On October 31, 2003 Dr. Robert Alan Hutcheon of Montreal became the first student to defend a doctoral thesis in the Sheptytsky Institute Eastern Christian Studies program at Saint Paul University. Professors, students, staff, family members and invited guests gathered in the university’s amphitheatre for a wonderfully engaging presentation and discussion on the candidate’s dissertation, From Lamentation to Alleluia: An Interpretation of the Theology of the Present-Day Byzantine-Rite Funeral Service Analyzed through its Practical Relationship to Bereaved Persons. Also present were Directors of the Sheptytsky Institute Foundation, including Drs. Peter and Doris Kule of Edmonton, benefactors of two of the Institute’s chairs. The Directors were in Ottawa for the Foundation’s annual board meeting.
The defence was chaired by Prof. Terry Lynn Gall from the Faculty of Human Sciences. From the beginning of the thesis presentation it was apparent to those attending that Dr. Hutcheon, a pediatrician by profession and an Orthodox deacon by vocation, was able to create a unique and significant work, combining personal experience with solid theological reflection. The candidate pointed out that his thesis topic was conditioned by his own biography, in particular by the experience of his father’s funeral in the Protestant tradition. In contrast, the Byzantine Funeral Rites, with their open confrontation with the reality of death, provide a real opportunity for bereavement and healing. Today’s growing trend to skip traditional rituals, in Dr. Hutcheon’s view, is a temptation to be avoided.
Deacon Hutcheon contested the work of the late Alexander Schmemann, a renowned Orthodox liturgical scholar, who had critiqued the theological adequacy of Byzantine funerals. The candidate stressed that the existing format of the Byzantine funeral with its apparent paradox, leading “from lamentation to celebration”, develops a liturgical and pastoral theology that easily draws the bereaved into a celebration of Christ’s victory over death, in other words, into the paschal mystery.
The candidate’s presentation was followed by interventions from the four examiners, Rev. Professors Andriy Chirovsky, John Gibaut and David Perrin from Saint Paul University, with Prof. Vigen Guroian from Loyola College in Maryland. The discussion was lively and enriching and culminated with Dr. Hutcheon, the physician, being recognized as a Ph.D. in Theology, Eastern Christian Studies.
Thesis director Fr. Peter Galadza was delighted with the candidate’s achievement: “Bob has produced a work that is as academically rigorous as it is pastorally relevant. That’s quite an accomplishment. But what else would you expect from a former (Oxford) Rhodes Scholar who has worked as a physician and deacon for so many years?”
Dr. Hutcheon was honoured to be the first student to receive a doctorate in Eastern Christian Studies at Saint Paul University, but played down his accomplishment saying he had a head start over the other students. He was previously enrolled in the Systematics concentration in the Faculty of Theology and changed over to Eastern Christian Studies when the new program opened. However, it should also be noted that Dr. Hutcheon enrolled in the doctorate program at Saint Paul University with the expectation that the Eastern Christian Studies Ph.D. would be established well before he completed his thesis.
In his concluding remarks, Dr. Hutcheon singled out his thesis director Fr. Peter Galadza whom he met in the Sheptytsky Institute Chapel eight years ago. He remarked that Fr. Galadza has been “a constant source of both stimulation and inspiration” and thanked him for his support both as a teacher and a friend. He also thanked those who patiently supported him during the past five years while he divided his time between Ottawa and Montreal and balanced other job-related and personal commitments.
Since finishing his studies, Deacon Robert continues to work as a part*time physician at the Montreal Children’s Hospital where he is involved in pediatric palliative care. He serves as archdeacon at Sign of the Theotokos Orthodox Church in Montreal. He is also teaching two courses at the University of Sherbrooke.
The Sheptytsky Institute opened its civil doctoral program in Eastern Christian Studies in September 2000. There are now ten students in the program.