London, Ont.’s St. Peter’s Seminary celebrates 100 years since it was founded due to the vision and persistence of Bishop Michael Francis Fallon. Fallon felt that his diocese should be developing its own priests rather than sending potential candidates to study at seminaries in Montreal or Toronto. Photo courtesy of the Diocese of London Archives

One man’s vision guides St. Peter’s Seminary's first century

By  Herman Goodden, Catholic Register Special
  • May 20, 2012

LONDON, ONT. - As St. Peter’s Seminary in London gears up to celebrate its 100th anniversary with ceremonies and lectures and the publication of a lavishly illustrated history book, the overriding feeling being expressed is grateful amazement that the place is here at all.

There are only two other English-speaking seminaries in all of Canada — St. Augustine’s in Toronto, which was conceived at roughly the same time, and the newer St. Joseph’s situated three provinces to the west in Edmonton.

Fr. Murray Watson, the current vice-rector at St. Peter’s, captures that note of grateful amazement in the commemorative book’s first chapter, citing the 18th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who postulated that the fundamental question underlying all philosophy is: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Watson writes in the commemorative book Shepherds According to My Heart — the school’s motto — “That there should be a seminary in a diocese — let alone in the diocese of London, Ont. — is not self-evident; in fact, the vast majority of Canadian dioceses do not possess their own seminaries and must send their seminarians elsewhere to be trained. So why should it be that London in particular became home to a house of formation for the Catholic priesthood, which is today one of the national institutions of the Catholic Church in Canada?”  

The prime mover behind the creation of St. Peter’s Seminary in 1912 was Bishop Michael Francis Fallon (1867-1931), who was appointed fifth bishop of London in late 1909 and consecrated the following spring. From the very beginning of his bishopric, Fallon was dissatisfied with the longstanding Canadian protocol of sending all seminarians to be trained in Quebec — usually to the Sulpician priests at the Grand Seminaire in Montreal. Unquestionably in the colonial period Quebec was the bastion of Catholicism in a predominantly Protestant Canada and hunkering down in one area was the practical thing to do at first. But by the early 20th century, successive waves of immigration had changed those patterns of sectarian settlement and Fallon believed that it was essential for the integration of Catholics into the larger Canadian society that regional seminaries be established outside of Quebec.

The first incarnation of St. Peter’s Seminary was located in the bishop’s old library on the third floor of the episcopal residence next to St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica.

The first incarnation of St. Peter’s Seminary was located in the bishop’s old library on the third floor of the episcopal residence next to St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica.

Photo courtesy of the Diocese of London Archives

Says the current rector of St. Peter’s Seminary, Fr. Steve Wlusek: “Bishop Fallon’s vision was that diocesan priests would be formed and educated by diocesan priests. Whereas in Quebec the seminary was run by religious priests mostly, he had a vision that those who had been involved in pastoral work themselves would be able to impart to seminarians — those preparing for priesthood — that heart of a good shepherd who would care for the members of his parish community. In his mind and heart it was very much justified that there was a particular charism that St. Peter’s Seminary could give, especially to the people in the diocese of London that was not being so much offered in the other seminaries. And that tradition has carried on through the past century to today. All the members of the seminary faculty are parish priests, mostly from the diocese of London. It has served a very special niche within the Canadian Church for these hundred years.”

As a student and a teacher of moral and sacramental theology, Fr. Michael Prieur has lived at St. Peter’s Seminary for an unparalleled 53 years and knows its history through and through. Prieur adds two more reasons that drove Fallon to go ahead and set up a seminary in London, despite objections being raised by authorities in Rome and Canada.

“Bishop Fallon knew that the Council of Trent — that’s 1545 to 1552 — had set forth the ideal and recommended that every diocese should have its own seminary. And secondly (working with priests who had been trained in Quebec), the bishop said that he didn’t know his own seminarians. He said, ‘I don’t know my men. How can I have priests that I don’t really know?’ He wanted to know them and what better way to do that than to have them here? We’re training parish priests. It’s right in our motto: ‘I will give you shepherds according to my heart and they will feed you with wisdom and understanding.’ That’s our motto from Jeremiah. This seminary has always had this pastoral orientation. We all are involved in parish life. We go to every dog fight we’re asked to go to. And that’s fine because that’s where people’s lives are at. On all kinds of levels, no matter what it is, if they want us out there, we’ll go out and help.”

A history in brief of St. peter's Seminary (click image to enlarge)

A history in brief of St. peter's Seminary (click image to enlarge)

- Illustration by Lucy Barco, Source: Diocese of London

The first incarnation of St. Peter’s Seminary was opened in the fall of 1912 in the bishop’s old library on the third floor of the Episcopal Residence situated next door to St. Peter’s Cathedral Basilica in the heart of downtown London. Fundraising for a more permanent facility began that same month and so great was the support that Fallon reported he had raised almost $160,000 to put toward the $500,000 cost of the new school after visiting just 15 of the 55 parishes in the diocese.

Four months after opening the third-floor seminary’s doors to 18 students, Fallon received a stern complaint from Cardinal Gaetano de Lai, the secretary of the Sacred  Consistorial Congregation in Rome, questioning the need for a new school when, “as is well known, there are already two flourishing seminaries in Montreal and Toronto, which are not far away.”

But it was too late to stop now and the bishop’s response by return mail was equally blunt: “It is true that there is a flourishing seminary at Montreal but it is more than 500 miles from the diocese of London and my students did not succeed there. There is no seminary in Toronto. It is true that a building for a seminary is in course of erection and since the question is under discussion, I will place before Your Eminence what I know to be the facts. A generous Catholic layman of Toronto gave over $400,000 for a seminary. Every dollar of this money has been put in a building of extravagant magnificence. It is not known when the seminary will open or who are to be its professors... and it is stated that at least $500,000 will still be required, while annual fees of $250 will be expected of each student. I could not pay any such amount....”

