Spiritual Guidance

November 05, 2003 11 min read
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High school seniors Tam “Tom” Nguyen and Russell Craze are thinking about becoming Roman Catholic priests, and they attend one of the few high schools remaining in the country set up to support that aspiration. The teenagers are also considering other options after they graduate next spring from St. Lawrence Seminary, a 143-year-old Catholic boarding school built on a wooded hill here in rural Wisconsin.

But, in a requirement that is part of a long but fading tradition in Catholic education, the young men had to be willing to explore the possibility of becoming priests or religious brothers to enroll in the school.

In 1967, some 15,800 teenagers who were considering the priesthood enrolled in about 180 Catholic high school seminaries or similar programs in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, based at Georgetown University in Washington.

Today, St. Lawrence is one of only four high school seminaries left in the nation-in addition to three seminary programs within regular Catholic high schools.

Many Catholics are resigned to the end of this era, saying it’s no longer appropriate to ask young men to consider the priesthood while they’re still in high school. Instead, most aspiring priests begin studying for that role after college. It’s inevitable that so many high school seminaries closed, one church historian says, because their enrollments decreased after the 1960s and the schools did not produce many priests anyway.

Other Catholics disagree.

“Society has decided you can’t ask young people to think of the priesthood, but God calls at all ages,” says the Rev. Peter Snieg, the rector of Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary in Chicago, a high school with 207 students. “The high school seminary still plants seeds in very religious young people.”

Nguyen and Craze, both 17, say that a high school seminary has made them look at their faith differently.

Nguyen, a broad-shouldered and earnest Vietnamese-American from Houston, is interested in exploring a religious vocation so he can help people. He’s been impressed with the generous spirit of the brown-robed priests and brothers of the Capuchin Franciscan order who live on the St. Lawrence Seminary campus and run the school.

Craze, a local boy with a friendly manner, whose family lives in nearby Fond du Lac, Wis., says if he hadn’t come to St. Lawrence, he probably wouldn’t consider being a priest. While he remains uncertain about his own future, he admires the six St. Lawrence graduates from 2002 who attend a Catholic college seminary. “They are all smart, bright kids, and they could have done anything,” he says. “I saw all these guys who were so cool-they all went to a seminary.”

The Rev. Keith Clark, a former St. Lawrence president who now teaches at the school, says that two questions have shadowed the school for years: “Will it be?” and “What will it be?”

The school was started by two Swiss priests who launched the Capuchin Franciscan order in the United States on the knoll in Mount Calvary in 1857. The order was founded in Italy in 1528 in the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, a young Italian who gave up a well-to-do life in the early 13th century for one of poverty and service.

At first, St. Lawrence was intended only to prepare future priests and brothers. But the school has vacillated between that mission and having a broader educational mission.

In the 1980s, enrollment slid from 276 to 126 students, threatening the school’s future. The Capuchins commissioned a study of St. Lawrence in 1985. Based on that study, they decided to expand the school’s mission to educate youths for active ministry in the church, not just for the priesthood.

Enrollment rose again in 1989, and it has hovered above 200 students for the past 12 years. St. Lawrence now has 210 students, but full capacity is considered to be 235. All the students are male, in keeping with the Catholic teaching that restricts the priesthood to men.

The school continues to survive, in part, because it is filling a market niche in education-albeit a small one, Father Clark says.

Thanks to aid from benefactors and some well-off alumni who didn’t become priests, St. Lawrence offers up-to-date learning facilities housed in a mix of decades-old and new brick buildings. The overall ambiance is that of a monastery in Old Europe.

And the school offers a high-quality college-preparatory education to Catholic boys at an unbeatable price for families. The annual tuition is $5,300, though the school spends $17,000 per student each year.

Both academics and religious life at St. Lawrence are rigorous.

On weekdays, students follow a schedule from the time they rise at 6:20 a.m. until well after supper. If they are just minutes late to their assigned tables for a meal, they chalk up penalties, such as having to perform extra community service. And aside from summer and holiday breaks, they may leave the campus to visit family or friends or take a school-sponsored trip to a local shopping mall only for a half-day on Sundays-after Mass.

Even if they wanted to step off campus during the week, the boys would be hard-pressed to find much to do. The village of Mount Calvary, located at the foot of a road leading up to St. Lawrence, has no restaurants-only bars. The boys aren’t permitted to have cars, and the closest town with a pizza parlor or movie theater is Fond du Lac, 10 miles southwest of the school. Milwaukee is 75 miles to the south.

St. Lawrence tries to ensure that students come from practicing Catholic families and are serious about becoming leaders in the church. But the Rev. Dennis Druggan, the 48-year-old rector and president of the school, acknowledges that students may enroll for other reasons, such as to escape city neighborhoods with violence. “Why they come isn’t nearly as important to me as why they stay,” he says. “They have to mature.”

From time to time, St. Lawrence still produces a few priests. Next spring, three graduates of St. Lawrence are scheduled to be ordained as priests. Out of last year’s senior class of 58, eight youths continued theological studies that could lead to the priesthood.

For some, embracing the school’s mission takes time.

Hanging out with a group of freshmen at a recent cross-country meet, Nikhil “Nick” Tomy, a freshman, says St. Lawrence is “too religious.” The amiable 13-year-old from Indonesia attended a secular international school previously. Unlike most freshmen, he didn’t visit the seminary before enrolling, and he differs from some other freshmen in that he truly seems surprised about the extent of religious practice at the school.

“They ask us to pray a lot,” he says. “They’re teaching a lot about God out here-I’m not used to it yet.”

One doesn’t hear such complaints from the 47 St. Lawrence seniors, many of whom are leaders in the Mass at school. Since enrolling as freshmen, 13 of their classmates have left the school or were asked to leave because of poor academic performance or for other reasons.

