‘Better Things Are to Come’: New Seminary Chapel Is a Sign of Hope for the Priesthood
Architectural highlights at St. John Vianney College Seminary physically express a bold vision of priestly formation.
On the evening of Thursday, April 20, a group of seminarians huddled together in St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Gathering in a circle, they took a moment to pray solemnly — before all smiles ensued. Excitement hung thick as incense in the air.
They were awaiting the start of a historic occasion: the dedication Mass of their seminary’s brand-new, 3,500-square-foot chapel.
The Mass soon began with a procession and a symbolic “handing over” of the chapel to Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who celebrated the liturgy.
“We’re really convinced that the work that goes on in here is the work of the Lord,” Archbishop Hebda told those gathered during the Mass, expressing his gratitude to those who have contributed to the new chapel with their prayers, resources, time and artisanal gifts.
In attendance at the Mass were the almost 100 young men in seminary formation, priests, religious sisters, staff, bishops and benefactors. Fourth-year seminarians assisted with the liturgy, which included the blessing of the chapel walls, incensing and anointing of the altar, and the deposition of relics, including a first-class relic of St. John Vianney that was placed inside the altar.
For Thomas Curry, a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the new chapel is a sign that the “Church is ever strong and ever growing.”
“We’re seeing a lot of churches closing down and parishes merging, so to see something new is refreshing because it shows that the Church is always moving forward,” he told the Register. “The fact that the heart of the priestly formation program is growing, and making the new chapel, I think is a sign that better things are to come.”
‘Investment in Seminary Formation’
St. John Vianney College Seminary, referred to as SJV, is one of the largest college seminaries in America, where college-age men from 15-plus dioceses are sent as part of their formation for the diocesan priesthood. The men in formation are full-time students at the University of St. Thomas, but they live, pray and go through formation at the seminary, which is located on St. Thomas’ north campus.
Father Jonathan Kelly, rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary, said the building of the new chapel is an “investment in seminary formation.”
“To have this chapel, with the care and attention with which we designed it, I think will generate a lot of fruitfulness in vocations and people coming to know God’s call for their lives,” he said.
The chapel’s construction is the centerpiece of a 20,000-square-foot addition to the seminary, which includes a music room, an exercise room, a workshop, guest rooms for visiting priests and vocation directors, and housing for the priests on staff.
The whole project raised more than $10 million and was a part of a joint campaign with the St. Paul Seminary, the major seminary located on St. Thomas’ south campus. Father Kelly said a good portion of the funding came from the dioceses that send their seminarians to SJV.
Many of the project’s benefactors were present at the April 20 dedication Mass, including South Dakota state Rep. Brandei Schaefbauer, who drove from Aberdeen, South Dakota, with her husband, BJ Schaefbauer, president of Primrose Retirement Communities.
“Being here for the [dedication] Mass… it was very powerful, and I think that the space the way it is now, and the way it looks and the way it feels, is going to bring seminarians to a new level of prayer,” BJ told the Register.
The Schaefbauers spoke with the Register about the large impact SJV has on all the men who go through the formation program, including their own son, Zachary, now a priest for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“St. John Vianney is a magnificent place for men to be formed in the way of Christ,” Brandei said.
A Sacred Space
At the dedication Mass, Father Kelly spoke of how the chapel’s design was impacted by the goals of the seminary’s formation program.
“We started to ask the question, ‘What kind of seminarians and future priests do we want?’ That’s going to impact how we build this space,” he said. One goal of the seminary is to form men who are authentic and transparent. The large windows allow for natural light, representing transparency, and the authentic materials of the chapel teach the men how to be authentic before God, he said.
“If it looks like marble, it's marble. If it looks like wood, it is. The one place we want to be truly authentic is before God in this chapel, and having the materials be what they are encourages us not to pretend before God, but to approach him in humility and truth,” Father Kelly said.
Other instances of the architecture physically expressing the seminary’s formation vision include the chapel’s large, sturdy columns, signifying the need for the men to be sturdy in character; a fresco of the Annunciation that can be seen as one exits the chapel, representing the call to be seminarians and priests who always say “Yes” to God; the words of Mark 1:11 emblazoned on the rood beam, underscoring “beloved sonship” as the heart of priestly identity; and the centrality of the tabernacle, which stresses the primacy of the Eucharist in the life of the seminary.
“One does not need to look for the sanctuary lamp when entering our chapel,” said Father Kelly. “There is no mistaking what is important to us and where we turn for strength.”
Connor Lynch, a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, said the new chapel space allows one to “transcend and see the beauty of the Lord,” something he believes will enhance the prayer lives of the men going forward.
“I think the new addition accentuates the interior life that was already present in the seminary, and I think it shows that in a more explicit way that attracts people,” he told the Register.
Curry said the benefits of the new chapel will impact both the lives of the seminarians and the University of St. Thomas community at large. On Sunday nights during the school year, the seminary hosts Mass for students at St. Thomas.
“If [other students] can experience a beautiful liturgy in a beautiful chapel, that will be one more way that Christ can enter into their lives,” he said.
But even if they don’t make it to Mass there themselves, members of the wider Church are surely likely to benefit in another way: Their future priests are being spiritually formed in a beautiful chapel, with architectural elements that help these young men more deeply connect the mysteries of the faith with their hearts and their ministry.
Overall, Curry described the aesthetic of the new chapel as “confrontative.”
“By having a chapel that looks like a church, smells like a church, and really reminds one of what’s taking place, it’ll give the seminarian an attitude of the mindset of this is a sacred space, and something important that takes place in here that doesn’t happen outside.”