St. Peter’s celebrates a century of a higher calling

“This place is not boring and the people leaving here are not boring,” laughed an exuberant Fr. Michael Prieur, archivist for St. Peter’s Seminary and its longest tenant. “I’ve been here for over 50 years. That’s my claim to fame.”

Prieur rejoiced in those years of memories earlier this week as St. Peter’s Seminary celebrated its 100th anniversary. As one of only six Roman Catholic seminaries – and the oldest English-speaking one in Canada – St. Peter’s provides an opportunity for education in theology and philosophy to both men and women, religious and lay.

Since its founding in 1912 by the Right Rev. Michael F. Fallon, fifth bishop of the diocese of London (1909-31), a total of 1,041 priests have been ordained, serving in more than 50 dioceses and religious communities in Canada, the United States and beyond.

Of those, 23 have been named bishops and, just earlier this year, Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins was named by Pope Benedict XVI as one of 22 new cardinals into the prestigious College of Cardinals. Collins returned Tuesday to celebrate mass at St. Peter’s for the first time since his elevation to cardinal.

Prieur said seeing the more than 200 alumni return to the seminary was a great opportunity to pause and reflect on what has been accomplished over the past century and what St. Peter’s means personally to everyone.

“I think they look back and appreciate the basics that kept us going as priests,” said Prieur, who is one of seven authors to participate in a book on the history of St. Peter’s Seminary, which was released earlier this week. “The basics, which was a deep sense of God will provide, the necessity to pray, and obedience to the bishop. Obedience saves us from ourselves.”

While most assume the seminary, through its affiliation with King’s University College, is all about graduating priests (eight years out of high school, five years with a university degree), they’re quickly surprised to see what St Peter’s is all about.

Offering graduate degrees in theology for seminarians and lay students, including the master of divinity-advanced, master of divinity and master of theological studies, the seminary accepts candidates from dioceses and religious communities across Canada. While no American dioceses are represented among the student body at present, the seminary has a long list of graduates from various locations in the United States.

“It’s amazing,” said Fr. Steve Wlusek, St. Peter’s Seminary rector. “This a monumental place that truly has had a life changing effect on life in Canada.”

A faculty member since 2000, Wlusek became rector in 2010. When questioned of the importance and need for the seminary, he is quick to defend.

“You can ask the same question if we still need a university,” he said. “There’s far more to education, especially educating people to become priests or lay ministers in the church, than just intellectual knowledge. There’s a lot more here that goes on than that. There’s faith formation and developing a deeper spirituality and relationship with God; developing communications skills, conflict resolution and dealing with other people, getting to know the needs of the people in your parishes.”

What sets St. Peter’s apart from two English-speaking counterparts in Toronto and Edmonton, Wlusek said, is the composition of its faculty.

“We feel the students should be formally educated by a parish priest, and that’s been a stable characteristic the seminary offers to the church of Canada and beyond,” he said. “They have that experience of how to shepherd the flock, so to speak. You don’t want someone to say ‘Well, I read it in a book about parish life.’”

Twenty-six years ago, when Wlusek was a seminarian, there were 110 other students along side him. But since he’s been on faculty, those numbers have dwindled to anywhere from 35-60. There are currently 38 seminarians at St. Peter’s.

“In the past 20 years it has been a roller coaster with regards to the numbers here in the seminary,” Wlusek said. “I think a lot of that has been affected by the sort of materialism of society and a sense of individualism of society.

“We have seen trends in previous years and it peaks up again.”

Wlusek was encouraged by the fact 25 young men visited St. Peter’s as part of their two open house weekends this year, the most over the past two decades of these events.

“I am a firm believer that the church is in the hands of the Holy Spirit to guide us,” Wlusek said. “Jesus said he would not leave his church abandoned and that he would always be with us, and I believe that. When I see the number of priests declining, I have also seen an increase in the number of lay people and married men who have entered in the permanent deaconate, to continue the work of the proclamation of the gospel.”