A Closer Look: Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Legacy, Promise, and Hope
While the Archdiocese of Cincinnati celebrates its bicentennial in 2021, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology, founded in 1829, will have to wait a few more years. Nonetheless, the milestone anniversary of the archdiocese is an appropriate time to consider the past legacy, present promise and future hope of Mount St. Mary’s. As the third-oldest Catholic seminary in the U.S., it serves the Church far beyond the boundaries of Western and Southwestern Ohio. While its core mission remains the education and formation of priests for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Mount St. Mary’s has an expanding national influence.
The Diocese of Cincinnati’s first bishop, Edward Fenwick, founded St. Francis Xavier Seminary on Sycamore Street in Downtown Cincinnati near the location of the present St. Francis Xavier Church. That first class had four seminarians and six preparatory students. Two years later, a college of liberal arts for lay students, the Athenaeum, was established next door. In 1839, St. Francis Xavier Seminary moved to Brown County, but the location proved to be impractical, and so it was moved back to Cincinnati after a few years.
In 1851, Bishop John Purcell moved the seminary to Price Hill and renamed it “Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West.” The name change was partly to avoid confusion with the new St. Francis Xavier College (now Xavier University), after the Society of Jesus assumed control of the Athenaeum and renamed it thus. But the name change was also an homage to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland (the second oldest in the U.S.), where Bishop Purcell served as president and rector before moving to Cincinnati. Due to a financial crisis, in 1879, the seminary closed its doors, reopening in Price Hill in 1887. And, in 1890, a separate college seminary, St. Gregory’s Seminary, opened in Mount Washington.
In 1923, under the leadership of Archbishop John Moeller, the seminary moved from Price Hill to a newly erected building in Norwood. It operated in Norwood until 1982, when it moved to its current Mount Washington location, on the former campus of St. Gregory Seminary, which closed in 1980. (The Norwood campus on Moeller Avenue is the current site of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center.)
In 2020, the seminary was rebranded as Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. The primary purpose and core mission of the institution is as a seminary, to form and educate men for the ordained priesthood. But the name change also reflects the institution’s continuing commitment to lay education and ministry, which began in 1975 with the creation of the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program, now operating as the School of Theology.
In the just-completed academic year, 85 men were enrolled in the seminary division, and 67 lay students were enrolled in various degree or certificate programs in the School of Theology. While some seminary students may also complete Master of Arts degrees, all who finish the program receive the Master of Divinity degree, leading to their ordinations to the priesthood. Lay students are enrolled in programs for the conferral of a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry, a Master of Theology, or one of two slightly less strenuous certificate programs.
Of the 85 seminarians, approximately 50-percent are from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. The other half are from other dioceses or religious orders that have sent their men to Mount St. Mary’s for formation and education. These include the Ohio dioceses of Toledo and Youngstown as well as the dioceses of Tulsa, OK; Kansas City, MO; Louisville, KY; Charlotte, NC; Fort Wayne/South Bend, IN; and the Congregation of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and the missionary order of the Fathers of Mercy. This reflects the confidence that these dioceses and religious orders have in the formation and education that their seminarians receive at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.
Despite the many challenges for the Church in the U.S, Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology is a sign of hope for the future of the Church. Over the last three years, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has ordained 21 new priests, in addition to those ordained in other dioceses. The 2021 class of nine priest ordinations matches the 2019 class as the highest number over the last 40 years. And the enrollment trend of the seminary indicates that these numbers will continue at or above these levels. To meet this growing trend, the seminary opened a new residence building in 2019, Fenwick Hall, which brings its residency capacity to more than 100 men.
This hope is consistent with the conclusions of Franciscan University sociologist, Anne Hendershott, who has identified four key factors common to successful Catholic seminaries in the U.S.:
(1) a “transformational” bishop who (2) places a high emphasis on vocations; (3) commitment to theological orthodoxy; and (4) a strong seminary rector who recruits faculty who are faithful to the Magisterium. Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology could be exhibit A for this analysis. And it is a sign that this institution can look forward to its own joyous bicentennial, building upon a strong legacy, with the promise of a hopeful future.
Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.
This article appeared in the June 2021 Bicentennial Edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.