A Seminary Reborn: Cardinal Maida’s Vision of Renewal

For 30 years Catholics have watched sadly as schools and parishes all over the country have shut down. Many marvels structures full of memories, often sitting on prime real estate, have been sold to developers to make way for condos and strip malls. Protests and nostalgia have not been, enough to fight the inevitability of bottom-line decisions made by ordinaries facing large deficits.

The story of St. John’s Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan, however, challenges this unfortunate habit of selling unused church property. For nearly 50 years, St. John’s educated Michigan’s priests. Ninety percent of Michigan’s active priests were nurtured under the shadow of the seminary’s Romanesque bell tower. Today the property has become a 27-hole public golf course, a conference center, and a center for children and families. The development is being closely monitored by bishops throughout the United States, because the newly dedicated St. John’s Golf and Conference Center may present a model for Catholic renewal in the near future.

Closing St. John’s Seminary

The plans for St. John’s Provincial Seminary were conceived in 1936, when our nation was emerging slowly from the Great Depression. Construction of the seminary did not begin until a decade later, when Detroit’s Archbishop Edward Mooney was made a cardinal. St. John’s was designed along classic lines with its Romanesque archways, wide-open spaces, and magnificent bell tower. Classes commenced in 1949, and within a few years, St. John’s became a thriving center of activity for the Church and one of the primary training facilities for parish priests in Michigan.

From St. John’s earliest days, one of the most popular features of the property was its golf course. The course was built by the seminarians themselves, who moved the rocks, dug the dirt, mowed it, and maintained it. The course was named Mission Hills.

During the several decades o p e seminary’s existence, there were normally about 200 students at St. John’s. The golf course was an important part of life for the great majority of the seminarians. In their free hours—and sometimes all afternoon on Thursdays and Saturdays, when classes lasted only half a day—they would run out to the course to play some rounds.

Use of the course hinged on the seminarians’ participating in its maintenance. Fr. Daniel Murphy, who entered St. John’s as a seminarian in 1952, recalls that to play golf, the seminarians had to work on the course at least 60 hours per year. “There was occasional griping about this,” he says. Asked whether he ever moved dirt, Fr. Murphy responds, “Only with my golf swing.”

While the 1950s and early 60s saw high numbers of new vocations in the Church throughout the United States, the post-Vatican II era saw steep declines. St. John’s was not immune to this trend. By the 1970s, the seminary housed on average a mere 20 to 25 students each year. This sorry phenomenon affected the history of the golf course: Mission Hills was leased and for the first time the public was permitted access to the greens. Formerly only seminarians and religious could use the facility. To accommodate the influx of golfers, nine new holes were added to the original nine, and the course opened to the public officially in 1979. Looking back, Fr. Murphy muses that the additions to the course did not match the character of the old: “Never quite as perfect,” he says.

By the mid-1980s, the future of St. John’s looked bleak. Enrollment had hit rock-bottom, and it was with great sadness to many in the archdiocese of Detroit that the seminary was closed in 1988. Like so many beloved but dormant seminaries and Catholic schools around the country, St. John’s—along with its magnificent acreage and fine golf course—was doomed to be put on the market and sold to the highest bidder. But the seminary was spared this sorry end when, in 1990, Detroit’s new archbishop, Adam J. Maida, began envisioning an entirely new and unique purpose for the property. “I wanted the property to open to the local community—to be a Catholic milieu and a witness, the jewel in the archdiocese of Detroit,” Maida says. It was this vision—conceived during St. John’s darkest hour—that would be the life source of the property’s glowing future.

