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Board members say Chicago seminary closure lacks transparency

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago (Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

The board members told Cupich his 'unfortunate approach to decision-making is driving people away'

Members of the advisory board for Chicago’s college seminary have written to Cardinal Blase Cupich, saying that his recent decision to close the seminary was made without consultation or transparency, and will negatively impact the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“The complete lack of transparency surrounding this decision (neither the Board nor the Rector were consulted) seems symptomatic of many issues currently affecting the church,” advisory board members at St. Joseph College Seminary in Chicago wrote to Cupich in a March 11 letter published by NBC 5 Chicago.

“Aside from the horrible impact this decision will have on the seminarians and our church in the future, we feel compelled to tell you that this unfortunate approach to decision-making is driving people away — not encouraging opening and healing to a broken church.”

Cupich announced in January that the college seminary would close in June.

In a January 14 press release, the archdiocese cited declining enrollment figures and the changing demographic of aspirants to the priesthood, saying that the need for undergraduate seminaries like St. Joseph has diminished because men more frequently have completed college before applying to the seminary than they had in times past.

Undergraduate seminarians for the Archdiocese of Chicago will after June matriculate at St. John Vianney College Seminary in Minnesota, the archdiocese announced.

When the closure was announced, some complained that the news had come without warning during a visit of Cupich to the seminary.

In their letter, board members said they “expected more” from Cupich “than just an 11-minute announcement with no advance warning or dialogue. Discussion with the Board regarding your concern about the ‘numbers’ would have been our expectation and a far more appropriate approach.”

According to an archdiocesan report, college seminary enrollment at St. Joseph is in fact on the decline. In 2014, the year Cupich was installed as Archbishop of Chicago, there were 45 students at St. Joseph College Seminary. By 2017, that number had fallen to 28, and, according to the archdiocese, dropped to 20 students by January 2019.

The number of Chicago seminarians in postgraduate “major seminary” formation at the archdiocesan Mundelein Theological Seminary is also on the decline. While there were 63 Chicago seminarians at Mundelein in 2013 and 66 in 2014, by 2016, there were 48 Chicago seminarians at Mundelein, and 53 in 2017.

The advisory board’s letter said those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“While the very recent numbers have been disappointing to us as well, we’ve been more focused on the quality of young men over quantity. Moreover, the Quigley Scholar Program for High School students was just beginning to bear significant fruit.”

Indeed, archdiocesan figures suggest that while college seminary enrollment has declined, the number of graduates continuing priestly formation in postgraduate “major seminary,” could be on the rise: while in 2013, 2014, and 2016 only two graduates continued on for further formation at Mundelein Seminary, that number doubled in 2015 and 2017 to four.

The names of the seminary’s advisory board members are not publicly available, and calls to the seminary were not returned by press time. But the letter noted that some board members have been active fundraisers for the seminary.

“When veiled in complete secrecy, how can we, as a Board of Advisors with years of dedicated service and millions of dollars raised conclude anything other than this was a decision bereft of objective criteria and prayerful discernment? While talk about ‘transparency and accountability’ is a noble goal, here there was neither.”

The news of the college seminary’s closure came seven years after St. Joseph College Seminary moved into a new home. While the seminary had before then rented dorm space at Chicago’s Loyola University, in 2012 a new building opened with capacity for 68 students, and six suites for priests and faculty members.

Father Paul Stein, who was in 2012 rector of the seminary, called the new facility “a statement of faith and hope about the future of the priesthood here in this archdiocese and in the many dioceses and religious orders which we serve.”

In their March letter, advisory board members said that when the building was dedicated “Cardinal Francis George once again renewed the Archdiocese of Chicago’s long-time commitment to the young men discerning priesthood.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago did not respond to requests from CNA for comment.

The advisory board members said they will be waiting for a response from the archdiocese, and from Cupich.

“Your total disregard for the Board of Advisors, our Rector-President and others in the Archdiocese who have made significant financial contributions to the college seminary over many decades, together with the lack of any apparent consultation in making this decision, speaks volumes about the value, or lack of it, that you place on us, as financial supporters and Board members, and on the long history of Niles College and St. Joseph College Seminary. We await your response with prayerful anticipation.”