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November 23, 2015 | Volume 91 Number 2


photo: Exterior of St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore

Exterior of St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore.

St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore: Camaraderie balanced with strong academics and pastoral care

The seven men in priestly formation for the Diocese of Richmond at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore know full well they are in classes at the oldest Catholic seminary in the United States. They don’t see themselves as being prestigious, but take pride — in the fact that so many bishops and priests have gone before them.

“One of the great things in discerning a priestly vocation is being where there have been two centuries of forming our nation’s Catholic clergy,” said John Christian, a third theology student there. “We’re the first and oldest Catholic seminary in the United States.

“Baltimore, I think, is the spiritual home of American Catholicism,” he added.

Located in Baltimore’s Roland Park neighborhood in a largely wooded property on the north side of the city, St. Mary’s Seminary and University was established in 1791. It was founded by the Sulpicians from France, a society committed to the formation of diocesan priests.

Father Thomas Hurst, ordained a priest for the Diocese of Albany, NY in 1973, is the current rector. He previously served as rector of Theological College of the Catholic University of America from 2002 to 2007. TC, as its students and alumni best know it, is also home to men in priestly formation for the Diocese of Richmond.

Two of the Richmond seminarians at St. Mary’s are currently in pastoral year assignments as part of their formation. They are John Baab at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, Newport News, and James O’Reilly, at St. Anne’s, Bristol.

He spoke of the four characteristics men studying for the priesthood should possess. They are human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral.

“On the human trait, we look for someone who has a balanced personality, is of service to others and is willing and has the ability to serve others,” Father Hurst said.

“When they’re here, are they willing to step up to the plate, take initiative and be responsible?”

Regarding a seminarian’s pastoral approach, St. Mary’s looks to whether or not the man gives “direct service to the poor” which can be done in different ways.

First, third and fourth theology students have weekend assignments in a parish under supervision. Second year theology students are involved in hospital ministry under supervision.

Asked about differences among the various Catholic seminaries, Father Hurst responded, “Each seminary is more alike with others than they are different.” But he acknowledged some might have a different style. Seminarians at TC attend most classes on the Catholic University campus in a busy urban setting.

He called St. Mary’s “a one-roof seminary” with classes, meals and living accommodations all in one large four-story building which dates back to 1929.

In the Diocese of Richmond, Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo makes the decision as to which seminary a specific student will attend. He does so after prayer as to which seminary would be the best fit for the individual.

St. Mary’s in Baltimore currently has 80 seminarians from 20 dioceses. The majority are in the Northeastern and Middle Atlantic states. Richmond is the southernmost diocese represented.

The seminary follows the guidelines from the Program for Priestly Formation which was developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in light of documents from the Vatican.

There has been a significant decline in the number of men seeking the priesthood in recent years.

Photo: Father Robert Leavitt, former rector of St. Mary’s Seminary, leads a class in Fundamental Theology.

Father Robert Leavitt, former rector of St. Mary’s Seminary, leads a class in Fundamental Theology.

“There were 400 of us when I was a seminarian in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” Father Hurst said, adding that today’s lower enrollment does not discourage him.

“We live in hope,” he added, smiling.

The five Richmond seminarians come from different parts of Virginia and chose different courses of study when they were undergraduates. John Christian, from Holy Cross, Lynchburg, majored in anthropology at Lafayette College in Easton, PA.

“I chose that major because it combined a little bit of everything,” he said. “My minor was classical languages and civilization which delved into architecture and art history.”

He had his first thoughts of being a priest when he was at Georgetown Prep School in North Bethesda, MD., a Jesuit school.

He recalls talking to a priest who suggested that he “put it on the back burner.”

“He gave me good advice,” Mr. Christian said. “Finish up here, then go to a regular college and see where you are then,” he explained. “It was the right advice for me.”

After his first two years of studies at St. Mary’s, he did a pastoral year at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newport News.

A native Virginian “and proud of it,” Mr. Christian said he has “a deep abiding affection for and enjoys ministering to the people in the Diocese of Richmond.”

“That’s what I like about our diocese,” he said. “It has the Tidewater, the Piedmont and the mountains. I could be anywhere from Chincoteague to the far corner of southwestern Virginia.”

Right now he has a pastoral assignment on weekends at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Crofton, MD.

The academic program at St. Mary’s is considered rigorous and challenging, the Richmond seminarians agree.

