Artist’s illustration from BNKC Architecture of the completed Serra House.

Serra House getting $10-million facelift to serve prospective seminarians

  • December 1, 2019

One of the more encouraging signs for the Catholic Church in Canada may have been Cardinal Thomas Collins planting his foot on top of a shovel in the backyard of an old house on Toronto’s St. George Street in early November.

The occasion was the official groundbreaking for a new four-storey addition to Serra House, a residence of discernment for men interested in the priesthood. The project, estimated to cost $10 million, doubles the size of the home with an extra 8,000 square feet to increase capacity to 26 prospective seminarians. It’s expected to be completed by spring of 2021.

“Now we can accommodate more people,” said Mario Biscardi, past president of Serra International and a driving force in Canada’s Serra Club initiatives for more than 30 years. “And that is a good thing for the future. We’ve been very blessed with a good number seminarians. Currently, we have 81 seminarians between St. Augustine’s (Seminary) and Serra House. We have 81 in the process of discerning their vocation.”

Serra House, which opened in 1983, provides a formative environment as prospective seminarians begin their philosophic preparation for theology. It was founded by Cardinal Gerald Emmett Carter and Fr. Sean O’Sullivan, the then vocations director for the Archdiocese of Toronto.

The project plan is broken down into two segments, one to restore Serra House — which was originally built in 1904 — and the other to develop a new facility in the rear of the house. 

As a minor seminary for St. Augustine’s, students who need to complete their philosophy courses are eligible to enrol in the house. There are currently 15 students, who moved to St. Augustine’s in 2017 when initial renovations began, including the demolition of a section at the back of the house that had deteriorated. 

Inside the existing house, rooms will be upgraded, while a library, common space, office space, a gym, seminary rooms and guest suites for guest speakers will be added. The project will also include a larger chapel, an upgraded kitchen and a dining space that can accommodate more students. 

“The chapel was crammed and there were also problems of heating and mould,” said Fr. Scott Birchall, who has been director of philosophy formation at Serra House since 2017. “And it just wouldn’t meet our current vision for seminary life.”

Existing facilities in the house will be remediated, ensuring the building respects the history of the home near the University of Toronto campus.

“The existing chapel, which is really nicely designed, will be incorporated into a library,” said Birchall. “So it still has that sacred space. We’re also keeping the community elements. One of the key features of Serra House was, it had a nice community feel where people wouldn’t feel like they’re in a big institutional building. It continues that community feel where they can begin their studies in the priesthood.”

The house was named after Serra International, which promotes vocations to the priesthood and religious life. 

“We are men and women who are strongly Catholic, number one; who have a deep appreciation for the priesthood and religious life, number two; and number three, what differentiates us from others is that we are men and women who are interested and have a deep concern for the priesthood and are interested in fostering and promoting priestly vocations,” said Biscardi.

Serra House was originally conceived by the late O’Sullivan, who had left a life of politics — he was the youngest Member of Parliament at age 20 went first elected in 1972 — to become a priest in 1981. Serra House became a reality two years later with the help of the Serrans. The same year O’Sullivan was diagnosed with leukemia, which eventually claimed his life in 1989 at age 37.

“O’Sullivan fulfilled his dream of establishing the house of discernment for mature men,” said Biscardi. “Because of that and because of our support and emotional support … that’s how we got it to be called Serra House.

“We believe that we need more priests. So we pray often every day for more priests.”

With the program moved to the seminary in the interim, Birchall admits there have been challenges.

“The seminary is a great facility,” said Birchall. “And it’s great for fostering for the theology format. But as guys attend to their undergraduate studies, it can be a little bit harder to commute all the way downtown to classes. 

“What we’re saying at the diocese is we recognize that there are many men who decide and discern that they want to become discerned for priesthood early on. So we say how can we help them to facilitate that discernment while also allowing them to get the undergrad degree while allowing seminarian formation to occur at the same time. So Serra House is being built downtown to offer the best of both worlds.”

Serrans in Toronto work with elementary and high schools in the Toronto Catholic District School Board to introduce vocation to the priesthood to youth.

“The average age is much higher than it was when I was a high school student,” said Biscardi. “I mean, we had five priests of my parish. Now you’re looking at two. So we are very much concerned because without priests, we don’t have a Church and we don’t have sacraments.”

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