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Defying trend, Cardinal Bevilacqua buys seminary outside his diocese

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Northampton, Pa.

In an era when many dioceses were closing or consolidating seminaries, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia has bucked the national trend by quietly spending $4 million to buy a second seminary outside archdiocesan boundaries.

As a result, 28 seminarians will don cassocks this month to begin a year of prayer and spirituality on the 463.5-acre grounds of the former Mary Immaculate Seminary. It is situated amid wooded rolling hills north of Allentown, Pa., in the Allentown diocese, which adjoins the Philadelphia archdiocese. The archdiocese had rented the property for use by its seminarians since 1991.

According to property records, the former Mary Immaculate Seminary was purchased in 1996 by the Philadelphia archdiocese from the Vincentians of Germantown, Pa.

The archdiocese paid another $75,000 for furnishings and equipment in the deal, which was not made public in Philadelphia, according to Cathy Rossi, archdiocesan director of communications.

The 28 seminarians who will spend the 1998-99 academic year at the property hail from five states and include 13 men from Philadelphia, Rossi said. Bevilacqua decided to purchase the former Mary Immaculate Seminary to provide an isolated retreat, a year of spiritual immersion, for future priests, she said.

The facility, renamed Mary Immaculate Center, is also used for retreats and a variety of workshops and education programs for lay people and clergy.

Bevilacqua believes that seminarians must learn to “deal with the rigors of parish life today” by learning to turn inward and “find inner peace,” Rossi said.

Rossi said the idea for such a program was inspired by a call from Pope John Paul II for a strengthening of spirituality among priests.

Nationally and in Philadelphia, seminary enrollments have dropped precipitously since the 1960s. In 1967, enrollment in graduate seminaries, diocesan and religious, totaled 8,159; in 1997, enrollment totaled 3,158. During that period, five graduate-level seminaries have closed or merged, according to CARA, the Washington-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

The purchase was made while the Philadelphia archdiocese is undergoing a decade-long downsizing. Since 1993, the archdiocese has closed 14 churches and eight parish schools, mostly in inner-city neighborhoods dominated by African-Americans and Latinos.

In an ongoing process, some 41 committees of priests and lay people are studying allocation of parish resources throughout the archdiocese, including the possibility of additional closings or mergers. Rossi said the process also allows for developing “creative alternatives” such as evangelization centers, or building new parishes where population is increasing.

That process has resulted in preliminary plans to close three more city churches and three additional city parish schools, effective next year.

The cardinal, however, says the church should not stagnate while it is downsizing, Rossi said in written answers to NCR questions. “Despite the need to close or consolidate some parishes, the archdiocese must remain open to emerging pastoral needs and initiatives,” she said.

The sale of the former seminary was reported in the Allentown Morning Call, but not in Philadelphia newspapers or the Philadelphia archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard and Times.

That’s because the archdiocese was “sensitive to the position of the Vincentian Fathers at the time of the sale,” Rossi said. The archdiocese and Vincentians prepared a news release dated June 1996 that was “available to members of the media upon request,” Rossi said. Normally, news releases are mailed or faxed to news outlets.

Rossi said Bevilacqua had thought it “fiscally prudent and philosophically justified” to buy the Mary Immaculate property given the inherent value of the property and its tremendous real estate value. The original asking price for the seminary was $5.5 million, Rossi said.

The property, located in Northampton County, was the site at which Vincentians were trained from 1939 to 1990. The year the seminary closed, 1990, only 18 seminarians remained.

Vincentian officials declined comment on the sale.

Some Catholics in Philadelphia, however, criticized the purchase, saying it was another in a series of questionable and secretive expenditures.

Philadelphia Catholics who had previously criticized the cardinal for closing parishes and schools were unenthusiastic about Bevilacqua’s latest purchase.

“It’s very typical of Archbishop Bevilacqua to make obscenely expensive purchases to benefit a very small number of male priests without telling anyone,” said Eileen DiFranco, a member of a cluster planning committee who resigned in June in protest over the probability that more inner-city parishes will be closed.

