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Our Rich History: The Seminary of St. Pius X moves to the Thomas More campus

By Tom Ward
Thomas More University 

Part 19 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 TMC. Some of what I write here are my own personal recollections).

Bishop William A. Hughes at seminary graduation, 1980. Fr. Roger Kriege, Covington Vocation Director, is in the center and Fr. William Brown, St. Pius X Rector, is on the right. (Thomas More University Archives, Messenger photo) 

On March 12, 1982, the St. Pius X Seminary Board of Directors made an important decision regarding its future. It included implementation of a “modified-open” seminary with most academic classes to be taken at Thomas More College. In a press release, Bishop William Hughes made public the seminary changes. After elucidating some of the factors involved in the decision, he emphasized that the changes were crucial because “The seminarian needs to be immersed in the world where people live.” He added that “Today we need priests who are totally dedicated to the idea of church that is presented to us by the Second Vatican Council …” (Undated press release, ca. March 1982).

The original plan for introducing the new seminary program was that it would begin with the 1983-1984 academic year. But with many dioceses withdrawing their students from St. Pius X, including some with the largest representations, it became apparent that the student body would be significantly diminished. At the Board of Director’s April 6, 1982 meeting, a lengthy discussion ensued regarding the wisdom of maintaining the current program for a projected number of only twenty-five students when the cost per pupil would be $22,897; the amount not covered by tuition would need to be subsidized by the Diocese of Covington. Furthermore, it seemed impractical to offer forty-three courses for so few students.

The board, therefore, agreed that it would be “financially irresponsible” to maintain a distinct academic program at the seminary for another year. Instead, it unanimously decided that beginning in the fall of 1982, seminarians would reside at St. Pius X and take “as many courses as possible from the academic program . . . at Thomas More College with the possibility of having other classes as needed at St. Pius X Seminary” (Board of Directors meeting minutes, April 6, 1982). The necessary arrangements were worked out between the two diocesan institutions.

With the new seminary program ready to take effect that fall, Fr. William G. Brown, rector of St. Pius X since 1971, decided it would be better for another priest to take his place. A handwritten, non-ascribed note regarding an executive session of the board on May 6, 1982 indicates that Fr. Raymond C. Holtz had applied for the position and had been recommended by the Priest Personnel Board of the diocese; one factor in his favor was that he had been coordinator of counseling services at TMC (1971-1974) and so was familiar with the college. Fr. Holtz was approved as the new (third) rector of St. Pius X Seminary as it embarked on its new program.

Five priests of the diocese were eventually appointed as live-in faculty at St. Pius X, including two others very familiar with the college. Along with Fr. Holtz were two TMC faculty members, Fr. Ronald M. Ketteler of the Theology Department, and Fr. William F. Cleves of the Philosophy Department. Fr. Louis H. Dickmann was appointed as the seminary’s spiritual director, and Fr. Raymond W. Steinhauser, who had extensive knowledge of the physical facility, would remain from the former seminary staff. All would be available as individual spiritual directors for the seminarians (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

Fr. Raymond C. Holtz, third rector of St. Pius X Seminary. (Thomas More University Archives) 

As the 1981-1982 academic year came to a close, there were only four seminarians who would definitely return for the following year, three from Covington and one from Owensboro. But, as Bishop Hughes had hoped, other dioceses of the Province of Louisville had been responsive to the idea of making St. Pius X a provincial seminary. Fr. Roger L. Kriege, vocation director for the Diocese of Covington, had been in contact with many of those dioceses and had received commitments for several men from most of them. Vocation directors from some of these new dioceses would replace those who resigned from the board when their own dioceses withdrew (Board of Directors meeting minutes, May 6, 1982).

In the fall 1982 semester, twenty-two seminarians enrolled at St. Pius X. This included a total of eleven from the Covington Diocese (three more than the previous year), plus seven from Owensboro, three from Louisville and one from Nashville (Board of Directors meeting minutes, Sept. 23, 1982).

The former seminary program had required all students to major in philosophy. The new program allowed other majors, and many more were available at TMC. But the seminarians were all still required to take eighteen hours of philosophy and twelve of theology, and all the required courses were offered at the college (Board of Directors meeting minutes, Feb. 3, 1983).