Cardinal Maida’s Vision

In 1994, Archbishop Maida was made a cardinal and he announced his plans to revive the dormant St. John’s into a new resource for the youth and families of the area. In 1996, St. John’s Center for Youth and Family opened its doors and ushered in a new era of Catholic apostolate in the archdiocese, While it would have been simpler to abandon hope for St. John’s and watch it go the way of so many other Catholic institutions around the country, Cardinal Maida saw the great potential for increased and effective lay apostolate that existed in the wake of sharp declines in religious vocations. The new St. John’s would become a center of activity for the Church once again—only this time, rather than train young seminarians and send them out to shepherd their flocks, the Church would bring the flock inside St. John’s and offer the facility as a spiritual and recreational center for the area’s youth, a resource for marriage counseling to restore and strengthen troubled families, and as a second home to people from all walks of life.

Cardinal Maida’s vision did not end with the creation of St. John’s Center for Youth and Family. Far from it, in fact. Indeed, it was his vision for the property’s golf course and unused buildings and grounds that would ignite St. John’s transformation into a unique and innovative center for the Church.

In 1998, work commenced on an $11 million redevelopment of St. John’s main buildings into a comprehensive conference center for corporate and social conferences, Catholic weddings, and other Catholic celebrations. At the same time, the golf course formerly known as Mission Hills was subjected to a massive renovation and expansion. The new course would contain 27 holes and become one of Michigan’s finest public golf courses.

It is the juxtaposition of a new Catholic Center for Youth and Family with a corporate conference center and golf course that formed the core of Cardinal Maida’s vision for St. John’s. The profits from the Golf and Conference Center would feed back into the Center for Youth and Family—keeping it funded on an annual basis—for its support.

The administrators at St. John’s are confident that the center will function as a self-contained unit and will not have to rely on traditional fund-raising methods to sustain its operations. People in the area are very glad the funding is coming from the golf course and conference center rather than from the traditional Catholic way of passing the basket. “You’re building something for the third millennium,” says Fr. John West, rector at the center. “Maybe we should fund it in a way for the third millennium.” And while it may strike some observers as strange to see this kind of melding of Church activity with a business venture like the golf and conference center, the archdiocese has received little to no criticism for the radical direction in which it has t. St. John’s. “There’s always criticism in the Church,” Fr. West says. “But I think this was the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit.”

In revitalizing St. John’s the way he has, Cardinal Maida has responded to the serious challenges the Church faces today with great confidence and a spirit of innovation that other bishops and archbishops around the country would do well to emulate. By harnessing both the potential of Church property and the energy that is to be found among the laity, the Church can adapt herself to the conditions presented by a dearth of religious vocations. St. John’s Golf and Conference Center is glowing testimony to the fruits of Cardinal Maida’s vision: a vision that is open to change and flexibility in the manner in which the Church conducts her apostolate but which is constant in its devotion to the unchanging principles and ideals of the Catholic faith.

Detroit’s Catholic Golf Course

Although the new golf course at St. John’s is a public course, its history and location give to it a uniquely spiritual flavor. Indeed, each of the three sets of nine holes is named after the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John, of course, is the name of the entire complex. And the course remains a popular gathering place for clergy in the area, some 90 percent of whom graduated from the seminary when it was in operation. And it is not rare for an occasional bishop, or Cardinal Maida himself, to come spend a leisurely afternoon putting around the greens. The cardinal, in fact, is known to be an avid golfer. “He’s very good,” says John Kruse of Detroit Catholic Radio. Adds Francis Sehn (a member of the archdiocesan board of directors and a driving force behind the St. John’s project), when asked to outline the prelate’s strengths and weaknesses: “He doesn’t have any weaknesses. He’s a pretty level golfer. He’s very steady, and he usually collects the money”

Cardinal Maida seems to have the Midas touch both on and off the field. His vision for a golf course with close ties to the Catholic Church has, so far, been a lucrative one. Golfers who come to St. John’s understand that the money they pay for an enjoyable afternoon helps to fund St. John’s personal ministry to youth and families, and that is one of the great attractions of the golf course. “There’s a sense of pride in the community,” Fr. West explains, “that when they come out and golf, it’s going to be for a good purpose.” Having a good time with the sense that one is serving a higher cause strikes many as a win-win combination, so much so that it might tempt one to milk it for all it’s worth: for instance, wishing that your priest assigns you several rounds of golf at St. John’s for penance. A good thing, Fr. West? “Well,” he hesitates, “maybe they’d need to get an eagle or a birdie as part of the penance.”

