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Our Rich History: Thomas More College and the Seminary of St. Pius X at Marydale in Erlanger

By Tom Ward 
Thomas More University

Part 18 of our series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

(Note: I was a seminarian for the Diocese of Covington in my junior year during the visitation study and in my senior year at the time of the transition from the self-contained seminary program to the new one that included classes at Thomas More College. Some of what I write here are my own personal recollections, as clearly marked below. Tom Ward).

Soon after his installation as fifth Bishop of Covington, William T. Mulloy (1945-1959) determined to take charge of the education of priests for the diocese. He decided to build a college-level seminary in the Diocese of Covington, which would give him control over the early stages of seminary formation before his seminarians would go elsewhere for graduate theological studies.

Bishop William T. Mulloy blesses the cornerstone of the seminary, October 26, 1958. On the right is Fr. Elmer Grosser, who would be the first rector. (Thomas More University Archives, Messenger photo) 

One of Bishop Mulloy’s early moves was to purchase the Williamsdale Farm on Donaldson Road in Erlanger in 1946 as grounds for a Christian Camp and the retreat movement, a property he re-named “Marydale.” That property would also provide space for his new seminary.

Following a diocesan-wide capital campaign, construction of the Seminary of Saint Pius X went forward according to Bishop Mulloy’s plans. Seminarians began taking classes in a converted barn on the Marydale property in 1955. A completely new building, designed by Architects Betz and Bankemper, was completed in time for classes at the beginning of the spring 1960 term, though Bishop Mulloy did not live to see it–he had died on June 1, 1959. His successor was Bishop Richard H. Ackerman (1960-1978). In the early years of his tenure, Ackerman had the experience of attending all four sessions of the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-1965) (Historical notes from Seminary of St. Pius X Catalog, 1981-1982).

Following Vatican II, changes were being introduced in seminary programs around the country. Differences between types of seminaries were noted in The Program of Priestly Formation (PPF) of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), first released in 1970 as its response to the Vatican Council’s Decree on the of Training of Priests. The PPF referred to several models of seminary formation, only two of which are relevant to this article: what it called the “traditional or self-contained” model in which a single seminary structure provided all education, spiritual and pastoral training for its seminarians; and the “supplemental” model, with a more open style in which seminarians would still live in a seminary or house of formation building, while taking their classes with other students on a Catholic college or university campus (“Program of Priestly Formation”, 3rd Edition, 1981, p. 7). With the Catholic Thomas More College nearby, some diocesan priests thought that such a program would be in order for the Seminary of Saint Pius X, which would then no longer need to maintain its own faculty. As a matter of fact, the two institutions had long shared some faculty.

The Seminary of St. Pius X on the Marydale property in Erlanger. (Thomas More Archives)

Bishop Ackerman, however, strongly resisted this new trend and continued to favor the traditional model for Saint Pius X so that it gained the reputation of being a very conservative seminary. The seminary in the Diocese of Covington was supported by bishops from other dioceses who shared his views, with the result that seminarians representing many dioceses made up the student body at Saint Pius X, far outnumbering those of the Covington Diocese. Not all priests in the diocese favored this program and they hoped that it would eventually be adapted to fit the times. (It was sometimes derisively referred to as the “bastion of orthodoxy”) (Personal recollection of Tom Ward). This was where matters stood when Bishop Ackerman retired in 1978.

The next Bishop of Covington, William A. Hughes (1979-1995), took a very different view of Vatican II and seminary formation. Taking The Program of Priestly Formation as his guide, Bishop Hughes invited a team from the NCCB’s Committee on Priestly Formation to visit the seminary and evaluate its program in the spring of 1981.

Over the course of four days, March 1-4, the visitation team, headed by the Bishop of Richmond, Walter Sullivan, studied the education and formation provided at Saint Pius X. The committee had individual priest consultants looking into different components of seminary life: administration, academics, spiritual formation, community life and discipline, and field education/apostolic program. They read through many of the guidelines and directives for seminarians, observed classes, and talked with the seminary board, many of the faculty and students, as well as other priests of the diocese. Not all of those interviewed had a positive perception of the seminary. The team issued a report of their findings on June 12, 1981, which made many recommendations. (This document, “Report to the Bishops’ Committee on Priestly Formation by the on-site visitation team concerning St. Pius X Seminary–Erlanger, Kentucky,” will be abbreviated as “On-site team report” in references below).

Although the report found many admirable aspects in the seminary’s program, it also found many shortcomings. In general, the visitation team decried the many respects in which they believed that the overall program was too formal and rigid, with most activities overly structured and mandatory, leaving little room for seminarians to make their own decisions and develop their own levels of personal maturity. The team noted that the attitude of some seminarians was “almost militant in favor of the more regimented life style [sic] reminiscent of seminaries in the 1950s” (On-site visitation team report, p. 15). The team believed that those seminarians who so closely identified with the structured program were not as well prepared to minister as priests in the Church as it was at the current time (On-site visitation team report, p. 24).

One point that the team emphasized was that the Bishop of Covington should have more control over the program. The diocese was subsidizing the seminary well beyond the level at which tuition alone could support it. Although the other dioceses were not providing any substantial level of financial support beyond tuition, they seemed to have undue influence over the nature of the program at Saint Pius X (On-site visitation team report, pp. 8-9).

