Recently Pope Francis in speaking to what we old-timer bishops call the “baby bishops gathering” (translated that means all new bishops created in the previous twelve months who gather in September in Rome for a week of instruction on how to be a bishop) suggested to them that they spend more time in their dioceses and less time at the airport. Good pastoral advice which I especially need to take to heart.
But, for the next three days no one will find me at the airport but rather on AMTRAK once again heading to South Florida for the twice a year meetings of the seminary board of trustees for both St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami and the Regional Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul in Boynton Beach. To save time and travel money, we also add a half day meeting of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops. This leaves practically no time to visit with our diocesan seminarians so I make a third trip to each seminary later in the year to interview, encourage, and hopefully assist each of our seminarians individually. All trips to south Florida are on AMTRAK which is cheap, comfortable, usually always late, and different.
This week, however, there is an additional reason to be proud of one of our seminaries, St. Vincent de Paul, which is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its founding. It has an interesting history for a still young institution. It was built originally as a seminary for the Congregation of Missions or as they are better known, the Vincentian fathers. St. Vincent de Paul whose name is appropriately assigned to magnificent works of charity throughout the US also had as a priority of his nascent religious order the formation and education of priests. In 1959, one year after the establishment and creation of the Diocese of Miami, they responded in the affirmative to a request from Miami’s first bishop, Coleman F. Carroll to begin a six year seminary program on property in southwest Miami, part of a 95 acre track of land purchased years previously by Archbishop Joseph P. Hurley, bishop of St. Augustine. As soon as three buildings and a swimming pool were completed, the Vincentians opened a high school and first two years of college seminary program .
At roughly the same time, this same province of Vincentian Fathers was given by Bishop Carroll a larger tract of land in Palm Beach county (also purchased by Archbishop Hurley of St. Augustine), over 100 acres in Boynton Beach, so far west in the county that at the time it seemed to many to be in the middle of the Everglades. Here they were to open what they envisioned as a Philosophy/ Theology seminary for their own seminarians as well as those of any other diocese which might choose to send their men there. The Vincentians were already running seminaries of this nature in St. Louis, Seattle, Denver, near Allentown, PA, Los Angeles and in the post war period there were more than enough vocations to consider opening new houses of formation. So in 1963 St. Vincent de Paul Seminary opened its doors on Military Trail in Boynton Beach and welcomed its first class. The Vincentians used an architect from Albany, New York (their provincial headquarters was near Albany) who designed a series of buildings having never been to Florida. All he knew was that it was hot in Florida and he had a collection of postcards of motels along A1A on our state’s east coast to guide him in his design. Thus the student and faculty wings all looked like motel units BUT the bathrooms could only be accessed by walking outside to a common area and no one told this poor architect that even in Florida it can get quite cold at night from December through March.
The seminary did well from the start with student enrollment and a faculty largely consisting of Vincentian priests and a few diocesan adjunct professors. Note that the seminary opened its doors at precisely the same moment as the universal church opened the Second Vatican Council. Later it was thought by the archbishop that some things had gotten a little out of control at the seminary; the rector and one or two other priests left to get married so by then Archbishop ColemanF. Carroll (Miami was made an archdiocese in 1968) got quite nervous about the seminary and told the Vincentians that they had to give it to him, free, no exchange of money. They rightly refused claiming it was their money that built the seminary in the first place. That did not dissuade Archbishop Carroll (he was a man who did not take “no” to his wishes well) who went to Rome and basically asked for permission to confiscate [the kindest verb I could come up with] the seminary (the Vincentians to this day would say “steal the seminary”), and assume responsibility for its operation and staff. The Vincentians withdrew and a new cadre of priests from the Archdiocese of Miami began to be trained to take their place. A priest from Boston, Monsignor John O’Connor was brought in to be the first non-Vincentian Rector, then a Dominican, Father Urban Voll who is still alive today, then the first Miami priest to serve as Rector/President, Bishop Felipe deJesus Estevez in 1980. Father Joseph Cunningham from Brooklyn, Father Arthur Bendixen from Orlando took over for a short time. He was followed by my classmate, Monsignor Pablo Navarro, then Monsignor Stephen Bosso, then Monsignor Keith R. Brennan and presently from our own diocese, Monsignor David L. Toups.
Fifty years later, the seminary is enjoying a renaissance in enrollment, now with ninety students and more predicted for the next few years based on enrollments from other near-by dioceses and men in the final two years at the college seminary in Miami. It is the nation’s only truly bi-lingual, multi-cultural seminary where a native Spanish speaking seminarian can take all his courses in Spanish and English speaking seminarians pray and study at times in Spanish. In 1981 St. Vincent de Paul was incorporated as a regional seminary when all of the dioceses except one agreed to pay immediately into an endowment fund and assume responsibility not only for funding but also for staffing. Later in the early part of the last decade, that one diocese which had held out initially also joined so the seminary is owned by the seven dioceses of Florida whose bishops sit as members of the Corporation. I have always as bishop supported both of Florida’s seminaries. Transparency requires me to note for the reader’s benefit that I served as Rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami for five years from 1979-1984. We have in the past shared some of our finest priests with both seminaries and in the seventeen and one-half years I have been bishop of St. Petersburg, not one man ordained from St. Vincent de Paul or who attended St. John Vianney College seminary has left the active ministry – a testimony to great work done by our Vocations Admissions team and the seminary formation programs.
The papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano returned to the sunshine state yesterday (Friday) for the anniversary Mass, joining the bishop owners from around the state, and over 600 people jammed into the beautiful seminary chapel for Mass principally concelebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami who serves the seminary as its Chancellor. The seminary is now in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 1984 and its local bishop is the Treasurer. Those motel units will soon be renovated and for the first time in fifty years will have bathrooms and showers in each room and a new residence building for the students should begin construction within the next few months. The seminary endowment fund now sits at about 14.5 million dollars but the bishops agreed that over the next decade, we will all raise enough money for seminary formation to increase the endowment to about thirty million. So a very good first five decades give way to another form of Florida’s “bright future” in the decade which began this month with the new school year. Congratulations are due to Monsignor David Toups, his staff, administration, faculty, students but in a special way to those Vincentian and early diocesan pioneers that had the vision to build, sustain and maintain the seminary. Ad multos annos the saying goes, or loosely translated “here’s to many more years.”