DiFranco was also critical of the monastic setting for future priests.

“It’s also typical of the Catholic hierarchy to find ways to set priests apart from their flock,” she said.

“I think it’s scandalous the way he spends money. I think it’s scandalous the way he lives,” said Mary-Ellen Creamer, speaking of Bevilacqua, who reportedly lives alone in a 30-room Victorian villa. Creamer, of Philadelphia, is a member of the Catholic Lay Alliance to Save Schools and Parishes, known as CLASSP.

The group of wealthy suburban and city Catholics proposed having suburban parishes adopt and subsidize inner-city parishes, but archdiocesan officials declined to endorse such an effort.

“Why was this purchase kept secret from Philadelphia Catholics?” Creamer asked. “How could the cardinal close so many poor inner-city parishes for lack of money? Where is the church’s stated option for the poor in all of this?”

John Matusavage, a parishioner in the Grays Ferry section of Philadelphia, said, “I think it’s a complete waste. It’s misappropriation of Catholic parishioners’ hard-earned funds.” Matusavage is a 20-year member of St. Aloysius parish, where the church and parish elementary school are scheduled to close next year.

Bevilacqua was the subject of a June 19 NCR cover story, “The pastor/prince paradox,” which detailed what some Catholics described as extravagant and secretive spending at a time when the church was downsizing in the inner city.

The expenditures were not made public. The cardinal bypassed his own advisers on some projects. The cardinal and his representatives declined to speak with NCR for that story. For this story, however, Rossi responded in writing to a list of faxed questions by NCR editors.

The purchase of the Vincentian property was made even though the archdiocese’s own seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, is operating at a fraction of its capacity. The 60-acre facility had an enrollment high of 563 in 1966, Rossi said, exceeding its capacity of approximately 500. Last year, St. Charles had 196 seminarians, and enrollment is expected to be in the 190s this year, she said.

While the capacity exists to expand programs at St. Charles, it would cost approximately $3 million to “refurbish mothballed dormitory buildings,” Rossi said. In addition, it would be “impossible to replicate the more isolated environment of Mary Immaculate.”

At St. Charles, seminarians are “acutely involved in intellectual theological studies.” The spirituality program, however, is not “a time of study, but more an ‘experience’ designed to develop a spiritual core within that the world will not be able to unravel,” Rossi said.

The cardinal visits Mary Immaculate two or three times a year, Rossi said.

The facility was built for $1 million in 1939 and features Romanesque architecture of concrete, cut stone and limestone. The two main buildings, situated on 50 acres, are a seminary and a former convent.

The main building contains a chapel, an auditorium, dining room, TV room and gym, and bedrooms for seminarians and retreatants. Mary Immaculate also has tennis courts and a baseball field, Rossi said. Some 125 acres of the center are rented to farmers. The rest of the site is wooded.

Increasingly, as word about the center spreads, it is used for parish conferences, meetings and retreats, priests’ workshops and lay retreats, Rossi said. It is also used by Protestants for meetings and retreats, including Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians, she said.

The purchase of Mary Immaculate was approved in December of 1994 by the cardinal and his College of Consultors, Rossi said. In addition, the Vatican approved the purchase as required by canon law, she said. The transaction was completed in July of 1996.

The operating budget at the center is $600,000 a year, half of which comes from the seminary budget and the rest, temporarily, as a subsidy from archdiocesan funds. The annual $600,000 budget works out to $21,428 per seminarian.

Rossi said the goal is to replace the archdiocesan subsidy within five years by revenue generated at the site.

At the time of the sale, the archdiocese entered into a 15-year mortgage agreement with the Vincentians, Rossi said. In the 1998 fiscal year, upon recommendation of the Archdiocesan Finance Council, the cardinal approved use of capital gains from investments to pay off the mortgage, Rossi said.

The Vincentians earmarked proceeds from the sale of Mary Immaculate to “support seminarians around the globe, especially in developing nations,” Rossi said.

NCR staff assisted in gathering information for this story.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998