The team’s report, with its recommendations, was then presented to a diocesan Special Study Committee appointed by Bishop Hughes, with the primary charge to prioritize the On-site team’s recommendations and make its own recommendations to the Seminary Board of Director (Special Study Committee report, p. 2). This committee, chaired by Fr. James Quill, was comprised of priests, laity and religious of the diocese. Over the course of three meetings (and subcommittee meetings), they examined and prioritized the recommendations made in each area of the Visitation Team’s document. They submitted their report to the bishop on December 11, 1981.

The Study Committee highlighted one of the Visitation Team’s main points–the Diocese of Covington should have more say in the seminary program and other dioceses should bear a larger share of its financial burden. The committee questioned continuing the “self-contained” environment as the most conducive for “the growth process that should take place and the realities of the actual ministry in the priesthood” (Special Study Committee report, p. 3). Spiritual formation should also be less structured to allow for “deeper personal growth and self-discipline” (Special Study Committee report, p. A-4).

Bishop Richard H. Akerman (Thomas More University Archives)

At the January 11, 1982 seminary Board of Directors meeting, in response to a recommendation made by the On-site visitation team and highlighted by the Special Study Committee, Bishop Hughes laid out his vision for the priesthood that he believed should underlie seminary formation. He identified what he saw as shortcomings with the “traditional, self-contained” model like that of Saint Pius X. One of the most significant was that such a program limited seminarians’ contact with other laypeople and the problems they faced. Further, it did not “offer adequate opportunity for the young seminarian to adjust to living in the presence of women in a normal relationship” (Summary of Talk Given by Bishop Hughes at Board of Directors Meeting, Jan. 11, 1982, p. 2). He also emphasized that the program fostered reliance on authority, rather than preparing seminarians to make their own decisions as priests.

In a telling passage, Bishop Hughes addressed one of the main points of contention between those who favored and those who opposed the traditional program at St. Pius X: “students who are not in major orders should not dress as if they were. Cassock, surplice and clericals really have no place in a college seminary … The seminary should not cater to the need of some students for externals, but rather should seek to develop the internal commitment of these students” (Summary of Talk Given by Bishop Hughes at Board of Directors Meeting, Jan. 11, 1982, p. 3). The requirement of wearing clerical garb and mandatory attendance at various spiritual exercises were some of the things most criticized by those who wanted to change the program at Saint Pius X (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

The stress level among the seminarians had been high during the Onsite team’s visit and it was even higher in the spring of 1982 as they awaited the outcome of deliberations concerning the seminary program. Some expressed their views in a respectful letter, dated March 10, 1982, to Bishop Hughes and the Board of Directors, who were to meet on March 12th to make the decision about the future of the seminary program. They defended the traditional model by saying that a man in formation “requires the proper environment in which to develop a strong, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.” In regard to the alternative of a program with classes on another college campus, they stated that it “would not be conducive to a solid Christ-centered priestly formation.” The letter claimed to have been signed by 47 of 71 seminarians (Seminarian letter, Mar. 10, 1982).

It was obvious that many seminarians feared that the program they cherished would be significantly altered, although there were others who hoped that it would be changed for the better. When the decision was finally announced, some who were disappointed opined that the visitation process had been undertaken merely to give Bishop Hughes cover for what he had wanted to do all along – make changes to the program at Saint Pius X to bring it in line with what prevailed in most other American seminaries (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

Following the March 12th Board meeting, Bishop Hughes sent a letter, dated March 16, 1982, to priests of the diocese in which he outlined what changes would be made to the seminary. After first noting that enrollment had dropped for the 1981-1982 academic year (due in part by the withdrawal of students of the Archdiocese of Washington) and that price per pupil costs were rising, the bishop listed seven changes he wanted made according to recommendations of the On-site team. Among the most prominent were: more personal freedom for seminarians, rather than submission to authority, so they would develop interpersonal relations and “mature heterosexual relationships”; implementation of a “modified-open” seminary with most academic classes to be taken at TMC; the cessation of clerical dress for seminarians; and a faculty with a “broad range of pastoral experiences and present day theological thinking” that would require closer compliance with the diocesan tenure policy.

Bishop William A. Hughes (Thomas More University Archives)

Bishop Hughes admitted that he realized that some bishops would object to these changes, but he took seriously the recommendation that the Diocese of Covington assert more control over the seminary. He further emphasized his commitment to maintaining the seminary and announced that he hoped to bring in more students from the Louisville Province, which included the Archdiocese of Louisville, the Dioceses of Covington and Owensboro in Kentucky, and Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee (Bishop Hughes to priests, Mar. 16, 1982).

Bishop Hughes sent a letter to each of the bishops of other dioceses who sent students to Saint Pius X and many of them did indeed disapprove of the changes (Board of Directors meeting minutes, April 6, 1982). The introduction of the new program would mean that Saint Pius X would lose the very things that distinguished it from the other seminaries of which they did not approve, and so it would lose what most attracted them to it.

Since some of these other dioceses, such as Lincoln, Nebraska and Wichita, Kansas, were very far from Erlanger, Kentucky, there no longer seemed to be any good reason for their students to travel such a long distance. Many of those bishops who had favored Saint Pius’s conservative, traditional orientation decided to send their men elsewhere. This naturally led to a dramatic decrease in the number of seminarians who would be committed to attending Saint Pius X for the 1982-1983 academic year. Most of the other provincial dioceses, however, agreed to send some students to St. Pius X (though the Diocese of Owensboro already did).

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD, is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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