Remembering Honorary Fellow Rev. Dr James McConica
It is with sadness that I share the news of the death of James McConica – twice an alumnus and, since 2002, an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College – on 20 December 2023, aged 93, at his retirement home in Canada.
James was a major intellectual historian of the early modern period, especially in England and Northern Europe. A scholar of the works of Thomas More, James was also a key player in the massive English edition of the works of Erasmus. James was an expert on historical theology, and the editor of and contributor to one of the volumes of the History of the University of Oxford. As a result, he was awarded Fellowships of the British Academy, the Royal Belgian Academy, and the Royal Society of Canada.
James also held major academic and leadership positions. He was assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan, a university fellow at Princeton, the co-founder of the University of Toronto’s Renaissance and Reformation Colloquium, a long-standing faculty member of Toronto’s Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (which he directed 1996-2008), a Research Fellow of All Souls (1980-84, 1990-97, then Emeritus), and President of St Michael’s College, Toronto 1984-90. James was awarded the Order of Canada in 2001.
A key aspect of James’s life was his status (from 1968) as a Catholic priest, a member of the Congregation of St Basil. All Souls says that James was its first Catholic priest Fellow since the Reformation; by virtue of his Honorary Fellowship of Exeter the same may be true of this college.
James was one of Exeter’s long line of Rhodes Scholars born in, elected from, and initially educated in, Saskatchewan. He completed (with Senior Status) the BA in Modern History at Exeter in the early 1950s. James then returned to the College between 1958 and 1960 to do research on his DPhil, which was awarded in 1963. He never lost active interest in Exeter, helping for example to form the alumni boat club association. James made an extended visit to Exeter in May 2015, giving a Rector’s Seminar and renewing acquaintances all over Oxford. He stayed in the Rector’s Lodgings, spurning (despite vertigo-induced difficulties in walking) a ground floor room in the Back Quad on the basis that, assigned such a room in the 1950s, he had never been colder even as a boy growing up on a Saskatchewan farm! On his return to Toronto James deliberately left behind his black tie outfit: he had used it to attend a major dinner at All Souls, which he referred to as ‘the junior foundation’!
As that remark reveals, James McConica was a person of wit and humanity as well as of culture and erudition. All these qualities were in evidence when I visited him – first with Marguerite, then with Yvonne – in suburban Toronto in recent years.
James’s funeral was held in the chapel of his retirement home (Presentation Manor, Scarborough, Ontario) on Friday 29 December. On the day of the funeral the College flag was flown at half mast in memory of James.