St Lawrence Seminary Springs from Humble Beginnings

It’s affectionately known as the “Hill of Happiness.” Whether students graduated from St. Lawrence Seminary High School in 1864 or will graduate in 2010, a common thread is woven through each of them – a strong devotion to Catholicism entwined with a solid education. 

Two diocesan priests, Fr. Francis Haas and Fr. Bonaventure Frey, arrived from Switzerland to establish a Capuchin order in the United States in 1856. Two Swiss Capuchins joined them on Mount Calvary, and both joined the order after building a small friary atop the lush, wooded hill. Four years later, the Convent Latin School opened as an offshoot of the friary.

Initial enrollment was four students, each of whom paid $10 to cover room, board and tuition. Fifteen students enrolled the following year and 20 more a year later.

Adding a college wing in 1864 offered the high school boys a stepping stone to study for the priesthood. Enrollment quickly grew and another college wing was added in 1867.

Optimistic, the 1868 school year began with 28 Capuchin friars and 42 students in the newly completed friary and college. The joy turned to disbelief as a Christmas fire in the sacristy gutted the entire complex, except for a portion of the church.

From the ashes, school rebuilt

The rebuilt school, “The Little Seminary of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi,” named after the founder of the Capuchin Order, reopened the following fall. Another college building, St. Joseph Hall, was erected in 1872, and the Laurentianum, the current main office building and classrooms, was built in 1881.

In 1895 Fr. Haas died after realizing his dream to found a Capuchin order in the United States, and with the knowledge that St. Lawrence was a renowned educational institution for young men interested in the religious life. Fr. Frey lived to see the 50th anniversary of the Capuchin foundation in Mount Calvary. He died in 1912, also leaving the legacy of the successful St. Lawrence Seminary High School. The school’s name was formally changed from St. Lawrence College to St. Lawrence Seminary in 1953.

When he was a boy, Capuchin Fr. Werner Wolf, local minister (superior) of the Capuchin Friars at St. Lawrence Friary, followed his older brother Eugene around the campus while discerning his secondary education. Fr. Eugene attended St. Lawrence, joined the Capuchins and resides in Mount Calvary today.

Fr. Wolf attended St. Lawrence from 1946 to 1950, and went to the Capuchin novitiate in Huntington, Ind., after graduation. His first permanent assignment as a Capuchin out of formation was in 1960 at St. Lawrence Seminary, where he taught speech, religion and geometry.

For 18 years, Fr. Werner Wolf served as teacher, prefect, spiritual director, formation director and vice rector. In 1978, he served as provincial director of vocations and director of a residential pre-novitiate program, followed by several years as an itinerant preacher. Several positions later, he was asked back to Mount Calvary to serve as local minister of the Capuchins.

“I thought it would be difficult for me to come back to (St. Lawrence Seminary) when asked in 2005 after so many years in vocation and formation ministry. First of all, I believe the present administration runs a tight ship, but a good one, outstanding formation morally, educationally, spiritually and socially,” he said. “Upon returning, I found two items really standing out, one, the fraternity system of student living and life and two, morning and evening prayers each school day and three Eucharists each week.”

The Friday Mass is a powerful experience, according to Fr. Wolf, who said the entire student body, the staff and faculty attend as one community. The prayer life and the fraternal life provide a close-knit family atmosphere that draws students together, he said.

While student dress, demographics, enrollment, technology and music changed since Fr. Wolf set foot on campus in the 1940s, the greatest change has been the focus on security and protecting the school’s youth.

Overcoming scandal
A sexual abuse scandal rocked the campus in the early 1990s after it was learned that five Capuchin friars abused 14 former students from 1968 to 1986. The abusive friars are either deceased or left the order, and none was convicted of a crime.

Not one student dropped out when the scandal broke during the 1992-93 school year, and enrollment has remained constant at around 225 students. Parents and alumni maintained their loyalty to the school’s mission, but significant changes were made to protect this tragedy from ever happening again, Fr. Wolf said.

“Security is an obvious change. Before, dorms were never locked, nor most areas,” he said. “Now, no dorm, room, or activity area functions without supervision by an adult.”

In learning from its mistakes, the school has continued to flourish despite a decrease in vocations and, according to Fr. Wolf, the continued existence of St. Lawrence Seminary High School is nothing short of a miracle.

“I come back to the hill that is literally ‘out in nowhere’ existing in this day and age – it is like Notre Dame,” he said. “In many ways, as time has changed, it is a marvelous ministry training school and is going to continue to impact and imprint the local and total world community in some manner or form.”

Strong leadership guides school
When hundreds of seminaries closed in the 1960s due to a decrease in vocations, Fr. Keith Clark, president emeritus of St. Lawrence Seminary, saved the school from following the same path, according to Fr. Wolf.

“His leadership brought Capuchins and lay staff together in a common trust and value system,” he said. “Rector Fr. Dennis Druggan and others pick up on that and have placed it on solid footing for the spirit, life and culture of the 21st century.”

