by Marc and Julie Anderson
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When the year began, Deacons Travis Mecum and Anthony Mersmann were looking forward to their final year of theology, and then their ordinations to the priesthood in May.
But, as luck and coronavirus will have it, one of them will be finishing his formation in completely different circumstances.
And the other? He’ll be completing his seminary life in a former high school seminary now known as Savior Pastoral Center.
Yes, Savior of the World — built in 1965 and operated for two decades as a high school seminary by the archdiocese — has come full circle.
It has now welcomed back not only Deacon Mersmann, but a number of other seminarians as well.
Currently, the archdiocese has 23 seminarians at various stages of formation — some involved in pastoral care within parishes, while others are at seminaries throughout the country. Given the ever-changing situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the seminarians have found themselves seeking shelter in rectories, their parents’ homes or within the seminaries themselves.
For Father Dan Morris, the vocations director — and Father Scott Wallisch and Msgr. Michael Mullen, co-directors of seminarians — the situation has resulted in a flood of phone calls, text messages and emails, as they try to advise the seminarians, who — like the faithful — are trying to plan.
It doesn’t help that it seems a different response is required for every seminary.
For example, as of March 20, the six seminarians studying at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver had no plans to return to the archdiocese, at least not yet.
“They live in smaller communities. Some of them live on campus. Some of them live in parish houses,” said Father Wallisch. “They are already broken into smaller groups, so they can isolate themselves pretty well.”
In terms of their academic workload, at the time of this interview, the men were still going to classes, knowing the time might come when the rectors will instruct them virtually.
“I talked to them the other day and, as is to be expected, it’s a hard thing to swallow, but I think everyone is growing in their understanding of the necessity of making decisions like that in the midst of the situation. So, they’re trying to make the best of it,” said Father Wallisch.
Deacon Mecum, meanwhile, is sheltering in place at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, just outside Boston.
The international seminary houses about 60 men and voted unanimously to shutter its doors to the public and guests, while continuing classwork online. Seminarians are free to leave, he said, but with the knowledge they cannot return.
The seminary also implemented many of the recommended guidelines aimed at preventing COVID-19’s spread. For example, although the men still come together for prayer, they stagger themselves in the chapel, maintaining distance between themselves.
And while the seminary is essentially closed, if a seminarian needs a prescription, he can pick it up, but is expected to pick up anything else needed for the other seminarians.
In terms of his classwork, the deacon described the virtual instruction as “interactive participation,” which includes live-streamed lectures, reading material and live chat message boards.
In addition to classwork, the community can still attend daily Mass, too. Deacon Mecum said he knows he’s incredibly blessed to still receive the Eucharist daily, something he knows the laity are mourning the loss of right now.
“When we receive the Eucharist,” he said, “we make our intentions for all those in our home diocese and all the faithful who cannot participate in the sacrifice of the Mass.”
Finally, the archdiocese has nine men in formation at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis. On March 16, those nine were informed the seminary was closing for the school year as of 5 p.m., March 18, giving them just 48 hours to pack and return home.
There was no indication of the virus among any of them. Still, out of an abundance of caution, Father Wallisch said all nine headed straight to Savior Pastoral Center.
“We just thought it would be best,” he said, adding the men had “already been together” for quite some time in St. Louis.
Currently, archdiocesan staff is working remotely, so Savior Pastoral Center seemed the logical choice to provide the men shelter for the foreseeable future.
Like Kenrick-Glennon, Conception Seminary in northwest Missouri decided to shutter its doors for the semester. The men there, Father Wallisch explained, will finish their courses online — with the difference being in their living arrangements, at least for now.
“They won’t immediately join the Kenrick-Glennon guys,” he said. “We’re going to have them isolate themselves for a couple weeks and then, once their schooling has to start back up, we’ll put them at Savior
“We’re trying to create as best a seminary atmosphere as possible so that they can continue their formation.”
“Is this ideal? Certainly not,” continued Father Wallisch. “But could this be a very formative moment? I think so. Could it be a great time for them to all grow in the community and their fraternity with each other? Sure.
“So, I think God can use this to do some pretty cool things for seminarians.”
And their reaction is encouraging, he said.
“I find it edifying that the guys are bummed that they’re not at [the] seminary — meaning they take their formation seriously. . . . They enjoy immersing themselves in formation. They enjoy their fellow seminarians. . . . I take that as a good sign they’re really investing themselves in their formation.”
Father Morris, who moved into the temporary seminary on March 23, agrees.
“There’s a good spirit here, and so they’ve done a good job of taking ownership of what these next five weeks are going to look like,” he said. “It’s a blessing in disguise.
“Given the situation, God can bring these kinds of blessings out of anything.”
Viewing his role as a priest who can provide a “presence” and a source of morale to the seminarians, Father Morris said he can assist in the transition and closeout of the semester. From a practical standpoint, he celebrates daily Mass for the seminarians.
The “resurrection” of Savior Pastoral Center as a seminary, said Father Morris, is reaping benefits on multiple levels — spiritually, socially and physically — as seminarians pray together, eat together, work out together and even enjoy movies together during down time.
Deacon Mersmann, one of the nine from Kenrick-Glennon, agreed.
“We have an incredible life and schedule at Kenrick where everything is planned out in terms of meetings and prayer and meals,” he said. “So, packing up from there and then in 36 hours being here, we had to plan all that for ourselves, so that was quite a whirlwind.
“All the men I am with are incredibly strong and mature and smart, so we were able to pick up and go and come here.”
Prayer, the deacon added, continues to be their main focus.
“We still make praying together a top priority. Seminarians and priests pray the breviary. We go to Mass as often as we can. We pray the rosary [and] do spiritual reading,” he said.
“We pray our Holy Hour together. It’s 60 minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament or just the tabernacle in the morning. That’s the first thing we have.”
Of course, creating a temporary seminary also involves taking care of a variety of needs — some practical, some spiritual.
Upon their arrival, Deacon Mersmann and Keith Chadwick, a seminarian in his third year of theology, took charge of meal preparation. The two planned menus, did the shopping and have committed to cooking most (but not all) the meals. Others cleaned Strecker Hall and organized the living arrangements, while others took charge of the music and preparation of the sacred vessels for liturgies.
“We do everything in common, and we’re all living in the same hallway, up in Strecker,” the deacon added. “There’s this incredible bond focused on prayer, just embracing all the sacrifices that everyone’s life now includes.”
Usually, said Father Morris, seminarians are divided by their classes. For example, students in college might live in separate wings or separate buildings from those in theological training. Now, with nine seminarians at various stages in their formation period all together, the seminarians closer to ordination are getting to know their younger brothers in pre-theology or college.
Savior’s grounds, too, provide seminarians plenty of room for exercise and outdoor prayer.
Stay in touch
Finally, the seminarians have established an email account at: kcksemprayers @gmail.com. They encourage everyone throughout the archdiocese to send their prayer requests to that address.
“We are experiencing the same trials that you are in terms of not being able to leave, in terms of the very limited to no contact with our families,” said Deacon Mersmann.
“So, we are in solidarity with you there,” he added, “and we want to affirm you and encourage you.”