It's an odd l-shaped number on st. George south of Bloor, and you sure wouldn't be able to whoop it up there if you happened to pick it as your U of T residence. Indeed, Ernescliff College isn't even a part of the University of Toronto, despite its advertisements that appeal to students and trumpet its location in the "heart of the campus." And the U of T Student Housing Service certainly won't encourage you to lay your pillow there - the service stopped accepting rental ads from the "college" two years ago, following complaints.
Why avoid Ernescliff? For one thing, there's a good possibility that the establishment is a recruitment centre for one of the most controversial sects in the Catholic Church. Then there are the unbelievably strict house rules.
Residents aren't allowed to decorate their rooms with posters and are prohibited from owning TV sets or stereo systems. There's a curfew of 10 pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, and newspapers are censored every morning by the college's director, who clips out articles and images considered too extreme.
While Ernescliff's Web site promises "a warm and friendly atmosphere... opportunities to exchange idea (sic) and opinions," Diana Scattolon, U of T's manager of off-campus housing, says she cautions students about the rules at Ernescliff. Most recently, several residents, both past and present, have come forward to level allegations - denied by Ernescliff - that their rooms were searched and personal mail opened.
To hear them tell it, Ernescliff tried to exercise unusual control over their day-to-day lives. "They only want studious, clean guys," says Mark, a resident who still lives there and asked that his real name not be used.
But then, Ernescliff is not your usual university residence. It's run by and serves as home to the local chapter of Opus Dei, a tiny but vocal and controversial Catholic sect that more liberal members of the Church have long viewed with wariness for, among other things, its ritual practices and secretive nature .
Founded in Spain in 1928 by Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, Opus Dei was given unique status as a "personal prelature" by John Paul II, which means the group is exempt from the control of local bishops. Its most faithful members, called numeraries, give their entire salaries to Opus Dei and pledge to live celibate lives in residences like Ernescliff College. According to the U.S.-based Opus Dei Awareness Network, a group of former followers, members must also practise various forms of corporal mortification, including self-flagellation with a cord-like whip once a week and wearing a spiked chain around the upper thigh for two hours each day.
In Canada, the group doesn't number more than a few hundred, but it's wealthy. It owns similar buildings in Ottawa, Sainte-Foy, Montreal and Quebec City. These residences are run by foundations whose boards of directors are made up of Opus Dei members. Ernescliff College, for example, is operated by the Ernescliff Foundation in a building owned by the Wellspring Cultural Foundation - both registered charities with many of the same people on their boards.
Documents filed with Revenue Canada's charities branch show that the Wellspring Cultural Foundation and the Ernescliff Foundation earned more than $680,000 in 2002. Wellspring recorded $62,964 in rental income from Ernescliff, which in turn reported $123,397 in rental income. Interestingly, Ernescliff's single biggest donation, $86,844, was given by Wellspring. Opus Dei members run about a dozen registered charities in Canada - with names like Westbrook Education Fund, Headford Cultural Group, Neeje Association for Women and Family, and the Foundation for Culture and Education - which in turn run the student residences. Opus Dei members are also on the boards of two private schools in Toronto, Northmount for boys and Hawthorn for girls, as well as several summer camps.
But Father Eric Nicolai of the Opus Dei information office in Montreal is quick to distance the organization from residences like Ernescliff. "Opus Dei is entrusted with the care of activities of a moral and spiritual nature taking place at a number of educational initiatives across Canada," he explains. "Of these, some are student residences situated in the areas they serve. Opus Dei does not itself operate these initiatives."
When asked to respond to residents' complaints, Ernescliff director Leslie Tomory writes via e-mail that, "There are so few residents who have had complaints about Ernescliff that I know who you've been in touch with."
Ernescliff is home to several numeraries and priests. It has a separate entrance for female numeraries, who are responsible for cooking and cleaning. The non-members who live at Ernescliff are students at U of T, all of whom are male, of various faiths and predominantly non-white. Each pays as much as $1,000 a month in rent. There are locks on the doors of the rooms, but residents are not given keys. "They encourage you to keep your door open at all times so as to foster a family environment," Mark says.
Male friends are allowed to visit in the rooms, but no females or overnight guests are allowed. The only television in the building is in a room that is frequently used for meetings, and it is equipped with a parental lock so residents have to ask for the remote control. "Usually they'll send one of their Opus Dei members to supervise the residents watching television to ensure that there is no channel surfing going on," says Mark.
Ben, a former resident who moved out after four months but doesn't want his real name used because he has classes near the college, says shows like The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live and most sitcoms are banned.
The basement computer lab, furnished with several PCs and Internet connections for students' laptops, is also heavily restrictive. ICQ and Messenger are disabled, downloading MP3s is impossible, and the DVD drives don't work. Ben says a firewall is installed to block anything related to sex, drugs and violence. "It blocks the so-called bad things, but also useful things," he explains. "A student in the pharmacy program, for example, would have trouble accessing sites about drugs."
Tomory, who did his Masters in philosophy of science at U of T, doesn't dispute the long list of rules. "We encourage residents to look at their studies as their professional work and to follow a professional schedule."
He also insists: "We don't touch anyone's mail, other than to distribute it." But he is less emphatic about the allegations that rooms are searched. All he says is: "The cleaning staff enters the room at set times every week." Tomory says the rules are clearly spelled out during the application process. "Everyone who lives here knows how we operate before they come here."
Pierre-Luc Laliberte, a U of T commerce student - and the only one willing to have his real name used for this piece - says that's simply not true. "I didn't know how bad it was until I moved in. The director didn't tell me all the rules. He said it was kind of strict, but I was surprised."
So is Ernescliff a recruitment centre? Tomory insists that it is not. "Most residents are not even Catholic, and non-Catholics cannot join Opus Dei."
At St. Michael's College, U of T's Catholic college, dean of men Duane Rendle clarifies that his insitution has no affiliation with Ernescliff. He calls the place "a little arcane" and says he's surprised that students would move in by mistake. "Of course, students rarely read rules or policies," he adds.
David Reed, associate professor of pastoral theology at U of T's Wycliffe College, is aware of the criticisms levelled against Opus Dei and believes the group uses Ernescliff for recruiting, in part. "I don't object if the approach is open. They have the right to control the comings and goings of guests and the atmosphere. But I would raise questions about the ethics of censorship of media and mail.'