The seminary still hosted its own spiritual and social activities for the resident seminarians, functioning as what was often referred to as a “house of formation” in which a communal spiritual life was retained. They continued to have daily Eucharist, morning and evening prayer at St. Pius, and there were regularly scheduled conferences, days of recollection and community activities. All were expected to attend these, and although there was less emphasis on “mandatory” attendance than under the former system, the formation program nonetheless recognized that “tardiness shows a lack of consideration; courtesy and dependability should be cultivated in each student’s life” (Seminary of St. Pius X Student Handbook, 1982-1983). The community programs and conferences involved a more expanded range of topics than did the primarily spiritual presentations of the past; some programs introduced seminarians to contemporary psychological and sociological findings, and they all took the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator in the early weeks of the semester, the results of which were to figure into their individual spiritual formation (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

The seminary maintained a kitchen staff with meals served daily, though seminarians could also take meals at TMC when it fit their schedules. Seminarians also had the benefit of using both the college library and the well-maintained seminary library. A van was available, driven by a student, to ferry them back and forth between the seminary and the college for classes. The seminarians were free to participate in various activities at TMC and many of them took advantage; some developed friendships with female students who also visited the seminary, with “mature heterosexual relationships” creating a very different environment than that of prior years (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

Another concern that had been broached by the Seminary Board of Directors was potential uses for the parts of the large building that were not utilized for seminary purposes. A committee was established to examine the question. One use that fit well with the academic and formation aspects of the seminary was making it the location for the preparation of the first group of candidates that entered the diocese’s recently established (1980) Permanent Diaconate Program. Beginning in the fall of 1982, fifteen deacon candidates and their wives spent one weekend a month living at the seminary and taking courses from priests of the diocese. They were also able to interact with the seminarians (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

When the board met for the final time that initial year, Fr. Holtz reported that “the year was successful in terms of the program here, as well as the academic program at Thomas More” (Board of Directors meeting minutes, May 5, 1983). On May 8, 1983, eight seminarians received their Baccalaureate degrees from the Seminary of St. Pius X in a ceremony held on the Erlanger campus; five of them had spent their junior years in the former seminary program. Two weeks later, a special graduation was held at the seminary for all who would have been together as senior class members during the year but had been separated to different seminaries following the adoption of the new program. It was well attended by those who wanted a chance to meet together and celebrate as a class one last time (Personal recollection of Tom Ward).

In the succeeding years, the hoped-for growth of the seminary population did not materialize. The 1984-1985 academic year began with thirty students and 1985-1986 with thirty-five, its largest enrollment (though the numbers of new students were dropping in those years) (Interim Report of Long Range Planning Committee of SPX, Sept. 1985, pp. 7-8), and several more dioceses were recruited over the years. But in spite of more advertisements and promotions, including live-in weekends at the seminary for potential applicants, questions inevitably arose regarding the feasibility of maintaining the seminary building in Erlanger without continually raising room and board.

Fr. Holtz, Bishop Hughes and Fr. Dickmann, with several 1986 Seminary Graduates. (Thomas More University Archives)

Another factor in deciding upon the seminary’s future was the decline in the amount received from the annual diocesan Seminary Fund held in October of each year. Bishop Hughes noted in a letter to priests that the Seminary Fund began a significant decline beginning with the 1982-1983 collection – coincidentally or not – the first year of the new program. The bishop attributed the beginning of the decrease to a change in policy instituted the prior year that made the fund a “collection and not an assessment” (Bishop Hughes letter to Priests, Sept. 25, 1984). Much would depend on the attitude of the pastors, and Bishop Hughes strongly encouraged them to promote the fund in their parishes.

A long-range planning committee was formed in 1985. It studied a broad range of questions, including the on-going need for a college-level seminary in the diocese. The committee issued an Interim Report, dated Sept. 26, 1985, which concluded that, even with an anticipated enrollment of forty for the 1986-1987 academic year, the Diocese of Covington would still be required to make a strong commitment to the Seminary of St. Pius X. It also looked at options for sending Covington seminarians to other seminaries or leasing a dormitory at TMC (Interim Report of Long Range Planning Committee of SPX, Sept. 26, 1985, p. 10).

