With seminaries like Toronto’s St. Augustine’s re-opening in September, it will be a different experience due to the COVID reality. Register file photo

Seminaries reopen in a pandemic world

  • September 16, 2020

Six months since seminarians were sent home as a precaution against the rising tide of COVID-19, Canadian seminaries are only now recommencing community living, formation and on-campus lectures. 

The 44 pupils residing at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto are essentially in a bubble for at least two weeks from when classes resumed Sept. 14. 

“For the first two weeks, we are limiting as much as possible, almost restricting, the seminarians from leaving the building,” said Fr. Eric Rodrigues, St. Augustine’s vice-rector. “All of our activities and meals will be indoors, and we are asking that everyone wears masks in the public spaces like the hallways, chapel and dining rooms.”

Distancing will be encouraged through a couple of means. Students will be assigned seats in every classroom and there will be three separate cohorts for liturgy celebrations: the five pre-theology students, the six spiritual year learners and the remaining 33. 

If a student or faculty member displays COVID-related symptoms, there is an isolated area of the seminary that will be used for rest, recovery and meals. 

Students requiring quarantining would not have to worry about falling behind in coursework as every course will stream live. Adding streaming was an essential adaptation as Rodrigues figures about two-thirds of the faculty do not live at the seminary. 

The rules will likely become less restrictive depending on how the first two weeks of the school year go from a safety standpoint. 

Based on what he’s seen, Rodrigues expects the relaunch to go well. 

“It’s only been a few days, but all the seminarians are good with following the guidelines and protocols,” he said. “We have all been living with this situation for over five months now, so everybody is used to masks, washing hands, sanitizing and distancing. I find there is a good spirit of co-operation.”

St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., shared a detailed re-opening plan on its website. Some of the safety guidelines include masking in all public areas of the building (particularly when social distancing of two metres cannot be ensured), no outside activities, food services staff will only provide meals for the residents and courses will be offered in a blended delivery (some in person, some online). 

Isolation will be provided for residents exposed to COVID-19 or those in close contact with someone identified as positive. 

At. St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, the 32 students and six live-in priests will have to abide by social distancing in classes, at meals and in the chapel. No visitors are allowed and the public is restricted from attending Masses. 

Fr. Stephen Hero, rector of St. Joseph’s, says the power of community formation is pivotal.

“It’s better for their formation to be together in person as much as possible even if there’s going to be a different way of living together in community,” said Hero. “At least when they’re in the building, the guys can pray together in person and can have conversations rather than being isolated.”

The 33 high school students and 20 college-age scholars must complete a two-week quarantine upon arrival at Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, B.C. Distancing and masks will be required and self-assessments will be regular. Monthly home visits will no longer be permitted. Options to facilitate parents visiting the boarding school are being examined.

The chief priority for Fr. Benedict Lefebvre, the prior of Westminster Abbey, is re-introducing in-person learning.

“The main conviction is that formation is best when it’s on campus,” says Fr. Lefebvre. “Community life is so formative. We are together for liturgy, for classes, for common activities. … You just don’t get that when you have classes online and you are just in your room at home.”

(With files from The B.C. Catholic and Grandin Media)

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