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Figure of Speech

By Gerry Turcotte


A coat of many colours

Gerry Turcotte

“In your light we shall see light.” — Psalm 36: 9

St. Mary’s University in Calgary has been a teaching institution for more than 30 years, and a fully accredited, degree-granting university for just over 10. We adopted the distinct St. Mary’s star as our logo in 2004, the year we became Calgary’s second university. Despite all this we only applied for our Grant of Arms in 2014. For those who have never been involved in the design of armorial bearings, I can say it was an exciting exercise. It forced all of us at the university to consider how we might represent our identity in a condensed space. What aspects of the institution, we had to ask, do we single out for special notice when space limitations are significant?

Our starting point was inevitably St. Mary, the patron saint of the university. Our “heraldic achievement” invokes Our Lady in many ways, from the traditional blue, to the St. Mary’s star, to the lily. The star appears on our shield in counterpoint with a book, traditionally a symbol of academic learning. The shield is held by two supporters: a buffalo symbolizing the First Nations community and the nearby Blackfoot buffalo jump; and a deer representing those who frequent our campus. They stand on traditional native grass, dotted with white lilies and roses, two floral symbols of Our Lady, with the wild rose also representing Alberta. The lily is also a symbol of francophone culture, and in this way refers to the fact that the university is located on the former site of the home of Quebec-born Rev. Albert Lacombe.

The crest above the shield depicts the mountain ranges of Alberta, upon which sits an osprey, clasping a scroll, another symbol of scholarship. For the Chief Herald’s office, the osprey was particularly exciting; it was the first time it appeared in any armorial bearings they’d help produce. The bird frequently perches above the president’s office, swooping down in the early morning to hunt. (In retrospect, this was perhaps an unfortunate metaphor for my office!) The university’s motto, In Lumine Tuo Videbimus Lumen, is a Latin phrase from Psalm 36 meaning, “In your light we shall see light.”

The very first depiction of a coat of arms that we know of appears in the Bayeux Tapestry of 1077, now hanging in a museum that bears its name in Normandy, France. It’s widely understood that medieval knights developed such identifying arms in order to help distinguish themselves in battle, since they all ended up looking the same once they donned their full battle armour. Over time, of course, the armorial bearings became a symbol of status, identity and individuality. For St. Mary’s it is all of these — it is a way to capture our unique identity, and to tell our story, both as it relates to the dynamic present, but also as it will hopefully resonate for generations to come.

Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.