In February of 1925 the sod was turned on a large plot of donated park land nestled in the bend of the Thames River in north London adjacent to the main campus of the University of Western Ontario. The costs for the beautiful Gothic-styled structure were kept down to just under $500,000 by delaying the construction of the seminary’s chapel and cloister for another few years. On Sept. 13, 1926 the new and permanent home of St. Peter’s Seminary welcomed 53 seminarians enrolled in a four-year program of theological studies and a three-year program of philosophical studies, the latter course leading to an Honours BA granted by nearby Western.

Three years later the cloister was finished. It has since been ingeniously and artfully contained as part of the expanded A.P. Mahoney Library, named after the seminary’s longest-serving rector. And in 1930 the magnificent seminary chapel, dedicated to St. Thomas Aquinas, was opened by Fallon at his last public appearance. He died in February, 1931 and was laid to rest in the crypt beneath the chapel’s floor.

St. Peter’s Seminary’s class of 1937 included among its members Fr. Philip Pocock, second row far right, who would go on to become archbishop of Toronto. He is one of 23 alumni who went on to the episcopacy.

St. Peter’s Seminary’s class of 1937 included among its members Fr. Philip Pocock, second row far right, who would go on to become archbishop of Toronto. He is one of 23 alumni who went on to the episcopacy.

Photo courtesy of the Diocese of London Archives

The stunning beauty of the chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas was brought to much broader public attention in 2004 when Prieur usein d the bequest accruing to him from the deaths of his parents to publish Panes of Glory, a dazzling celebration of the 14 three-storey-tall stained glass windows as well as four smaller ones to either side of the sacristy. In individual essays devoted to each pane, Prieur recounts the historical and theological significance of all the depicted figures and symbols. More recently the book was adapted for an award-winning video produced by Salt + Light TV.

First arriving at the seminary in 1958, Prieur’s earliest memories of St. Peter’s are of a different-feeling place.

“In my day it was a monastery, run like a monastery,” he said. “That was the mode they had from Montreal. Closed shop, permission for everything, bells, bells, bells. And that lasted until 1968. That was the big divide and after the (Second Vatican) Council we went into a group system. From there it went into the involvement of all kinds of people from outside the seminary who help with the training. The role of the laity here at the seminary has increased tremendously since Vatican II... Now the lay people are a tremendous part and sisters too — the religious orders that have helped us here. It’s become a very integrated, collaborative unit here and that’s as it should be. Our seminarians don’t just see an all-male leadership team. Getting the perspective of women, even on our evaluation team, has been invaluable.”

Bishop Ronald Fabbro, the current bishop of London, outlines the expansion of the seminary’s mission.

“Now, in addition to preparing seminarians for the priesthood, it is educating and forming permanent deacons and laymen and laywomen to serve the Church in a diversity of ministries. It is carrying out this work in conjunction with the Institute for Catholic Formation, which was established in 2008. In addition, the institute is offering programs to those in leadership positions in our Catholic schools and hospitals and to adults who want to learn more about their Catholic faith.”

So far 43 men have been ordained deacons and 141 other laypeople have earned their Bachelor of Theology or Master of Divinity degrees through these new programs offered at the seminary.

The St. Peter’s community celebrates the seminary’s 75th anniversary.

The St. Peter’s community celebrates the seminary’s 75th anniversary.

Photo courtesy of the Diocese of London Archives

Centenary celebrations are always an occasion for taking stock. As of this spring St. Peter’s Seminary has ordained 1,036 priests to serve in 46 dioceses and 11 religious orders. Twenty-three St. Peter’s alumni have been ordained bishops and another, Thomas Collins, archbishop of Toronto (who also served as a teacher and rector), has just been made cardinal. Not so coincidentally (which is to say the planning committee had a hunch that his elevation might come in time for this month’s observances) Collins will be the principal celebrant at the Eucharistic Celebration in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas at the gala St. Peter’s Seminary Alumni Reunion and Banquet on May 22.  

StPetersEpiscopal-AlumniLooking ahead to the future, Wlusek says, “We have just begun this year to embark upon our online learning program. We have three courses that are available in online format... Launching this program with studies that people can tap into from across Canada will make the stellar gift that our faculty is here available to a wider cross section of people.”

Wlusek’s predecessor as rector was Auxiliary Bishop William McGrattan of the Toronto archdiocese. McGrattan believes the history of St. Peter’s Seminary has amply justified Fallon’s great dream from more than a century ago.

“Sometimes a lived history is required to justify and understand a vision which when articulated is difficult to rationally justify,” said McGrattan. “Looking to the future and the need for a ‘New Evangelization’ — a reawakening, appreciation and understanding of the faith — it would seem that the renewal of parishes, the calling forth and training of new pastoral leadership for parishes, will require the presence of seminaries and pastoral institutes if we are going to be committed to such a future in the Church of Canada. It is a question of vision and commitment similar to what was faced by Bishop Fallon 100 years ago and which the Church must face in every age.

“As Benedict XVI stated, ‘To think about the priesthood in this day and age is not to think about the present but the future.’ I believe that preparation for priestly and pastoral ministry is always a future reality and this vision must be part of any seminary. It can be expanded as recently demonstrated in St. Peter’s history but it should be the future of St. Peter’s Seminary. The vision of moving forward must be one of hope and confidence in the Church and also for seminaries.”

(Goodden is a freelance writer in London, Ont.)

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