Philadelphia seminary plans to compress campus, close college buildings

PHILADELPHIA - Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced March 7 that the archdiocese will consolidate some facilities and close some buildings on the campus of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.

The archbishop announced the changes in his weekly column posted on CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the archdiocese.

"St. Charles Borromeo Seminary is the heart of our church in Philadelphia, and we remain dedicated to not only maintaining its presence in our community, but strengthening it for many generations to come," Archbishop Chaput said in a statement.

"Our commitment to providing the best possible program of priestly formation for the benefit of our seminarians and the people they will one day serve is unwavering," he said. "The plan being announced today will ensure the future viability and sustainability of our seminary now and in the future."

The huge building that houses the college division, known as the lower side, will be closed and the seminary consolidated into what is now the theology division, or upper side.

The seminary will seek to lease or sell underutilized buildings and property, but at the same time implement new spiritual and academic programs for seminarians and lay adult theology students.

The plan, which is expected to take three to five years to implement completely, will see the campus reduced from its current 75 acres to 30 acres.

The seminary, which was founded in 1832, has been at its current location since 1871. The gigantic lower side E-shaped building, with a frontage of 834 feet including St. Martin Chapel, opened in 1928 as the preparatory division.

At the time, its capacity was estimated at 400 seminarians, mostly on a college level, with a small number in the upper grades of high school. It included sleeping quarters, classrooms, dining facilities, study halls, an auditorium and recreational areas as well an entire wing devoted to faculty quarters.

The advanced seminarians in the theology division remained in the upper side complex, which has been expanded over the years.

A total of 19 buildings comprise the two complexes, which face each other across the campus.

Peak enrollment at St. Charles was 534 seminarians in 1960, according to a seminary history written in the 1960s, and the peak ordination year was 1937 with 55 ordained, according to the history.

"The board of trustees has been studying this for years now and we have looked at a variety of scenarios," said the seminary's rector, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior.

One of the scenarios considered was consolidation on the college side, which wasn't practical. Another scenario envisioned closing the entire campus and building a new smaller seminary at another location, but that wasn't practical either when considering that merely building a new high school can cost $65 million to $70 million, Bishop Senior said in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com.

Also the seminary's current location is easily accessible for those who use the other programs that utilize the facilities.

But consolidation is not being done because enrollment is dropping at this time, Bishop Senior emphasized. At 130 seminarians, it isn't much different than when he attended 28 years ago. At this time St. Charles is actually growing, with incoming enrollment projected at a 20 percent increase next year.

The fact is the building has been underutilized since at least the mid-1970s and now even more so because many young men are college graduates when they enter St. Charles. Today most of the seminarians are in the theology division, already utilizing the buildings that will be retained.

"The 1928 building is enormous, I don't think people realize how big it is," Bishop Senior said. "Pragmatically, it was built to house a large number of men."

Currently, 45 young men in the college division, Bishop Senior said, adding that 18 were studying for Philadelphia and the rest were studying for other dioceses.

St. Martin Chapel, which is attached to the lower side building, is itself huge. It was designed to hold 800 seminarians if necessary.

"It is our primary chapel, and I never walk up the aisle without getting a lump in my throat," Bishop Senior said, "but we have to look out for what is best for the men."

"We love the Brook," Bishop Senior said. St. Charles is nicknamed "Overbrook."

"But the seminary has to be more. It is not a museum. It has a wonderful history and tradition, but for the 130 students who are here, what is important is today and tomorrow and the years to come," he said.

St. Charles is now one of the few seminaries that continue to offer a fully self-contained college program in addition to the theology program, and some of the bishops who send students to Philadelphia do so for that reason, Bishop Senior noted.

Archbishop Chaput has appointed a task force, headed by Rosalie M. Mirenda, president of Neumann University, a Catholic university near Philadelphia. The panel will consider what direction the St. Charles college program should take in the future, if it is to continue.

Recommendations are expected by the end of June with implementation in the academic year 2014-15.

St. Charles will continue to serve the seminarians. The program will be expanded in 2014-15 to reinstate a "spirituality year" as part of the formation.

The year will be mandatory for the Philadelphia Archdiocese's candidates and optional for others, Bishop Senior explained. Seminarians will allow a full year for spiritual formation in discerning their priestly vocation, he said.

The upper side complex can accommodate the permanent diaconate program and the Graduate School of Theology, which offers graduate degrees and catechetical certificate programs for clergy and laity.

"This is not a historical site where people come to look at things and remember what the church was," Bishop Senior said. "This is a place where people come to learn what the church is and what it will become and that is not about buildings necessarily."

Baldwin is a freelancer who writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and Phaith magazine, the archdiocesan magazine.

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