Two new features to the golf course this year are the driving range that will open in October and the golf shop, Carl’s Golfland, which opened in August. The shop is a branch of Carl’s Golfland in Bloomfield, Michigan, the largest-grossing golf retail store in the nation. St. John’s also sells Carl’s Golfland retail items in its pro shop, and administrators hope that the presence of the golf-retail giant at their facility will draw many golfers to the greens.

Aside from its built-in fund-raising for the youth and family center and for the archdiocese, St. John’s often hosts golf outings for specific charities and offers a discount to those using the course. In the past, St. John’s has hosted groups who raised money for local parishes, as well as for Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Christ Child. Secular charities, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, have also benefited from the use of St. John’s facilities.

The course itself was designed by Patrick Grelak, a local architect from Fifeshire Golf Course Design. Grelak has designed several courses around the country and uses classic models—as well as the famed work of the Scotsman Donald Ross—as his inspiration. When designing the new course at St. John’s, Grelak was concerned to remain as true as possible to the design and feel of the original course.

Grelak’s talents were also used for the design of the gar¬dens at St. John’s, including the Marian Garden and the Via Garden, which features its own waterfall. These gardens add greatly to the beauty and atmosphere of the property, an atmosphere Grelak appreciates: “To do what I really love on sacred ground,” he says, “is a dream come true.”

A spirit of peacefulness as well as service pervades the golf course, which is heavily wooded and meticulously maintained and offers garden vistas as well as a view of the beautiful old seminary buildings. Some golfers, however, are not without their moments of disquiet at St. John’s. Depending on one’s point of view, one of the more amusing facts about the golf course is that the pro shop—where golfers come in to get equipment or sit down for a drink—occupies the old convent. A building that once housed very pious and prayerful nuns today serves as a stopover for visitors who come to St. John’s for a good time. This sometimes troubles Fr. Murphy, who confesses that he gets a bit nervous when he goes into the pro shop to have a beer with his buddies: “The nuns were so devoted to their convent,” he says uneasily. “Sister Timothy is probably rolling over in her grave.”

Conferences in Galilee

October will witness the Grand Opening of St. John’s Golf and Conference Center, and St. John’s already has bookings well into 2001 for wedding receptions and corporate conferences. The conference center was designed with corporate retreats in mind, where businesses invite their employees for several days or a week to discuss new concepts for the future and enjoy a bit of recreation on the golf course.

The renovated facilities at the conference center include abundant meeting spaces for corporate breakout sessions and other events as well as a boardroom for conferences. The spacious glass atrium provides a good setting for cocktails and hors d’oevres for up to 600 guests, and the large ballrooms—named after the biblical place names Galilee and Judea—can accommodate up to 300 guests each.

The interiors of the conference center are sumptuous and elegant, with hand-painted ceilings, large windows, and original works of art, including a beautiful mural in one of the dining rooms of Christ preaching to His disciples. The chapel—which, having been dormant since 1988, will be reclaimed on September 14, the first night of the upcoming Eucharistic Congress—features stained glass and European seating before a magnificent altar. Discreetly overlooking the chapel is the balcony of a secluded second-floor bridal suite with a private dressing room and large, mirrored vanities.

Weddings at St. John’s must be of the Catholic rite. Although the golf and conference center is open to the public and used by many secular organizations, the archdiocese disallows religious ceremonies of a non-Catholic nature from taking place at St. John’s facilities.

Although the center only offers limited accommodations for overnight lodging, large parties are encouraged to come to St. John’s for several-day stays. The center has a deal with the Plymouth Hilton Garden Inn, which is right around the corner, to accommodate overnight guests. It will offer shuttle services to and from the hotel as well.

