Concordia University


Tribute to Dr. Michel Despland

On Friday August 4, 2018 we were saddened to learn that our wonderful colleague, Dr. Michel Despland had passed away peacefully on July 31, 2018.  Here is a collection of writings from some faculty and students to pay tribute to Dr. Despland.


"I feel very grateful to Michel for many reasons. He was a friend, colleague, and -- a long time ago -- my teacher and hallmate. I first met him in Divinity Hall at Harvard Divinity School, where he had a room across the hall from mine. He was working on his PhD while I was in the Bachelor of Divinity program. I went out of my way to read books he recommended. As a teaching assistant for Prof. Richard R. Niebuhr, he also read and commented on papers I wrote. Later, he was no doubt instrumental in the offer which Sir George Williams University made to me to come to Montreal for a one year temporary position, which later became permanent. In the early 70s, I helped him plant and grow a garden on vacation property he bought near the Ottawa River west of LaChute. As a colleague, he was an exemplary scholar, so well-read, so thoughtful, at once both historically grounded and philosophically acute. He helped to make the Religion Department into a wonderfully colleagial and intellectually stimulating place to work. He will be missed. He has had significant impact on many people through his writings, his teaching, his supervisions, his administrative and colleagial work, and his being.  When someone dies, we think about the gift of their life to all they knew and loved and all those who were influenced by their lives. It is impossible to sum this up in any way. Sometimes, it seems we just need to pause and reflect on how grateful we are -- and many, many others besides -- for this person and his life." (Dr. Frederick Bird, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Religions and Cultures)


"It was a great privilege to have Michel Despland as a colleague and friend for over forty years. When I arrived in the Department of Religion in 1974, Michel was already a respected scholar and key contributor to the life of the department.  To me, despite the variety of his remarkable academic skills, he was first and foremost a philosopher. His significant early books on the two pivotal figures in Western Philosophy, Plato in the ancient period and Immanuel Kant in the modern, were true signs of his insight and depth in that tradition. However, the broad power and scope of his whole academic oeuvre testified to the fact that he was a philosopher situated in a department of Religion. Michel always placed the subjects of his studies in the wider historical, cultural and social environment that gave them meaning. He produced exquisite, detailed treatments of a host of individual thinkers, as well as of wider social and cultural phenomena in both the Old World and New. The quality of his work is underscored by two of his awards: the Killam Prize and his fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada. I remember composing the department's recommendation for Michel, for the most prestigious title that Concordia University offers, the title of Distinguished Professor Emeritus. His dossier included pages and pages of significant publications. Yet, I was tempted to just write: "Professor Michel Despland: Killam Prize, Royal Society of Canada." He honored Concordia as much as they were to honor him.

Michel dedicated much of his time and energy to the development of the department and university, Montreal, Quebec and Canada. This is not typical of many great scholars, but Michel was clearly motivated by a sense of responsibility to the variety of communities in which he lived. He treated everyone, whether colleague, staff or student with respect. I was most impressed with his natural humility, which infused his scholarship and his life with others. I, like so many of his family, friends, and students, am deeply saddened by his passing." (Dr. Michael Oppenheim, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Religions and Cultures.


"Michel Despland spanned the history of this Department from its origins at Sir George Williams University in the 1960s. He shared with Boyd Sinyard, the Department's founder, a vision of a Department for the study of religions and cultures in which Christian theology was not the central focus. In an important sense, Michel served to link this Department with the francophone academic world of sciences religieuses. His wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and his keen academic vision will be sorely missed." (Dr. Ira Robinson, Professor, Religions and Cultures)


Indeed very sad news of the passing away of a dear friend. I remember the many exchanges we had of the books by Indian authors that we discussed and his special liking for the "God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy. His colourful personality, his booming voice, and his sincere friendship will always be cherished by me. Our deepest sympathies to his family in this moment of grief." (Dr. T.S. Rukmani, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Religions and Cultures)


"Dr. Despland was a kind, patient, wise, and inspiring teacher and mentor, and seeing him at the Religion Department was always such a wonderful encounter. He introduced me to a depth of thought and active appreciation of philosophic ideas that will last for my lifetime. Anyone who took a class with him will understand the wisdom of the eyebrows and the universal value of the adage, "'Cheese' is not 'fromage'." Dr. Despland, you are missed." (Dr. Michelle Bakker, Graduated, PhD Religion)


"Michel Despland was a wonderful colleague, and his passing is a great loss to our Department, as well as to the academic world more broadly. Michel had an incredible range of knowledge -- he was truly an erudite scholar -- but he also had great intellectual curiosity and constantly sought to open up his thinking to new ideas and issues. It was always a pleasure to have conversations with him, about the latest work he was undertaking. He enjoyed the collegiality of the Department and was always generous in sharing his knowledge and in offering us new ways of thinking about religions and cultures." (Dr. Leslie Orr, Professor, Religions and Cultures)


"Dr. Michel Despland was both my teacher and my colleague. He taught me in both capacities. I learned both history and diplomacy, patience and understanding. Most importantly, Professor Despland showed me how to appreciate our collegial communication and scholarly diversity. I trust we will continue this legacy." (Dr. Norma Joseph, Professor, Religions and Cultures)


"I will always cherish my time with Michel. His encyclopedic knowledge and keen sense of humour made studying with him a profoundly enlightening experience. His unique anectodes about history and philosophy offered paths to insights that I continue to reflect on today. Merci Michel." (Dr. Andrew Renahan, Graduated, PhD Religion)









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