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November 7, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 19   •   Oakland, CA
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Sulpicians abruptly quit seminary

Bishop Thomas Daly

A simmering dispute between the group of priests operating St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park and the trustees who govern the school has led the priests to abruptly end their relationship with St. Patrick's effective June 30, 2017, ending a 118-year relationship.

The Society of Priests of St. Sulpice, a society composed of diocesan priests who serve as educators of seminarians and priests, has administered and taught at St. Patrick's since its founding in 1898. St. Patrick's has been the main seminary used by the Diocese of Oakland for priestly formation.

The Sulpicians and trustees have tussled for several years over leadership and direction. There's even a difference of opinion as to why the Sulpicians are leaving.

Speculation the rift is a fight between traditional vs. more modern Catholic direction is wrong; a more direct issue is that the school's accreditation may be in jeopardy.

"There are misconceptions about the program at St. Patrick's Seminary — some see it as too conservative," Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington, a trustee and graduate of St. Patrick's, said.

"I want it very clear our program is a solid program. If you meet alums from St. Pat's they are on balance good priests …. But we have an accreditation that has a list of things to do."


Attending St. Patrick's
Entities with seminarians currently in formation at St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park:

Archdiocese of San Francisco
Diocese of Fresno
Diocese of Monterey
Diocese of Oakland
Diocese of Orange
Diocese of Sacramento
Diocese of San Jose
Diocese of Santa Rosa
Diocese of Stockton

Diocese of Honolulu

Diocese of Reno

Diocese of Spokane

— St. Patrick's website

Oakland diocese
Where and how many seminarians from our diocese are studying or serving:

St. Patrick's 5
Pastoral Year 4
Mount Angel 4
St. John, Mass. 1
Pope St. John XXIII 2

— Diocese of Oakland

While still accredited, beginning in 2012, in 2014 and again in June of this year, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges issued a "notice of concern." WASC is one of several independent organizations that "assure schools have met high standards of quality and effectiveness." St. Patrick's is also accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.

While WASC said some progress has been made since 2012, it remains "deeply concerned about the lack of progress" in areas of strategic assessment, program review and data collection systems.

"Absolutely we wouldn't be in this situation if not for the WASC issue," Bishop Daly said. "The WASC is what concerned the board the most. How this has been portrayed has confused the issues."

Sulpician Father James McKearney, predecessor of the current rector-president, resigned in 2013. Bishop Daly, then an auxiliary bishop of San Jose, served as interim rector until current rector-president, and former vice-rector and theology professor, Sulpician Father Gladstone Stevens was chosen.

In an email, Father Stevens wrote: "I will not be making any statements or addressing any inquiries" regarding St. Patrick's.

The board of trustees was concerned about some aspects of the seminary administration in academic and spiritual areas and was interested in discussing a new collaborative relationship with the Sulpicians, Bishop Daly said. Trustees were considering a model similar to Assumption Seminary in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Bishop Daly said, where Sulpicians are on the formation staff but the rector is not a Sulpician.

Those issues were raised in an executive committee conference call with the Sulpicians' U.S. Provincial, Father John C. Kemper, and another Sulpician, Bishop Daly said.

In an Oct. 22 announcement, the Sulpicians stated: "We have recently been informed that we are no longer invited to provide Sulpician administrative leadership to St. Patrick's. As a consequence, we will not be able to serve the seminary according to the Sulpician tradition. After consultation, discussion and prayerful discernment, the Provincial Council has decided to withdraw totally from St. Patrick's as of June 30, 2017. We extend our best wishes to St. Patrick's Seminary & University as it moves forward."

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, chancellor of St. Patrick's, expressed sadness in an Oct. 23 statement to priests of the archdiocese. He wrote that Father Kemper, also a seminary trustee, "informed me of this decision Friday afternoon, about two hours before the commencement of the meeting of the board of trustees. He then stayed for the board meeting and responded to questions and entreaties by board members. The decision, however, remains final."

Archbishop Cordileone praised the Sulpicians in his statement, noting the society educated many of the archdiocesan priests.

"They made the decision" to leave, Bishop Daly said. "There was no discussion with the board of trustees. They had made up their mind" the day before and had voted to withdraw. "So there was no collaboration in the decision," Bishop Daly said, and it "wasn't our desire" they leave.

While enrollment at St. Patrick's has dropped from 114 seminarians in 2012 to 63 today, Bishop Daly emphasized it is not a reflection of seminary administration, but an overall drop in the number of vocations and decisions by some dioceses to send seminarians to other seminaries that are geographically closer to home. Some, such as the Fresno and Orange dioceses, are sending men to St. John's Seminary, Camarillo, in Southern California, Bishop Daly said.

"You have to look at the total number of seminarians available to be sent to theology," he said.

Despite the decline, St. Patrick's is centrally located, allowing seminarians to be close to their dioceses for field work. "There is no theologate on the West Coast so centrally located," he said.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco owns the seminary and its grounds, and an endowment at the Archdiocese of San Francisco subsidizes the cost of student education.

"Those of us who have gone to St. Patrick's — I was ordained there in '87 — are very grateful to the Sulpicians … We're very grateful," Bishop Daly said.

On the board of trustees, he said, are three bishops who are alums of St. Patrick's. "They share in the sadness that the Sulpicians will no longer be teaching there. But for the good of the seminary and the good of the church, a modification of the arrangement had to take place," he said.

Six Sulpicians teach and work as administrators at St. Patrick's; they include the rector-president, the vice rector and the dean of spirituality. There is an active search for faculty members, with five positions on the school website.

A search committee comprised primarily of a subcommittee of the board of trustees has been formed to find a new president-rector. Among those on the search committee are Bishop Daly; Oakland Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ; San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William Justice; Archbishop emeritus George H. Niederauer; and Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva as well as several lay seminary trustees.

The Sulpicians own and operate St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore; administer Theological College in Washington, which is associated with The Catholic University of America; and contribute staff to the Archdiocese of San Antonio's Assumption Seminary.

Catholic San Francisco and the Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.

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