Dan Molochko, now in second theology and from Ascension Parish in Virginia, graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2008. He then worked as a paramedic in the Tidewater area and also in the Middle East. While assigned at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, he first discerned his call to the priesthood with the base chaplain. He entered St. Mary’s in the fall of 2013.

“Being out of the academic setting since 2008 was a big life change when I came here,” he said.

photo:  Morning prayer takes place every day in the chapel.

Morning prayer takes place every day in the chapel.

“It’s very different,” Mr. Molochko said. “I imagined it to be like a six year-long retreat when in fact, it is a mixture of the military, boarding school and theological study.

“It’s rigorous and demanding, but if the candidate is open to the change provided by the formation, then he becomes the best version of himself that he can in six years.”

Tochi Iwuji from Nigeria is a third year theology student and in his first year in the Diocese of Richmond. There are a few other international seminarians from Colombia and one man from France.

The youngest of seven children, Mr. Iwuji had come to the United States to study at Liberty University in Lynchburg. He was working on a master’s degree in pastoral counseling and became active in St. Thomas More Parish. He sought the advice of Msgr. Michael McCarron, pastor, who became his spiritual director.

In Nigeria he was with the Claretians, a religious congregation, for eight years. His family is Catholic and he misses his family back home.

“But I have great support from my parish of St. Thomas More and friends,” he said.

“I’m enjoying the formation and life here,” Mr. Iwuji said, adding that he has visited a number of parishes in the diocese where he encountered “welcoming people at each parish I visited.”

On the other hand, he says he has met people who are anti-Catholic “but I took it to be out of ignorance and lack of good understanding about what Catholics believe.”

“I was able to express my faith and some of them got clarifications,” he continued.

“I wasn’t angry when they asked me questions. I saw it as an opportunity to express my faith. God gives us these opportunities.”

Several of the seminarians in formation for the Diocese of Richmond are from the Arlington Diocese but attended colleges in the Diocese of Richmond. Among them is Matthew Coleman, now in first year pre-theology at St. Mary’s. He graduated from the College of William & Mary in 2012.

Mr. Coleman grew up in St. Mary’s Parish in Fairfax where he was an altar server. He is a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria.

“After I graduated, I spent a couple of years working for my dad who is a lawyer,” Mr. Coleman said. “I knew when I left college I was headed in this direction.

“There was nothing particularly grand, but I had a quiet recurring thought in my head, and towards the end of my time at William & Mary, I got involved in campus ministry.”

Father John David Ramsey, who was campus ministry chaplain at William and Mary when he was a student, encouraged his vocation.

photo: From left are Richmond seminarians Ben Fleser, John Christian, Tochi Iwuji, Dan Molochko and Matt Coleman.

From left are Richmond seminarians Ben Fleser, John Christian, Tochi Iwuji, Dan Molochko and Matt Coleman.

“There have been a number of priests who in their own way have been models for me,” Mr. Coleman said.

Ben Fleser, from Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Newport News where Father Ramsey is now pastor, graduated from Grafton High School in Yorktown in 2006 and then went to George Mason University where he graduated in 2010 with a major in English.

“Then I was involved briefly with the Youth Apostles and worked as a youth minister at All Saints in Manassas and St. Agnes in Arlington,” he said, adding that he is a first theology student in his second year at St. Mary’s.

Before entering formation he lived in community with the Youth Apostles in Norfolk and was involved in parish ministry at Blessed Sacrament where Father Joseph Metzger is pastor.

“Father Joe was definitely supportive when I left for the seminary,” Mr. Fleser said.

“The formation has been positive,” he said. “It’s academically challenging, but the faculty also helps you grow in your human and spiritual life.

“St. Mary’s is very intentional about your experience in pastoral ministry,” he continued.

“In my first year I worked with the poor, specifically teaching an ESL (English as a Second Language) class with Catholic Charities in downtown Baltimore. You meet a lot of people from countries in Latin America as well as from Asia and Africa.”

The spiritual life is strongly available through morning prayer or Lauds every weekday morning at 8 a.m. and evening prayer at 5:15 p.m. in the chapel. Mass is at 11:30 a.m. In addition, there is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament every Tuesday and Thursday. Adoration by the community on Thursday is incorporated into Vespers.

A visitor to St. Mary’s quickly observes the congeniality and good will among the entire student body.

“There is a camaraderie among all of us borne out of the common endeavor of discerning a priestly vocation,” Mr. Christian said. “We all face the same struggles and the rigors.”

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