Seminary receives $7.5 million in gifts

Lay Catholics endow 5 St. Mary's faculty chairs

November 06, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

St. Mary's Seminary & University, the nation's oldest Catholic seminary, announced yesterday the largest combined contribution by lay Catholics in its history: $7.5 million to endow five faculty chairs.

Individual Catholics are giving $1.5 million each to create three faculty chairs in Old Testament teaching, social ethics and preaching.

Baltimore's France-Merrick Foundation, whose president, Nan Pinkard, is a Catholic, will give $3 million to fund two positions in theology.

The donations are noteworthy in light of priest sex abuse scandals. Officials at St. Mary's say the largess shows the firm commitment of lay Catholics despite the problems.

"I think it is an incredible testament that these people are standing up to be counted at a time when the Catholic Church is troubled," said Earl Linehan, the vice chair of St. Mary's board. "They are making a statement that their faith is important and the seminary is important."

In interviews yesterday, the donors said they were horrified by the national sex abuse scandals -- in which pedophile priests were shuttled from parish to parish -- but felt compelled to continue contributing.

"I think this is the best time in the world to give," said Richard Fisher, 80, a Pittsburgh businessman who is funding the chair in social ethics that will focus on the teachings of Pope John Paul II. "This is the time to raise the flag."

The family of late builder-philanthropist Henry J. Knott and his wife, Marion, funded the preaching chair.

Dorothy, Mary Catherine and George L. Bunting Jr., whose family founded Noxell, the former Hunt Valley-based cosmetics company, endowed the Old Testament chair.

Officials at St. Mary's say the contributions -- which raise the number of endowed chairs from one to six -- will ensure its ability to attract and retain quality educators as the church continues its long struggle to produce enough priests to lead its parishes.

"We are training future priests to pass on and teach the Gospel faithfully with deep understanding and pastoral wisdom," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, president of St. Mary's since 1980, in prepared remarks last night.

"To do this, they need to study with professors of theology who are themselves examples of faith, scholarship, and learning," he said.

Declining numbers

Established in 1791, St. Mary's is located in Roland Park and operated by the Sulpician Fathers, a community of diocesan priests dedicated to educating clergy members. The school has 16 faculty members and 82 seminary students.

In the late 1960s -- before a precipitous national decline in students for the priesthood -- St. Mary's had 320 seminarians.

Yesterday's endowments appear to fit a recent general pattern in contributions to the Catholic church, according to financial observers. Although figures are spotty, the sex abuse scandal did not appear to produce a broad collapse in contributions.

Charles Zech, professor of economics at Villanova University and a specialist in church financing, said the vast majority of Catholic contributions-- as with most denominations -- comes from about 20 percent of its donor base.

Gifts changing

Since the scandal broke, Zech said, fewer Catholics are giving, but wealthy donors in many cases are offsetting the losses with larger contributions.

Even though many Catholics are angry over the church's mismanagement of the sex abuse problem, they continue to give to local parishes and local causes led by priests they admire, observers say.

"I'm sure the sexual abuse crisis has shaken confidence in the hierarchy of the church," said Dean Hoge, a Catholic University sociologist who has studied church finances. "But beloved `Father Jones' in the local parish is not really tainted by these things." This seems to be the case with St. Mary's.

Nan Pinkard, 80, grew up near the seminary's neo-Baroque limestone building. She served on its board of trustees from 1975 to 1982 and says she admires Leavitt's efforts to improve the academic caliber of students. As a gesture, she is naming one of the theology chairs in his honor.

"I would do anything for Bob," she said. "I think he's done wonders for the seminary and in the rocky road we'd been through these last two years, he's stood at the helm."

Although yesterday's announcement was an academic bright spot for St. Mary's, the nation's Catholic seminaries continue to struggle to attract candidates for the priesthood.

Since the 1960s, the number of Catholic priests has fallen and more than two dozen seminaries have closed because of financial problems and low enrollment.

In the Baltimore Archdiocese, the number of priests declined by 30 percent between 1965 to 2000.

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