At the January 23, 1986 seminary board meeting, Bishop Hughes informed the board that he had been in contact with the other bishops of the province. While they all wanted the seminary program to continue, they were not willing or able to commit to supporting it with students or financial contributions (Board of Directors meeting minutes, Jan. 23, 1986). Without the other dioceses accepting the obligation needed to retain the program in Erlanger, it was inevitable that a change of location would be required.

The decision was made at the March 4, 1986 board meeting. The seminary would lease part of unoccupied Ackerman Hall on the TMC campus. It would pay an estimated $250,000 to add a kitchen and dining room section; even with this expense, it was determined that this proposal would save the diocese $54,000 per year in its seminary subsidy.

Furthermore, part of the expense would be negated by turning over the seminary library collection to TMC. The board made this proposal to the Thomas More Board of Trustees, which accepted it (The closed seminary building would be remodeled and re-christened as the “Catholic Center,” the new offices for the Diocese of Covington, in 1988).

The spring of 1986 witnessed the graduation of the first class that had attended the new seminary program for all four years of their college careers. They “expressed appreciation for the emphasis on personal responsibility …” (Spiritual Director’s Report to Board of Directors meeting, May 1, 1986). Most of them would be going on for theological studies, which would give them the chance to see how well the program at St. Pius X had prepared them.

The Seminary of St. Pius X at Ackerman Hall opened its doors for the fall 1986 semester with thirty-one students, which dropped to twenty-eight by October (Board of Directors meeting minutes, Oct. 2, 1986). In light of its close proximity to the TMC campus, Fr. Holtz and Fr. Dickmann sent out a letter emphasizing the unique nature of the on-site facility as one “reserved for the exclusive use of its residents”; although the faculty wanted seminarians to participate in college life, it was important to understand that seminarians “are preparing for the celibate lifestyle …” and so were “not to be involved in relationships that are romantic in nature.” They were encouraged, though, “to develop healthy friendships with both women and men” (Undated letter of Holtz and Dickmann).

In February 1987, the seminary was visited by a Papal Visitation Team that was part of a national study of American Seminaries mandated by the Vatican; the team reported positively regarding the seminary program at Ackerman Hall and its adherence to the “Program of Priestly Formation.” But during the visitation, the board held a meeting on February 11 at which Fr. Holtz reported that enrollment was “dramatically down for second semester,” though he knew of no definite reason for it.

Seminary Newsletter announcing the move to Ackerman Hall, Summer 1986. (Thomas More University Archives) 

The following academic year, 1987-1988, saw the smallest enrollment during the six-year period of the new program, a mere seventeen students. On top of this, costs for operating the program at Ackerman Hall were higher than expected (Board of Directors meeting minutes, Oct. 8, 1987). In October, the Long-Range Planning Committee issued a report that was part of its formulation of a five-year plan. One of the most salient points it noted for planning was that the number of seminarians was not stable, nor were recruitment efforts likely to lead to a significant increase in numbers (Long-Range Planning Committee Report, Oct. 1987). It seemed the writing was on the wall.

At the November 5, 1987 board meeting, the decision was made to phase out the seminary. Afterward, Bishop Hughes released a statement announcing and explaining the decision.

Although he regretted the decision, Hughes explained that it was unavoidable considering that “to continue our own seminary program when we could send our students to another seminary for less than 1/3 of the cost is not responsible stewardship of our diocesan resources.” Juniors and seniors already enrolled in the program would continue their studies at TMC, though all others would have to go to alternative seminaries (Undated statement by Bishop Hughes, ca. Nov. 1987). The Seminary of St. Pius X would be no more.

It is interesting to speculate whether the seminary would have survived had not Bishop Hughes introduced the new program. It is highly likely that the same conservative bishops would have continued to send their men there with few other options available for the kind of program they desired at that time; perhaps St. Pius X could have long bucked the trend toward the more open seminary until later decades when more conservative programs seemed to make a comeback. But in the early 1980s, adopting the new program seemed a reasonable decision in keeping with the spirit of the times.

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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