America's first seminary marks 200th year today

October 03, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

It was no blinding flash that brought Jim Mendello to St. Mary's Seminary and University to study for the priesthood, but "the dawning realization of something I felt called to do."

The 31-year-old Paterson, N.J., native, said he could have found no better place than the landmark institution in Roland Park, which today celebrates its bicentenary as the first American seminary of any denomination, "America's Mother Seminary."

Today's festivities will include a symposium by 40 to 50 bishops and a lecture at St. Mary's; a special bicentenary Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and a banquet this evening at the Hyatt Hotel at the Inner Harbor. More than 1,000 guests, most of them alumni, are expected at the events.

St. Mary's, on 68.5 acres at Northern Parkway and Roland Avenue, turned out to be a different place from what he expected, Mr. Mendello said. "It's like living a normal existence," he said.

The near-monasticism that once separated the seminarians from the world outside before ordination has disappeared, Mr. Mendello said. "We're treated like adults and we're expected to be responsible for our own lives. You find your spirituality in engagement with people," he said.

As St. Mary's historic mission of training men like Mr. Mendello for the Roman Catholic priesthood enters its third century, the institution is also reaching into the wider world beyond the church, to other faiths and the laity.

In 1968, the Ecumenical Institute -- a "night school" where about 200 men and women, mostly laity and of many faiths, study advanced theology -- was created after discussions with ranking Episcopalians. Students may audit courses or obtain master's degrees in theology and religious education.

More than 2,000 students have passed through the institute, where the average age is 41; enrollment is 60 percent women, 37 percent minorities and 62 percent non-Catholic, said the Rev. A. Vanlier Hunter, a Presbyterian minister and associate dean.

Dr. James Brashler, 49, the dean and also a Presbyterian, said the interracial, interfaith dynamics the institute offers are "helping Baltimore to have bridge-building contacts" that have not existed generally before.

Because the ministry has become "a high-risk profession," churches are increasingly dependent on an educated, committed laity, Dr. Brashler said. Institute students return to their congregations as "informed laymen" who can weld partnerships with their pastors for the benefit of all.

On the traditional seminary side, the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, S.S., St. Mary's president-rector, said that even though his enrollment has risen slightly in the last few years, the overall decline in the number of men becoming priests continues and no dramatic resurgence is in sight.

He said the mission of seminaries remains important because there is "a new craving for the spiritual aspects of life."

"My issue then is quality, the talent and ability of the seminarians, rather than numbers," Father Leavitt said, "and the quality now is very high."

There are now 139 seminarians at St. Mary's, of whom 22 to 28 are expected to graduate next spring. This is still is a far cry from the early 1960s when 375 to 420 men studied there with 80 to 88 graduating every year. By the late 1970s, with 116 students, fewer than 20 a year were graduating.

St. Mary's has about 3,500 active alumni who comprise 10 percent of U.S. diocesan priests. Since its founding, St. Mary's has graduated at least 20,000 priests, said Rudi E. J. Ruckmann, the seminary's communications director.

Young men still come to study for the priesthood right from college, but the average age for enrollment has risen from 21 to 30, with more than half the current enrollment men over 25, Father Leavitt said.

Mr. Mendello is an example of what might be termed the new seminarian.

He taught French and history in parochial schools for eight years before finally deciding to seek the priestly vocation at what he calls, "the right age, 29."

More and more seminarians, like Mr. Mendello, have worldly experience.

"I'm living and working with lawyers, accountants and businessmen who have had great life experience" before feeling a call to the priesthood, he said.

At the Ecumenical Institute, Joy Phillips, 33, a lawyer who works as a public defender in Baltimore City District Courts, is what Dr. Brashler called a typical student: a qualified young professional with broad interests.

Raised in a religious environment as a "preacher's kid," Ms. Phillips said she studied theology extensively in college before choosing a law career, but stopped participating in church activity, "something which I had before considered tiresome and frustrating."

Her father is president of the non-denominational Emmanuel School of Religion in Tennessee, but Ms. Phillips said she never seriously considered the ministry.

"I really like trial work," she said. "I feel more comfortable defending the people who don't have a voice in society."

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