Over the next 40 years, he would go on to fill many roles, including professor, department chair, associate dean of Arts, associate dean of Research, director of graduate programs and founding member of the Liberal Arts College.
“He was extremely knowledgeable and accomplished — a giant in the field,” says Carly Daniel-Hughes, chair of the Department of Religions and Cultures.
“He had a rare breadth of knowledge and was very generous about it.”
Born in Switzerland, Despland completed his undergraduate studies in theology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Edinburgh, Scotland. He earned his master’s and doctorate degrees at Harvard University, where his scholarship focused on religious theory.
Despland also investigated the works of various thinkers such as Plato, Kant and Derrida.
Daniel-Hughes says Despland was always looking for opportunities to engage students in discussion and debate, such as the popular department movie nights that featured films with philosophical and religious themes.
‘He was always generous in sharing his knowledge’
Frederick Bird, distinguished professor emeritus of religion, met Despland while the two studied at Harvard Divinity School in the 1960s. He admired his friend and colleague for his intellectual curiosity and generosity
“He was an exemplary scholar,” recalls Bird. “He was so well-read and so thoughtful — at once both historically grounded and philosophically acute. He helped to make the religion department into a wonderfully collegial and intellectually stimulating place to work.”
Despland published widely in both French and English on religious theory and the history of ideas. He also penned an autobiography, Un monde pluriel: Mon apprentissage d’historien des religions, in 2015.
Louis Rousseau, professor emeritus at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), includes Despland among the founders of the discipline of religion in Quebec. He was instrumental in the development of the Interuniversity Cluster for the Study of Religion, serving as its director and supporting the establishment of its joint doctorate with Concordia and UQAM in 1988.
Despland also served as president of the Société Québécoise pour l'Étude de la Religion (SQÉR) at the Université de Montréal and on the Government of Quebec’s Conseil des universités. He became a Killam Research Fellow in 1990 and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1998. In 2014, UQAM awarded Despland an honorary doctorate.
“He was always generous in sharing his knowledge and in offering us new ways of thinking about religions and cultures,” says Leslie Orr, professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures.
“His passing is a great loss to our department and to the academic world more broadly.”