Stunning turnaround for St. John's Seminary

Enrollment doubles after years of decline

By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / December 14, 2008
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Enrollment at St. John's Seminary has doubled over the last two years, a stunning turnabout for an institution that seemed to be spiraling toward closure in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The stone hall in Brighton, where two generations ago hundreds of young men prepared for the priesthood, is still strikingly quiet, but the pews of the Romanesque chapel are now about one-third full, as fresh-faced young men from around the world help to revive a 125-year-old institution that teetered on the brink of extinction just a few years ago.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who resisted calls from priests to close the Catholic seminary when he arrived as archbishop of Boston five years ago, has made preserving St. John's a top priority for his administration, and has cajoled bishops from New England and beyond to send young men to Boston to prepare for the priesthood. This fall there are 87 men studying theology at St. John's, up from 42 two years ago.

They are men like Eric Cadin, 28, of Weymouth, who thought about becoming a priest when he was a second-grader, and then pushed the idea aside until he felt a strong call as an undergraduate at Harvard.

"There was something for me lacking, and this powerful encounter with the living God, with Jesus, who transformed my life," he said. "I am compelled."

And then there is Tom Macdonald, 24, of Westford, who acknowledged that many of his own friends and family wondered why anyone would become a priest today.

"The men here have had to overcome a lot of cultural hostility to be here, sometimes from their own friends and family," he said. "I understand that faith is a gift, and faith opens up new understandings, and those understandings aren't available to those who haven't received that gift yet."

The seminary's reversal of fortune is not a solution for the archdiocese's growing shortage of priests, because many of the seminarians will return home to serve the dioceses where they grew up.

But church officials say the seminary is worth preserving as an important church institution in New England, and that the enrollment uptick sends a positive signal to prospective priests.

"Two years ago, when I went down to visit, you were in a hall all by yourself as a visitor, and now you have to call ahead to make sure there's a guest room available," said the Rev. Dan White, director of vocations and seminarians for the diocese of Burlington, which includes the entire state of Vermont. "And success breeds success. When those seminarians talk about the good experience they had, that's the best advertisement for other dioceses sending men there."

The seminary is now doing better in part because several New England dioceses that had been sending students to other seminaries around the country have redirected their seminarians to St. John's. It is also because of an influx of students from a new international Catholic movement called the Neocatechumenal Way, which encourages participants to renew their connection to the church by immersing themselves as adults in intensive study.

The Archdiocese of Boston also oversees a second seminary, Blessed John XXIII in Weston, which focuses on older men from around the country, and has had a stable enrollment of about 60; O'Malley said he resisted suggestions to merge the two seminaries because he wanted to protect the different roles played by each.

"When I arrived, the enrollment was way down, and there was a lot of pressure on me from some of the pastors to close the seminary," O'Malley said. "I told the priests, we have to give it one good try to see whether we can save the seminary, because once we close it, we'll never get it back, and for New England, with the large Catholic population that we have here, the presence of our own seminary is very important."

Men from the Archdiocese of Boston, who once made up a large majority of the seminary's student body, now make up only 39 percent of the seminarians at St. John's; the balance come in part from Catholic dioceses in Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester, as well as the dioceses for Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, a diocese in West Virginia, and two dioceses in Vietnam.

Three religious orders - the Augustinians of the Assumption, the Franciscans of Primitive Observance, and the Oblates of Virgin Mary - are sending seminarians to St. John's, in addition to the Neocatechumenals.

Foreign-born students are also making up an increasing fraction of the student body, although St. John's has a greater proportion of American-born seminarians than many other Catholic seminaries. One in five St. John's students was born outside the US, including men from Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea, Spain, and Vietnam.

The men, after receiving an undergraduate degree, often at a regular college, generally spend two years studying philosophy and four years studying theology at St. John's. They spend their days in prayer and study, and they are all obligated to spend some time each week doing pastoral work in the community. All must be proficient in Spanish; the seminary now also requires Latin, and an increasing number of students are studying Greek.

The diocesan seminarians live in St. John's Hall; the Neocatechumenals, who will serve their ministry as Boston priests, live in a separate house. The St. John's residents are free to come and go, but have an 11 p.m. curfew; they are allowed computers and telephones and televisions and cars.

St. John's was established in 1883, and has educated the vast majority of Boston priests. Its classes were booming in the 1950s and 1960s, but enrollment dropped steadily over the last few decades, as fewer Catholic men pursued the priesthood.

The reputation of the seminary was seriously damaged during the sexual abuse crisis, when it was revealed that many local priests who sexually abused minors had graduated from St. John's, and that in some cases there were clear warning signs while they were students.

"This event had a profound impact on Saint John's Seminary," says the seminary's own history, posted on its website.

Enrollment plunged, from 86 in the fall of 2001 to 34 in the fall of 2005, as some bishops stopped sending their students to Boston, and as rumors about a possible closing spread. The archdiocese closed the undergraduate part of the seminary, removed several faculty members, installed a rector and then decided not to renew his contract, and sold all of the archdiocesan campus in Brighton, including half of the seminary building, leaving St. John's Hall an island in the midst of Boston College's new Brighton campus.

"People really lost faith in the Boston church, and the leadership at the seminary at the time was not much appreciated by people in the surrounding area," said Sister Katarina Schuth, a professor at the University of St. Thomas and one of the nation's leading scholars of Catholic seminary education. "A number of seminaries are really small and hanging on by their fingernails, but St. John's was an anomaly for the rapid drop."

O'Malley has taken several steps to rebuild the seminary, most significantly by attempting to create a new image for the institution as a regional seminary for New England, rather than a Boston seminary. O'Malley invited the bishops of Fall River, Vermont, Worcester, and Providence onto the seminary board, hired a priest from Worcester onto the faculty and is planning to hire a priest from Fall River, and, using his influence as the senior bishop of the region, repeatedly urged his fellow bishops to play a role in shoring up the seminary.

O'Malley replaced the rector, the Rev. John A. Farren, a conservative Dominican friar who quit in anger when the archdiocese agreed to sell the land around the seminary to Boston College, with the Rev. Arthur Kennedy, a soft-spoken academic who had taught theology for years at the University of St. Thomas. The change appears in part intended to assuage occasional tension between diocesan priests and religious order priests - in an interview this week, O'Malley, who is a Capuchin Franciscan friar and has had to work to win over some skeptical local priests, made a point of calling attention to the fact that Kennedy is a Boston priest.

Kennedy said in an interview this week that he hopes to continue to increase the size of the seminary to as many as 125 men, and to prepare those men for an increasingly complicated ministry. "Their task is to listen, and to hear the issues people bring to them, and to mediate between points of view and conflicts," Kennedy said. "You cannot evangelize what you do not love."

Prospective priests are assigned to seminaries by their bishops, and seminaries compete for students because there is now significantly more capacity in American seminaries than there are students.

"When someone becomes a bishop, one of the first group of people that come calling at your door are seminary rectors," said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence.

O'Malley is generally regarded as an introvert, but he has become the most important salesman for St. John's, using both the soft sell - inviting diocesan vocation directors to hold retreats at St. John's - and a harder sell, using the authority of his position to promote the seminary at gatherings of the region's bishops and in calls to his fellow prelates.

Confidence is clearly rising - five New England bishops said in separate interviews that they are increasingly impressed with the seminary, and have been persuaded by O'Malley that it is their job to help the seminary survive.

"In the Northeast there are so many Roman Catholics, and St. John's Seminary has a noble tradition, and it's very worthwhile to be able to have our own seminary with a fine and reputable formation program," said Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

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