starting to gain traction nationwide, with extension courses and evening classes being offered by most Canadian colleges and universities. It was during this time of growing national interest that TMI was in a better place to formally legitimate its endeavours by partnering with a degree-granting institution. Within the same year, TMI became affiliated with the University of Montreal and began granting Bachelor of Arts degrees to its students, with the university retaining the right to inspect written examinations. In 1974, the University of Montreal would abandon its satellite colleges, at which point TMI sought affiliation with Bishop’s University in Lennoxville.

1949 was a turning point for the institute: after 4 years of lecture courses, TMI pivoted to a reading and discussion course format modelled after the Great Books program. Born out of the University of Chicago’s Great Books Foundation, the Great Books program was a significant step in recognizing the role of discussion as a positive force in the field of adult education. Great Books courses – which covered an extensive range of topics from world politics to the arts – were offered at TMI for a period of 7 years until 1979. The Great Books program was instrumental in reorienting TMI’s pedagogical style toward one of interactive learning and deliberative questioning which remains the hallmark of the institute’s approach to this day.

Early History and Founding Members