Sulpicians Split From St. Patrick’s Seminary Over Governance Dispute

The dramatic move comes amid pressure from the seminary board over concerns that the Sulpician administrators were failing to make changes requested by their accrediting agency.

St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, California
St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, California (photo:

MENLO PARK, Calif. —The Society of Priests of St. Sulpice in the United States has decided to withdraw from the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s St. Patrick’s Seminary and University rather than negotiate a reformed model of governance designed to ensure the seminary met its accreditation benchmarks by early 2018.

For 118 years, the Sulpicians have administered and taught at St. Patrick’s in Menlo Park, California. The seminary serves the Archdiocese of San Francisco and seminarians from the Archdiocese of Honolulu and the California Dioceses of Fresno, Monterey, Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Rosa and Stockton, as well as the dioceses of Reno, Nevada, and Spokane, Washington.

The Sulpician withdrawal from St. Patrick’s will conclude by the end of the 2016-2017 academic year.

The Sulpicians sent the Register a statement attributed to Provincial Father John Kemper, which revealed the Sulpician Provincial Counsel “decided to withdraw [the Sulpicians] totally from St. Patrick’s” on the basis that “we will not be able to serve the seminary according to the Sulpician tradition.”

“We extend our best wishes to St. Patrick’s Seminary and University as it moves forward,” Father Kemper stated.

According to information obtained by the Register, the Sulpicians’ unilateral decision to end their involvement with St. Patrick’s followed after the seminary’s board of trustees expressed concerns that the Sulpicians did not have the capacity to deliver on the administrative changes required by the regional collegiate accrediting agency before time ran out.

Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, a former rector of St. Patrick’s and designated spokesman for the board of trustees, told the Register that “the board was stunned” to learn of the Sulpicians’ abrupt decision. He contended that the Sulpician statement noting that they were leaving because they were “no longer invited to provide Sulpician administrative leadership to St. Patrick’s” was not entirely accurate.

A letter from Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to the archdiocese’s priests revealed that, during an Oct. 16 conference call, the St. Patrick board’s executive committee had discussed with Father Kemper and Father Dan Moore, a member of the Sulpician Provincial Council, a number of concerns and proposals for “how best to address these challenges,” including a new collaborative model with the Sulpicians.

On Oct. 20, the Sulpician Provincial Council voted to withdraw entirely from St. Patrick’s. On Oct. 21, Father Kemper arrived at the board of trustees meeting to inform them of the decision and that it was final.

St. Patrick’s board, Bishop Daly said, wanted to discuss a proposal for shared governance with the Sulpicians similar to the model of Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas, where the Sulpicians provide staff but not the rector. He said the board recognized the Sulpicians were providing a solid education for seminarians. However, they believed the governance model had to change for improvements in administrative and spiritual areas to take place.

“We understand the personnel struggles — that’s realistic,” the bishop said. “Father Kemper shared with the board that the number of Sulpicians [six] assigned to St. Patrick’s was larger than the number assigned to three other seminaries.”

Bishop Daly pointed out that the Sulpicians own St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore, Maryland, and Theological College in the District of Columbia. However, the San Francisco Archdiocese owns St. Patrick’s, just as the San Antonio Archdiocese owns Assumption, which is why the board wanted to explore that precedent of Sulpician-archdiocesan collaboration.

However, the bishop said, Father Kemper informed the board’s trustees Oct. 21 that the order was “not open to renegotiating the model.” The provincial said St. Patrick’s Seminary would not be a Sulpician seminary unless a Sulpician was the rector.

The Register sought to interview Sulpician Father Gladstone Stevens, the current rector of St. Patrick’s, about the situation, but he declined comment. The Register then learned that Father Kemper, the provincial, had asked all media inquiries be directed to him.

Father Kemper, however, has declined to speak with the Register, either by phone or email. Father Kemper’s executive assistant told the Register over the telephone that the provincial said he would “be traveling outside the country” for an indefinite period and that the Sulpicians’ legal counsel had advised him not to comment on the matter beyond the official statement.


Failures to Make Accreditation Changes

A priest familiar with the board’s discussions, who asked not to be named, told the Register that the board’s motive for changing St. Patrick’s governance was making sure the seminary and university maintained its accreditation status — and they had less than two years left.

The priest said that Father Stevens, the rector, is without question a good man and excellent academic, but the board had concluded that he did not have the “necessary administrative talents” to deliver the recommended changes that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) required for St. Patrick’s continuing accreditation by spring 2018.

According to documents posted on its website, since 2012 ,WASC had called for St. Patrick’s to implement a series of changes in its administrative structure for reaccreditation. In 2012, Sulpician Father James McKearney was president and rector.

Father McKearney resigned in 2013, and Bishop Thomas Daly took over as interim rector until Father Stevens became rector in June 2014.

WASC commended St. Patrick’s “educational effectiveness” in a 2014 report, but informed Father Stevens that they were “deeply concerned about the lack of progress” in the areas of strategic assessment, program review and data collection systems. Since these accreditation issues were unresolved since WASC raised them in 2012, the accrediting agency imposed a “Notice of Concern,” saying failure to address these issues by 2018 could result in loss of accreditation.

Two years later, WASC initiated a “special visit” of St. Patrick’s. Its June 2016 report said that while the seminary made “considerable progress in a short amount of time” in some areas, the association were “deeply concerned” that the university would be found noncompliant with its accrediting standards “if current trends or findings continue.”   

Barbara Gross Davis, vice president of WASC Senior College and University Commission, told the Register via email that an institution can only be on “Notice of Concern” for four years. WASC has a site visit planned for the spring of 2018, at which time the association will either remove the notice of concern or impose a sanction.

“My impression is that St. Patrick’s is working very hard to remove the ‘Notice of Concern’ and to address the issues cited in the commission letter,” Davis said.

When asked about the WASC June accreditation report, Bishop Daly told the Register, “The board took [the findings] very seriously” and decided it had to take “a more active role in assuring that these things are dealt with.”


Planning for the Future

St. Patrick’s board has tasked a search committee manned by Archbishop-emeritus George Niederauer, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, Bishop Daly and three lay members, with Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron as a consultant, to look for a new rector to replace Father Stevens. Bishop Daly said St. Patrick’s has lined up professors to replace the six departing Sulpicians.

“While this moment is an occasion of sadness and challenging transition for all of us, it is also one of gratitude to them for having built up our seminary and contributed to its accomplishments for its entire history until now,” said Archbishop Cordileone, the seminary’s chancellor, in his letter to archdiocesan priests. He acknowledged that, for most of them, the Sulpicians were “your beloved teachers, impressive spiritual directors and sensitive and resourceful academic advisors.”

The archbishop said that the faculty, staff and seminarians felt “sorrow” at the Sulpician departure, but intend to “continue that fine tradition” of priestly education the Sulpicians established at St. Patrick’s.


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.

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