The administrators at St. John’s see the multipurpose design of the golf and conference center as a tremendous asset. It allows them to invite groups of many kinds with needs of many natures to use their facilities. And so far the response has been promising. Judging by the bookings for weddings and other functions—the number of which into 2001 is beyond St. John’s initial projections even before the grand opening has taken place—Cardinal Maida’s plan to create a self-contained unit with the golf and conference center and the youth and family center is becoming a reality.

Second Home

September 14 is the first day of a four-day Eucharistic Congress that St. John’s is hosting enthusiastically. The congress is taking place to help fulfill Pope John Paul II’s directive that the Jubilee Year 2000 be “intensely eucharistic.” Religious and lay people from all over the area will be coming for a weekend of adoration and celebration of the Church’s central and most holy sacrament. The weekend will begin with a day of priestly renewal for clergymen and the reclamation of St. John’s chapel. It will close with an outdoor celebration with lay and religious from all over the archdiocese that will include a Mass with Cardinal Maida, a eucharistic procession, as well as speeches, music, and other entertainment.

This celebration of the Eucharist in September is a glowing reminder of St. John’s central function: serving God and the Church. This service is expressed powerfully, as well, through the activities of the Center for Youth and Family, which carries out its apostolate by bringing youth closer to God and by strengthening marriages and families that are in need of help.

Cardinal Maida sees the center as first a place for the youth of the archdiocese. “The heart of this project is a ministry to young people and families,” he says. “I did this as a sign that the Church is genuinely committed to them.” Young people are often the hardest group for the Church to reach in this era when so many kids grow up without strong role models or the rigorous catechesis Catholics used to know.

One of the first ways St. John’s has conducted its youth apostolate is by offering a Sunday evening Mass. If Mass is not yet a priority for some kids, it may become one if they can begin by finding a place in their weekend schedules to come to Church. Sunday evening Masses are offered on many college campuses. Once kids who have been lax in that area formerly begin coming to Mass, it is often just a matter of time before their faith becomes a more central part of their lives. St. John’s offers, in addition, confirmation retreats, evenings of reflection, and programs for high school students.

Some kids have come to think of St. John’s as a second home of sorts. It is common to see local kids using the old seminary gymnasium and shooting hoops there in the evenings; the gymnasium is also offered to diocesan schools that no longer have athletic programs. Also, dioceses in inner-city Detroit are encouraged to bring their kids to suburban Plymouth and take advantage of the wide-open spaces at St. John’s.

Strengthening families is the other part of St. John’s two-pronged ministry. Programs are offered for struggling couples to spend weekends and work out their difficulties in a loving environment and with the help of other couples who have been able to pull through similar difficulties. One program, Retrovaille, the French word for “rediscovery,” has been successful in the past in saving marriages that seemed doomed to failure. While Catholic in spirit, the programs are designed for couples of all faiths, and they focus on helping spouses learn more about themselves and each other and to rebuild marriages by offering messages of self-giving and forgiveness—rather than the themes of self-gratification and total self-reliance that pervade today’s culture.

By ministering to youth and families in many different ways, St. John’s is living out a flexible, innovative apostolate greatly needed in the Church today. All too often our parishes are saddled with too much debt and hampered by too few religious vocations to address the culture’s moral and spiritual problems adequately. Cardinal Maida understands that the Church must reach out to the earthly city outside its doors in new ways. The rebirth of St. John’s Seminary into a golf and conference center and a center for youth and family is testimony to the cardinal’s forward-looking confidence that the Church will grow and prosper in this age as it has throughout the past two millennia. Fr. West believes strongly that the nation’s bishops will not be disappointed: “The pope talked about getting ready for the third millennium,” he says, “and I think we did it here.”


  • Bronwen McShea

    At the time this article was published, Bronwen McShea, a junior at Harvard University, was an editorial assistant at Crisis.

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