As a student in the early 1950s, Capuchin Fr. Ron Smith remembers a completely Capuchin staff except for those working in the kitchen, housekeeping and maintenance, and a primarily white student body.

“I was present for four years of high school and one year of college,” he said. “After that, I joined the Capuchins in the novitiate in Detroit where Fr. Solanus Casey (Venerable Servant of God) also lived.”

Showing the Calvary spirit by being Christ-like was the focus of spirituality at the time, as well as a strong devotional life through the rosary, communal meditations, the Mass and the sacraments – most of which remain constant today, said Fr. Smith.

“One important item that remains constant in the school is the importance of the individual,” he said. “Faculty meetings attest to this. When I taught here in the 1960s and 1970s, meetings were long because time was taken for each individual. The growth, challenges, successes, failures, joys and sorrows of our students became part of faculty concern, care and prayers. Faculty meetings and other gatherings still reflect this central concern.”

From 1966 to 1977, Fr. Smith taught English and served as a dorm supervisor in St. Mary’s Hall from 1966-1970. He also served as coordinator of a group of minority students, which called itself the Coalition of Oppressed Peoples, and was intended to be a support for minority vocations and a vehicle of instruction and information on race relations and stereotyping.

Academically, more challenging
Returning to St. Lawrence Seminary in August 2006 as an English teacher, Fr. Smith now serves as spiritual director; substitute English teacher, study hall supervisor and helps with recruiting new students.

In addition to demographic changes, the course schedules are academically more challenging than they were.

“There are college credit courses being taught at the upper class level,” he said. “I know more reading is required, including during break times. There are more electives available than there were in my previous times at (St. Lawrence Seminary).”

While the school has not had a separate college for more than 40 years, Fr. Smith finds it difficult to judge whether the change is positive.

“This is a change in student leadership and maturity which I am sure had its influence and implications, but is more difficult for me to judge,” he said. “I believe that college age students had a great positive influence upon me as a student, especially those who went on to become ordained or entered religious life. The fidelity of these men, Capuchin and non-Capuchin, remains an inspiration in my life.”

Focus on developing spiritually
The focus at St. Lawrence to live a deep spiritual life and develop a greater appreciation of the Catholic faith is one reason Fr. Smith felt drawn to the priesthood.

“I learned the practice of ‘lectio divina’ (contemplative prayer) at (St. Lawrence Seminary) and it has been a part of my prayer life ever since,” he said.  “I have very good memories that go back to my days as a student in the early 1950s. Friendships formed during those years have lasted through the decades to the present time. Living so close together in the big dorms of those days, living very simply without many things, and in a tight schedule with few options or electives of any kind, our shared life gave us experiences of faith and inspiration.”

While discerning his vocation to religious life during his first year of college at St. Lawrence Seminary, Fr. Smith was moved during a retreat by Capuchin Fr. Rupert Dorn.

“Sharing that experience of discernment with closer friends at the time is a lasting happy memory of mine through the years, including discussions in which we were not in agreement. That discernment process required me to think through my priorities of faith and gain a better sense of listening to the Holy Spirit.”

Graduates enter various career fields
As the provincial minister of the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order, Fr. John Celichowski began his education at St. Lawrence Seminary as a freshman in 1976. Although vocational discernment is still an integral part of St. Lawrence, graduates go on to a variety of professional careers, such as doctors, lawyers, members of the FBI, engineers, and other noteworthy professions.

The Celichowski family is no exception.

“All three boys in our family graduated from (St. Lawrence Seminary), my twin brother Chris and I in 1980 and Tim in 1982,” he said. Chris has been married for 21 years, has four children and is a partner in a law firm in Edina, Minn. Tim has been married for 22 years, has two sons, and works for an environmental engineering firm in Milwaukee.”

Throughout high school, Fr. Celichowski enjoyed participating in student council, Right to Life club, track and field and cross country.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say that, after 30 years, I still hold the school record for the 3,200-meter run,” he said. “When I was there, football and basketball were the big sports. The school dropped football many years ago and it has been replaced by soccer and wrestling.”

Fr. Celichowski joked that his class was on the cutting edge of technology when he learned to type on an IBM Selectric typewriter under the tutelage of Sr. Veronita.
“Now, they have cell phones and social networking sites that were more the realm of science fiction when we were students,” he said.

Fr. Celichowski’s fondest memory of his time at St. Lawrence is the brotherhood of students and the solid Catholic education he received.

“In addition to the brotherhood, the dedication and example of so many of the friars who served there, the liturgies, learning how to take responsibility for my spiritual development, and trying and succeeding at running after I failed to make the basketball team were so important in my formation,” he said. “High school sports taught me a lot of lessons about leadership, self discipline and teamwork.”

Parents can feel confident that by sending their sons to St. Lawrence, they will be exposed to quality Catholic education, become a whole person in body, mind and soul, and learn the central lesson of the Gospels, he said.

“That greatness is not so much in achievement and power, but in service, regardless of one’s particular vocation” said Fr. Celichowski, quoting Mark 10:35-45, when Jesus reminds his followers that to be great, they must be servants, “’For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”

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