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Catholic laity offers spiritual, financial support of vocations

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 4, 2012 - In a parallel effort to reach out to young Catholic men and inviting them to consider becoming priests, St. Louis Archbishop Robert J. Carlson asks the rest of Catholics to pray for those young men to considering the priesthood.

“I want to create a stronger culture of vocations with lay people to foster, encourage and pray for vocations,” the archbishop said.

Carlson shared a new brochure to be circulated in parishes, by chaplains in hospitals and nursing homes that encourage “sick, lonely, and desolate” Catholics to unite their suffering with Jesus’ suffering in Holy Week for “the grace of many holy vocations to the priesthood in the St. Louis Archdiocese.”

Many St. Louis parishes “adopt” a seminarian or a priest, pray for them daily, and send words and gifts of encouragement. Some donate funds to support them in mission trips, retreats and World Youth Days.

Strong parishes have a sense of stewardship and pride that they supported a young parishioner to become a priest, the Rev. Christopher Martin, director of the St. Louis Archdiocesan vocations office, said.

Martin said he recently preached at a St. Louis County parish where members long have been generous in their financial gifts, but no parishioner has ever become a priest in the parish’s almost 70 years.

“I told them that and many had never thought of it before,” Martin said. “We have to encourage parishes to think of encouraging young men to become priests as part of their stewardship.”

Kenrick-Glennon Seminary renovated

That parish and others passed a huge test in the fall of 2009 during the economic downturn. Carlson picked up a fund drive begun by his predecessor to pay for a total gut rehab and expansion of the archdiocese's Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in Shrewsbury. Many were skeptical the archdiocese could reach Carlson’s $50 million goal.

“St. Louis Catholics are generous,” Carlson said. “We went over goal, more than $11.5 million over. I prayed a lot about this, but I was still amazed. This is care for the next generation. St. Louis Catholics were very generous.”

The extra funds enabled him to order all construction at once, including a new commercial kitchen, which initially had been planned for a few years later. By vacating the entire Shrewsbury campus for three semesters, they saved $500,000, the archbishop said.

This Holy Week, construction workers in hard hats buzz around Kenrick in the shadow of its great domed 165-foot, brick tower that is a landmark. Workers are completing a new wing that links two 1930 buildings. They are finishing interiors with new systems, wireless communications, windows, changed dorm room configurations and more bathrooms. Asbestos and lead paint were removed from throughout the old buildings. Last year even when windows were closed, their wooden frames were so loose that the wind whistled through.

“The window shades used to move,” Carlson said in an interview. “The seminary will be much more energy efficient.”

With many older seminarians who are used to living on their own and even have owned their own homes, Carlson said you can’t expect them to live in barracks with communal baths down the hall. The newly configured dorms will have single rooms sharing a bath with another single room -- still not as grand as many college dorms but clean and comfortable.

“You want to be able to tell parents that their sons are comfortable,” he said.

For 16 months, seminarians have been living in a former convent on Bellevue Avenue, south of St. Mary’s Medical Center. They walk one block north to classes in the former CBC High School, now owned by Washington University.

Last summer, the Dominicans who run Aquinas Institute of Theology on Forest Park Boulevard opened a new residence for theology students in a completely rehabbed complex built more than a century ago as Loretto Academy near Lafayette Square.

The residence, named the Priory of St. Dominic, has rooms for 50 men. This semester 35 seminarians and about five priests, who serve as educators and spiritual directors occupy the complex. Undergraduate seminarians study theology and philosophy at Saint Louis University, others study at Aquinas.

Just in time for Easter, Kenrick’s project manager Randy Rathford, an architect, has more good news. Construction at Kenrick in Shrewsbury is ahead of schedule. Work should be completed by October. The big move-in should be completed in time for January classes, he said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.