Saint Vincent Seminary is the fourth oldest Roman Catholic Seminary in the United States. It has its canonical foundation in the papal bull Inter ceteras (1855), issued by Pope Pius IX, but its actual origins go back to the vision of a single Benedictine monk from Bavaria, Boniface Wimmer (1809-1887).
Sebastian Wimmer had been a priest of the Diocese of Regensburg, Bavaria, before discerning a calling to monastic life. Upon entering the Benedictine abbey of Saint Michael in Metten, Bavaria, Sebastian received the religious name Boniface. This bears some significance as Wimmer felt an affinity with Saint Boniface, the eighth-century English Benedictine who converted the pagan Germans to Christianity. As a monk, Wimmer was concerned for the pastoral care of German Catholics in America. From reports he had read, German Catholics in the U.S. lacked priests to minister to them in their native language; in many cases, they lacked any priest at all. Father Boniface sought and received permission from his abbot to go to America to serve those German Catholics whose spiritual plight had so moved him.
In 1846, Wimmer, with a company of eighteen young postulants, arrived in western Pennsylvania in response to an invitation the bishop of Pittsburgh had extended to him to work in that diocese. Father Boniface and his confreres
settled at the parish of Saint Vincent de Paul, which was founded in 1790 and is near what is now the City of Latrobe. On that site, he established a monastic community, the center of his vision as a missionary.
To prepare monks for ordination, Wimmer planned for a seminary and a college. The college would provide the monks with requisite
basics for their seminary courses in theology, specifically studies in Latin and philosophy.
The college would provide the monks with requisite basics for their seminary courses in theology, specifically studies in Latin and philosophy. From almost the first year, however, Father Boniface found he needed to modify his plan, which continues to be the case to this day; that is, the need for flexibility on the part of today’s “missionaries.”
Wimmer faced three main challenges. First, while he encountered many Catholics, there were fewer German Catholic immigrants than he had believed. Secondly, some local men had hoped to study in the college but not pursue holy orders or enter into monastic life. Thirdly, the bishop of Pittsburgh asked to send his diocesan candidates for priesthood to Saint Vincent to study theology. Although these needs challenged the scarce resources of the new arrivals, Father Boniface adapted his plan to meet the needs of English-speaking Catholics (mostly Irish). He further developed a college curriculum broad enough for secular students without compromising the dynamics of a major seminary composed of diocesan and monastic seminarians. Throughout his decades as superior and then Abbot (later Archabbot) of the monastic community at Saint Vincent, Wimmer saw this pattern repeat itself. Other bishops began sending their seminarians to Saint Vincent, and more men seeking a liberal arts education without the obligations of monastic vows or priestly ordination applied to the college.
Seminary adaptations after Archabbot Boniface were in line with the trajectory he had set. Throughout its history Saint Vincent Seminary has had to address the changing cultural and pastoral needs of the lay faithful served by priests ordained from the Seminary. When Boniface Wimmer arrived in western Pennsylvania, he found more Catholics who spoke English than German. He therefore directed that seminarians studying at Saint Vincent should be proficient in both English and German. As such, they could preach and minister to parishioners of both languages. This pastoral adaptation echoed in the early twentieth century when waves of immigration from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire brought Catholics who spoke Slavic languages. Since the majority of ethnic parishes staffed by men who had studied at Saint Vincent were Slovak, the Seminary began to offer classes in that language. As Slovak-speaking Catholics assimilated into American culture and began to use English as their first language, the need for Slovak classes in the Seminary declined and in time disappeared.
Our current programs for Hispanic Ministries and English as a Second Language seek to meet the contemporary needs of a changing Church in the United States, just as offering seminarians courses in German, English, and Slovak did in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During its long history, Saint Vincent Seminary has met various challenges and has learned to change and respond to the needs of the Church.
The challenges posed by Catholic seminary education in the twenty-first century reflect in many ways those faced by Archabbot Boniface Wimmer in the early days of the Seminary. Although the situation of the Catholic Church in the United States is much different now than it was in Wimmer’s time, fundamental principles such as the discernment of the students’ needs, adaptation to address those needs, and fidelity to the universal Church, remain constant.
The faculty, staff, and students of the Seminary realize that as history marches on and diverse cultures come together in new ways, many of the same questions arise. As a community of faith, we seek mutually enriching ways of sounding the depths of the unchanging message of the Gospel. Just as the pioneer professors and administrators of the Seminary sought to provide for the needs of a bilingual Catholic population so also today the members of the Seminary faculty face a similar task as they prepare prieststo serve both English speaking Catholics and the growing population of people from Hispanic, Asian, Africa, and Eastern Europe cultures.
Moreover, while the first generations of students at Saint Vincent Seminary largely consisted of men of a very young age, at present, the students completing their work here span a wide age range. Many are well into their adult years by the time they come to the Seminary and the present day faculty adjusts its approach to instruction and training in order to accommodate both the needs and the valuable real-world experiences of the student body.
At the same time, unlike most candidates in the early years of the Seminary who had already completed a high school seminary curriculum before pursuing more advanced seminary formation, seminarians today often begin their studies with notable gaps in their basic knowledge of the faith and without a familiarity of the rich history of the Church. To address this challenge, the faculty at Saint Vincent Seminary designed a pre-theology curriculum—consistent with the requirements of the Program of Priestly Formation—that provides the necessary intellectual, spiritual, pastoral, and human bases upon which the Seminary builds its successful priestly formation curriculum. At a time when priesthood retention has become a major concern, our records indicate that 96.5 percent of the men ordained from our program since 1989 are still in active priestly ministry. However different America in the twenty-first century is from America in the nineteenth century, Saint Vincent Seminary strives to preserve its heritage of innovation amidst unchanging ideals.