The seniors lead singing and prayer, and distribute Communion.

For them, religious practice seems natural. All classes begin with prayer or a reading from Scripture. In a recent senior theology class, an opening prayer lasts several minutes as one boy after another offers an “intention” aloud. With heads bowed and eyes closed, they pray for peace in the Middle East, for people who are depressed and lonely, and for the school cross-country event to go smoothly the following day.

The requests to God flow steadily. These boys are accustomed to prayer.

At Mass, held three times a week, tenor voices fill the spacious school chapel. The students sing hymns as well as catchy songs in Spanish and Vietnamese. Even the freshmen seem eager to don red hooded robes and sing in the choir.

But St. Lawrence isn’t only about religion. It’s also about strong academics and providing an opportunity for boys of different cultures to learn from one another. That combined mission has contributed to the school’s survival.

As recently as the 1980s, St. Lawrence students were mostly white boys from the Midwest.

That changed in the 1990s, as the Capuchins began aggressively recruiting members of the “emerging church” in the United States.

As a result, the student population is now about one-third Asian or Asian-American, one-third Hispanic, and one-third white. The school has eight black students. School leaders say that the most difficult groups to recruit are African-Americans, because of the relative scarcity of black Catholics in the United States, and whites, perhaps because they have more options for a solid education. Father Druggan says that the high school seminaries that permitted enrollment to become dominated by a single ethnic or racial group have closed.

Classes are small and orderly. Students speak only after they raise their hands and are called on. But lest the academic environment become stilted, Magoo, Father Druggan’s Bichon Frise lap dog, is given free rein to bound about the hallways of the classroom buildings.

The Capuchin friars and lay teachers encourage questions. About a quarter of St. Lawrence teachers are friars, half are male lay teachers, and a quarter are female lay teachers.

In logic class, for example, the Rev. Elroy Pesch doesn’t act surprised when students question him about lust. The subject comes up after Father Pesch reviews the seven capital sins, which include lust.

A student asks if lust is always bad.

“Lust is not a sin unless you give into it,” says the priest, who, cloaked in a long brown robe, looks as if he could have made an appearance in Chaucer’s 14th-century “Canterbury Tales.”

“Does that mean there’s no good quality to lust?” he says. “I wouldn’t say so.” He adds that looking at pornography would be an example of giving into lust.

Later in the lesson, the same boy asks, “If you’re married, is lust OK?

“No, not if it leads you to sin,” says the priest. If a man lusts after a woman other than his wife, his wife isn’t going to be very happy about that, he says.

“What if he’s lusting for his own wife?” asks another boy.

“That’s not lust,” says the priest. He offers a dictionary-style definition of lust and carries on with the lesson.

The Capuchin friars stress that St. Lawrence is a place for teenagers to discern what role they will play in the church, not to be pressured into it.

When a student tells Father Clark that he wants to be a priest, Clark says that he responds: “Cherish that. Don’t let anyone tamper with it.”

The white-haired Capuchin priest, who sports a goatee, cups his hands as if they contained a seed or small creature. “Don’t let anyone tell you you should-or you shouldn’t,” he continues. “If that’s a sign from God, it will flourish.”

By the time St. Lawrence students are seniors, some want to make up their minds about pursuing the priesthood.

“I feel like I need to try it out,” says Tam Nguyen. He’s contemplating going to a college seminary and is planning to visit one soon. “For me, the evening prayers and how we get together all the time have been an eye-opener,” he says.

But Nguyen is also interested in becoming a medical doctor, thinking he’d like to help his parents-a manager of a manicurist-licensing school and a homemaker-support his two brothers, who are now toddlers.

Regardless of what he decides, he credits the community- service projects and leadership opportunities he’s had at St. Lawrence for making him more outgoing.

“If it was coed, we wouldn’t be the people we are today-developing our personality and morality,” he adds. “If there were girls here, we’d probably wake up and do our hair.”

Nguyen’s schoolmate, Craze, is leaning toward attending a regular university and joining a nonresidential seminary program of the Capuchins. He wants to keep the door open to another career, such as being a dentist or a pilot.

“Going to this school-it’s not really normal,” Craze says. “It’s not being in the world. Let’s then go to another school to see what it’s like.”

St. Lawrence has had challenges other than recruiting new students.

In the early 1990s, it had its own sexual-abuse scandal, one of a succession that has shaken the Catholic Church. The Milwaukee Journal broke a story in December 1992 in which St. Lawrence graduates alleged they had been sexually abused by Capuchin friars during previous decades at the school.

Soon after, the Capuchins commissioned a Milwaukee law firm to investigate. Through interviews, the investigators received allegations from 14 former students that they had been sexually abused as minors from 1968 to 1986 by five Capuchin friars. Father Druggan says that the friars who were accused of abusing students have either died or left the order. None was convicted of a crime.

These days, “we don’t have our heads in the sand” about the possibility of sexual abuse, he says.

Even during the dark days when the school’s leaders were dealing with the abuse scandal, parents stood by the school: Not one student dropped out when the scandal broke during Christmas break in the 1992-93 school year.

The loyalty of families to St. Lawrence helps the school survive, and thrive, says Druggan. If a boy goes to St. Lawrence, very often all of his younger brothers or other relatives follow.

He wasn’t always so optimistic. Eleven years ago, when he was asked to relocate to St. Lawrence, he wasn’t convinced high school seminaries were necessary, even though he graduated from St. Lawrence in 1974. After all, so many had closed. Druggan tried working at the school for one year, became hooked, and has stayed.

“There’s a caring for others that catches on here that people take back to their communities,” he says. “That’s what made me think this school has something to do.”


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