Seminarians Soldier On Toward Ordination

Formation continues online, as does raising needed funds to sustain the seminaries themselves.

Above, seminarians at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, sing the Salve Regina, as those from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology in New Orleans are shown, below, praying on Palm Sunday 2020.
Above, seminarians at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, sing the Salve Regina, as those from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology in New Orleans are shown, below, praying on Palm Sunday 2020. (photo: Courtesy of the seminaries)

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed many of the nation’s seminaries, as seminarians were sent home in accordance to state mandates and asked to continue their studies online.

Not only are the education and formation of young men in such circumstances a challenge, but so could be raising needed funds to sustain the seminaries themselves.

The Register surveyed seminaries around the country to see the impact the coronavirus has had on their operations and fundraising.

St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California, serves 47 seminarians, mostly from dioceses in the western United States; rector Father Daniel Donohoo sent its seminarians sent home March 16. Classes have continued online, and spiritual directors talk with seminarians via video or the telephone.

Seminarian Erik Pereira of the Diocese of Sacramento has been waiting out the pandemic at St. Theresa Church in South Lake Tahoe, and as in the case of many seminarians residing at parishes, he has been asked to oversee the technical aspects of livestreaming the parish’s Masses and Eucharistic adoration. He researched and acquired needed equipment to be a successful YouTube livestreamer, he said, “and for the last month I’ve been putting all my energy into it.”

Rather than being discouraged in his isolation, he continued, the pandemic lockdown “really has solidified my calling to be a priest.” Many have emailed thank-you notes for the parish’s livestreaming efforts, he said, “which shows that our work has been fruitful.”

Bryan Fegley, St. Patrick’s director of advancement (development), says that donations fund about 20% of the seminary’s budget. Most of its fundraising efforts occur in the fall, he noted, so the pandemic has not yet had an adverse impact on soliciting needed funds. However, a fundraising letter planned for this spring has been postponed, as seminary officials thought it an inappropriate time to ask for funds, and in-person meetings with potential donors have been canceled.

Fegley continued, “During this time of economic hardship, we think it’s best to stay in touch with our donors, letting them know that the work of the seminary is continuing, and look for ways we might ask donors to help cover any budget shortfalls.”

Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology in New Orleans serves 146 seminarians from the Southern states. In mid-March, the seminary gave students the option of staying on campus and continuing classes during the pandemic but not leaving the grounds, or leaving the campus and continuing classes online. Forty-six opted to leave, with most taking up residence at parishes and retreat centers. Ten priests remained on campus with the seminarians, also mandated not to leave.

“We didn’t know New Orleans would become a COVID-19 ‘hot spot’ then,” said Father Jim Wehner, rector, “but it has really worked, and we’ve avoided illness.”

About a quarter of the on-campus seminarians left the campus on April 23 at the end of the semester, but they, too, will not be able to return to the campus until the local government lifts lockdown orders, perhaps in mid-May.

Off-campus seminarians are able to livestream classes and liturgies and remain in contact with spiritual directors and advisers. Spring evaluations of seminarians by bishops and vocations directors will continue via online meetings. The seminary offers an annual priests and seminarians retreat in late spring, which those not on campus will be able to access online.

Father Wehner believes seminarians at parishes and retreat centers are “staying connected” through the internet and church environment surroundings, “but they miss being here with us.”

Notre Dame has three annual fundraising events, the largest a gala in April, which was canceled. The seminary offered refunds for those who had bought tickets, but no one asked for their money back. To his surprise, the seminary took in more money than if the event had been held.

Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis serves 137 seminarians from 22 dioceses. Its seminarians were asked to leave the seminary grounds of on March 18 and take up residences in parishes, retreat centers and private homes. They, too, have continued “distance learning” and formation, reported Father James Mason, rector. Seminary staff has stayed in contact with each seminarian, encouraging him to develop a rule of life, with such components as prayer and Mass, study, exercise and leisure.

Father Mason said he was “surprised” how well the men have taken to their circumstances. As he said, “There has been a positive step for each man in truly ‘owning’ his formation and making a decision to do something, not because someone is watching me but because it is the right thing to be doing right now.”

Father Mason believes that the time of the pandemic has not been time lost, but that the seminary is still able to continue its mission “of forming healthy, holy, joy-filled parish priests to serve the People of God.”

Fundraising is crucial to the continued work of Kenrick-Glennon, said Kate Sauerburger, director of development, and as yet the seminary has not experienced a positive or negative effect related to the pandemic.

However, she said, “We are using social media to keep our supporters connected to the seminary, including livestreamed daily Masses with our resident priests and videos from our seminarians.”

The University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, serves nearly 200 seminarians from the Archdiocese of Chicago and 33 other dioceses. It closed March 13, with seminarians being sent to live in parishes and at home, also continuing their studies online. Some help pastors with livestreaming Masses; others can only access the Mass online. 

Father John Kartje, rector, has been encouraging seminarians “to stay as close to the Lord as they possibly can,” through prayer, Scripture and spiritual reading and the sacraments, if they have access to them. The staff also encourages seminarians to practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and “to stay in touch and share stories of how things are going, pray together and encourage one another through a difficult time.”

Fundraising is essential to the support of Mundelein seminary, said Holly Gibout, vice president of development. She said her department, as well as the seminarians, were reaching out to “connect” with donors, talk and pray with them. “Although this can be a lonely and devastating time,” she said, “the seminary is trying to be a comforting and hopeful presence for the Church, and our donors appreciate that.”

Deacon Ramon Sida was one of the seminarians ordered to leave the seminary; he is one of seven scheduled to be ordained in private for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, on May 23. He is staying at his grandparents’ home in the diocese until his ordination. “It’s been hard, unexpectedly leaving the seminary without having a graduation, being able to say goodbye to everyone,” he said. “But I know all is in God’s hands, and that gives me a lot of peace.”

Francis Gyau is another Mundelein seminarian scheduled to be ordained to the priesthood in 2021. He is in residence with another seminarian in a rectory in his Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico. His diocese is unique in that its bishop, Peter Baldacchino, was the first to allow the public to attend outdoor Masses while sitting in their cars in parish parking lots. 

Gyau admitted, “It’s been frustrating. But I know we need to encourage one another and get through this together. It may seem like a long Holy Saturday, but our Easter will come.”

Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.