A tribute to the life of Rev. Dr. Henry R. DeBolster

Henry DeBolster and I shared a journey of 40 years focused on Christian higher education and centred on what has become Redeemer University College. I’ve had this privilege, or as Henry might say, this “particular” privilege, largely because of his faith, vision and encouragement.

Though a pastor by training, God gave him a special gift of vision and passion for Christian education, which led him to help in founding not one but two Christian colleges in Canada – first in Alberta while he pastored in Calgary, taking a leading role in the group that eventually founded the King’s University, and then in Ontario, as he moved to St Catharines and became the board chair of the association that established Redeemer University College.

It was in this context that we first met in 1976, he as a visionary leader and me as a graduate student getting caught up in this movement for a Christian college in Ontario. Through his leadership Redeemer became an independent institution, with a “Scripturally directed perspective” that would “permeate” all the disciplines of the arts and sciences, as well as teaching AND scholarship. This language was enshrined in Section 2 of the Charter the province eventually granted in 1980, despite political opposition.

And such public recognition was the second dimension of Henry’s conviction. Redeemer was to have university standards and be recognized by the provincial authorities – Christ-centred higher education deserved nothing less, though this came in stages and took longer than he hoped.

I became part of that story not only because of his vision but also because of his great faith and devotion to the Lord – something that came through powerfully not only in his humble prayers of dependence on his Father in heaven and in his preaching but also in his leadership. He knew that for faculty, and also staff, a living faith in Christ should be a key qualification.

He had a special impact not only because of his vision but also because of his pastoral heart – he was an encourager and also encouraged me to complete my doctoral thesis, enabling me to continue pursuing my calling. He built a sense of community among the faculty, staff and students, whom he treated as his flock in his monthly chapels. His confidence, positive spirit and encouraging smile were contagious. 

He also knew his strengths and his limitations and gave others important roles that he respected. I recall when a theatre production upset him. Yes, he could be passionate, but we would work it through. The investment trust failure tested him; but he owned his responsibility and we regrouped. Henry was a man of integrity, and that you could always count on.

Courage of his convictions
While our requests for recognition went unheeded by the three political parties that formed successive governments, undaunted, Rev DeBolster bypassed this provincial logjam and laid the basis for Redeemer’s eventual recognition through his strategic approach for membership in the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, a national organization that accepted Redeemer in 1985.
The employment and graduate school admission of our alumni that were enabled by this recognition formed the track record which finally persuaded the provincial authorities and Ontario universities in 1998 to allow Redeemer to take its rightful place as a Christian university in Ontario, 22 years after our journey had begun.

Oh how we rejoiced with the Redeemer community that God had opened the door and enabled this Scripturally directed liberal arts and sciences institution, launched under Henry’s leadership, to break through the spiritual barrier of secular humanism in Ontario higher education and gain recognition as a bona fide university. The courage of Henry’s convictions had prevailed, and his achievement was confirmed by an honourary doctorate from McMaster.

After he retired, he continued to be a faithful Redeemer supporter all his life, supporting and never seeking to direct. He would turn up at almost every event with his smile and a word of encouragement. We thank the Lord for all the ways that his faith and gifts came to expression in building this community of learning.

Now he has run the race and finished the course set before him. His legacy, blessed by God’s great faithfulness as Henry would want to have acknowledged, has now been handed on to others. And he has joined the heavenly cloud of witnesses who continue to cheer us on.

  • Justin D. Cooper is the Executive Director of CHEC (Christian Higher Education Canada), a national association of 34 Christ-centred, accredited and degree granting colleges, universities and seminaries.

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