Novalis is the fortuitous result of the meeting of a man, Father André Guay, OMI, and a movement, Catholic Action. Born November 25 1905, at Ville-Marie in western Quebec, André joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and began teaching at the novitiate in Chambly. There, with his colleague Father Henri Roy, he helped found the first Canadian branch of Jeunesse ouvrière catholique (Young Catholic Workers) on December 23 1930. In July 1933, Father Guay was assigned to teach at the University of Ottawa; he also registered as a student in canon law.
During the Depression, the university worked on behalf of the victims of the economic crisis. The movement Aid for the Unemployed offered them a place to come together and tried to fill their spiritual as well as physical needs. At the same time, several priests were giving public lectures on Catholic Action throughout the Diocese of Ottawa, which, in those days, spanned both sides of the Ottawa River. The University of Ottawa thus became a centre of popular religious culture.
On December 8 1935, an impressive display by the members of a student movement touched all in attendance, including the rector of the university. Father Guay, ever the opportunist, took advantage of the situation to submit to the rector, late in the evening, his plan for a Catholic centre. He saw it as a sort of think tank where priests and lay people together could study the challenges facing the Church and seek solutions both practical and within reach of the general public. This would be a permanent adult outreach service, which would allow the university to come into contact with people it wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. The rector agreed. Thus developed the roots of Novalis.
Father Guay was never short of new ideas and projects to spread the gospel message. His achievements rely on a few basic principles, which he enumerated:
- be creative in providing existing movements with tools;
- move effectively from theory to practice;
- reach the greatest number of people by mass production and low prices.
Father Guay directed the Catholic Centre for 25 years and originated a vast array of publications, all bearing the mark of his genius.
When Father Guay was named Procurator General of his congregation in Rome in the early 1960’s, his assistant, Father Jean Moncion, took over as head of the Catholic Centre. Six years later, Father Guay returned to Canada to work as a canonical consultant for the renewal of Canadian religious communities. He also worked at Saint Paul University as Dean of the Faculty of Canon Law, and in the Diocese of Saint-Hyacinthe, as episcopal vicar for religious communities. He died on June 14 1981, at the age of 75.