Board scraps St. Charles Borromeo Seminary consolidation plan

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PHILADELPHIA - The board of trustees of Philadelphia's St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood has called for scrapping the planned consolidation of seminary operations on one 30-acre section of the campus and instead moving its operations off campus.

According to a statement released by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia June 7, the board wants to "to "affiliate with a local Catholic college or university and relocate the entire seminary operation" to that location.

A plan to move seminarians in the college division to unused portions of the seminary's upper side, which now houses the theology division, with seminarians in formation for the priesthood, was announced in 2013 as the best way to allow for the seminary's growth.

But a feasibility study by the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia recently looked at alternative models to that plan, which was presented to the trustees in May.

The board recommended the seminary "cease actions aimed at consolidation on the upper campus," according to the archdiocesan news release.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput accepted the recommendation and has tasked Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior, who is the seminary's rector, to begin studying available options.

In an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocesan news website, Bishop Senior said the estimated $50 million cost for renovating the buildings that would have housed the college seminarians was the key factor.

The massive three-story stone structures were built between 100 and 145 years ago. The newest residence and classroom facility, Vianney Hall, is 40 years old. All would need significant upgrades.

Since the estimated proceeds of selling the lower-side property would amount to about $45 million, a gap of at least $5 million would require the raising of funds just to complete the project. That also would not account for additional fundraising to build a long-term endowment fund to support future needs of the seminary.

The Catholic foundation, which is an independent development organization for Catholic organizations in the region, advised against the plan in its study.

The crucial question, as Bishop Senior put it, was, "Is it really the best thing to put all that money into those buildings?"

The seminary today is situated in buildings "which are consuming a disproportionate amount of resources." Only a fraction of the money needed to "maintain a behemoth" is currently being spent on the physical plant today - the annual $500,000 in maintenance costs is "not even close to what it needs."

The seminary's physical layout reflects a different era of formation in which hundreds of seminarians were housed in the style of an army barracks, with resident priests located in a separate wing.

Current best practices of priestly formation call for small groups of seminarians living closely with a resident priest who could model a healthy, integrated priestly spirituality and ministry.

The seminary's trustees have called for the development of a new plan for seminary operations that may include "newly constructed buildings on or near the campus" of an area college.

Such construction would obviously have costs but likely would not require new facilities such as a dining hall, gymnasium, fitness center or other amenities already on a college campus, depending on the nature of the arrangement.

Father Patrick Welsh, vice rector of St. Charles, will work directly on developing the new plan over the next year. If accepted by the seminary board and approved by the archbishop, implementation could take two to three years, Bishop Senior estimated.

He also confirmed what seemed certain with the June 7 announcement: The entire 76-acre seminary campus will at some point be sold.

Development proposals for the site are a separate project from the plan to relocate the seminary, so it is too early to tell how they will proceed.

It is unknown what will become of the college division's massive buildings and ornate St. Martin's Chapel, where Pope Francis last fall met seminarians and spoke to bishops, preceded in doing so by St. John Paul II in 1979.

But just as some parishioners have seen their parish close and in some cases their church sold off or even razed, a seminary, like a parish, is about more than buildings.

"It's not about the past, and this is not a museum," Bishop Senior said. "We are carrying on in a way that is sustainable in the long run. We are doing the best job we can with the men who are responding to God's call today."

He added that the start of a new plan for the seminary "allows us to pursue new facilities that will further enrich and better serve the contemporary academic, spiritual and human needs of our seminarians and lay students."

This year the seminary has seen its enrollment rise to 142, and Bishop Senior expects 164 to begin or continue their priestly formation in the fall.

Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016