Turning out 'public representatives of the church' St. Mary's Seminary celebrates 200 years of training for the priesthood. By Patrick Ercolano

October 04, 1991|By Evening Sun Staff

St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park, the oldest Roman Catholic seminary in the United States, has marked its 200th anniversary.

Or, as the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, the president-rector of the school, would say, the seminary has been "in business" for exactly two centuries.

"We are in the business here of, over four years, turning a person from a private citizen into a public representative of the church," Leavitt says.

A few of the faithful might frown on talk that mixes business with the work of the church. But Leavitt and other Catholic leaders would counter that the church can't do its work, especially run its seminaries, unless it first takes care of business.

Leavitt was among some 400 clergy and seminarians -- including bishops and cardinals from across the United States -- at a bicentennial liturgy yesterday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Homeland. Another thousand or so clergy and lay people gathered for the service.

The liturgy also honored the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St. Sulpice in Paris. Four Sulpician priests and five seminarians came to Baltimore from France in 1791 and established the first Catholic seminary in One Mile Tavern on Market Street. The school later moved to more sedate quarters on Paca Street and, in 1929, settled in its current location at Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway.

An alumnus of the seminary that he has served as president since 1980, Leavitt says many of the nation's 52 Catholic seminaries have struggled to stay open in recent years, as funding has decreased and class sizes have dwindled. Many of the schools depend on subsidies from individual dioceses or priestly orders that have fallen on tough economic times themselves.

St. Mary's, which had a large deficit a decade ago, has recovered with fund-raising efforts that have raised about $1 million annually. Also, the school just completed a four-year, $10 million capital campaign.

Sounding very much the chief executive officer, Leavitt boasts that the seminary is on "a growth track. We're very strong financially."

With St. Mary's back in the black, it aims to stress quality, not quantity, of students, says Leavitt. Enrollment now stands at about 150, about a third of the all-time high of 424 in 1951. The successful seminaries, he claims, have learned to be happy producing better-trained, if fewer, seminarians than in the past.

"Seminaries have been turning out fewer priests since the 1970s, and a big bill may be coming due for that," Leavitt says. "We may find we really need more priests as the number of Catholics continues to grow. On the other hand, I think we're producing young priests who are well-prepared to handle both the administrative and spiritual sides of the job, more so than their predecessors. We're seeing young priests with good morale. We'll see less of the burnout and frustration that we've been seeing."

Being a priest is "a hard job," acknowledges Leavitt, who was ordained in 1968. "So we try to train people to be both realistic and idealistic as priests. If you're too realistic, then you're just a functionary. If you're too idealistic, then you can't deal with the harsh realities that crop up in our society and in our church. We try to strike a middle ground in our instruction."

Leavitt hopes that each seminarian's instruction won't stop after four years. That's why the school is launching a post-graduate program that will bring St. Mary's alumni back for "continuing education," possibly including courses on the crucial art of fund-raising.

"This program will aim to keep the priests viable in their ministries," he says. "We just can't graduate them and say, 'See ya later.' That's what seminaries used to do. That's going to change. We want to ask them questions, like, 'What's working for you? What did [the seminary] do right and wrong?' We'll be looking for feedback."

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