In June of 1950 Memorial University held its first convocation, which was a fairly simple affair.
Led by engineering professor Dr. Jack Facey (who would later perform the role of convocation marshal for 46 years), the students and faculty moved from the Parade Street campus across to St. Patrick’s Hall School for the conferring of undergraduate degrees.
The university presented its first graduate degrees in May 1956 and its first honorary degree in May 1960.
First Honorary Degree
The ceremony for that first honorary degree, presented to Monnie Mansfield who had been Memorial’s registrar for 30 years, served as a dress rehearsal for the most elaborate convocation the university has ever held — for the opening of the Elizabeth Avenue campus in October 1961.
Overseeing the arrangements were Dr. Facey as the marshal of convocation, responsible for the organization, direction and decorum of the occasion, and Dr. G.M. Story as the public orator, responsible for the delivery of the orations about the honorary graduands, a special feature of Memorial’s convocations.
Nineteen honorary degrees were conferred on a galaxy of dignitaries local, national and international. That day the public orator and his deputy each had to deliver as many as ten orations, each a concise but rhetorically lively account of the rationale for conferring the degree.
From 1961 to 1968 convocation was held in the gymnasium of the Physical Education Building. With the opening of the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, Memorial in effect acquired a new convocation hall, which became the regular site of the ceremonies after 1970.
Designed partially on the ideas of then-Premier Joseph Smallwood, the back of the stage with its descending staircase was developed specifically for Memorial’s convocation.
Fall convocation was inaugurated in 1970 to accommodate increasing numbers of graduates and to support the three-semester academic calendar. In May 1992, 23 graduates received degrees in the first regular session of convocation held at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in Corner Brook, now Grenfell Campus, Memorial University.
The ceremonial trappings of convocation began to be developed in the early 1960s. Our academic robes are based on those of Oxford University. The silver mace – the symbol of the university’s authority and the presence of which signals the official opening of convocation – and the marshals’ staves were donated by Chancellor Lord Thomson in 1961.
The chancellor’s chair and a lectern were presented in 1963 by then-Lieutenant Governor Campbell Macpherson.
Other complementary birch wood furniture pieces were subsequently commissioned from the St. John’s firm of Clarmanis and Son Ltd.. The chairs bear the university’s coat of arms, hand carved and painted bas-relief. The signing table, a gift of the former marshal Dr. Facey, was added in 1996.
New Convocation Furniture
In 2002, plans were made to create a second convocation furniture suite so that a complete set would permanently reside at each of the St. John’s and Corner Brook campuses.
The design of the new suite, intended to reflect the culture and traditions of the province, was undertaken by retired Memorial University graphic designer Ian Stewart. Paterson Woodworking of Upper Amherst Cove was commissioned to construct the set.
The first piece in this suite, a black walnut convocation table with a fish-splitting table motif, was presented by then-Lieutenant Governor Edward Roberts in 2003.
The kneeler was donated in 2005 by honorary graduate Alan Perry. Hon. Dr. Roberts and his brother Douglas Roberts sponsored the signing table and bench, completed in 2005, as well as the chancellor’s chair and the four companion chairs, which were completed in 2006. They also donated the two speaker’s lecterns, which were completed in 2007.
The Roberts’ contributions to the suite of furniture were undertaken in memory of their father, Dr. Harry D. Roberts, a graduate of Memorial University College (’31), an honorary graduate of Memorial University and for many years a member of the Board of Regents.
Broadcasting on TV and Web
The desire to share the ceremonies beyond the audience seated in the convocation hall led to television coverage of the ceremonies beginning in the 1970s and, more recently, web-casting which brings the ceremony to the world via the university website at www.mun.ca
Other university units that play a role in convocation include:
- the Office of the Registrar and the School of Graduate Studies, which ensure that students have completed their programs and are certified for their degrees;
- the Division of Marketing and Communications, which co-ordinates the logistics of this special event and assists the graduands with preparations for the ceremony and the celebrations surrounding it; and,
- the Office of Alumni Affairs and Development, which welcomes graduates into the Memorial University alumni association.
Convocation has been a day of pride for thousands of students and more than 500 honorary graduates, resulting in more than 85,000 alumni members worldwide.
While our convocation, as a ceremonial occasion, has grown from the practices and procedures of older universities, after more than half a century it has become a distinctive event for all who attend, whether they are distinguished guests or faculty, honorary graduates or our students who are, as they should be, the focus of the event.