Mary’s Mountain

A seminary where devotion to the Blessed Sacrament takes place every day; where the message on celibacy is given and gotten with clarity; where a magnificent statue of Our Lady assists the future priests’ devotions; which officially describes its program as “centered in the Eucharist . . . founded on the Sacred Scriptures and Sacred Tradition . . . and marked by a filial devotion to Mary”; whose graduates gladly queue up to talk to a lay reporter about how great their seminary experience was.

No, it’s not a new Tridentine society or a new splinter-order in rural France or Austria. It’s a seminary in the mainstream of the Church in the United States, training priests from thirty-seven dioceses all around the country—Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Mount St. Mary’s Seminary—or simply, “the Mount”—is one of the success stories of the Church in America today. At a time when seminaries are closing, or staying alive by training lay people in the various ministries presumed necessary in a supposedly priestless future, the Mount is full to the rafters, almost literally. No single rooms here. “We’re at two to a room for guys under thirty-five,” says former rector, Msgr. Kenneth Roeltgen.

National Prominence

The Mount is the primary seminary for the Dioceses of Arlington, Virginia, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Peoria, Illinois—which are also the national leaders in priestly vocations. The Mount also has trained priests for thirty-four other dioceses, including the Military Archdiocese and the Byzantine Diocese of Passaic, New Jersey. “We also get some from Fall River, Massachusetts, and from Atlanta,” notes Father Paul Berghout, a Mount graduate and associate pastor at All Saints Church, Manassas, Virginia, “and also from some dioceses that are doing the phoenix-from-the-ashes thing, like Santa Fe, New Mexico.”

Three-quarters of Arlington seminarians go to the Mount, according to Father James Gould, director of vocations for the diocese. The rest go to St. Charles in Philadelphia—one of the few seminaries that “Mounties” will admit may bear comparison with their own—or to the North American College in Rome.

The Mount is an indirect gift from the rabid anticlericalism of the French Revolution. Father Jean DuBois, ordained only two years before the Revolution broke out, came to America as a missionary priest with little besides a letter of introduction from Lafayette. In time he became bishop of New York, but in his early years in the states he worked as an itinerant priest, bought land near Emmitsburg, and, working with a community of Sulpicians who ran a seminary in Baltimore, founded a boys’ school on his land. This, in 1808, was the beginning of both the college and the seminary.

“The Sulpicians didn’t think a seminary was needed in Emmitsburg, since their seminary in Baltimore seemed to be thriving,” says Msgr. Roeltgen. “Father DuBois actually left the Sulpicians in order to keep Mount St. Mary’s going. Then he became bishop of New York, and passed ownership of the Mount to a council of priests.”

In 1809, a year after Father DuBois founded the Mount, Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton moved to Emmitsburg. “The site is the home of the first American-born saint,” notes Father Berghout, “as well as of a refugee from the persecution in France. It’s permeated with Catholic culture.” In the words of Father Joseph Donton, a Mountie who is now vocations director for the Diocese of Peoria, “there’s a sense there of coming to Our Lady’s mountain.”

Father Gould believes the Mount has been especially blessed in its rectors. “They have always been exemplary, and they always have set an example to which the students have risen.” Father Harry Flynn, a Mount graduate from the class of 1960, had the difficult task of serving as rector from 1970 to 1979, a period of great turbulence in the Church. Father Gould remembers Mount rectors such as Msgr. Richard McGuiness, from Newark, who served from 1979 to 1988, and Msgr. Roeltgen, who served from 1988 through the academic year just ended. “They’ve all been great,” says Father Gould, “but I give the highest marks to Roeltgen. Our diocese has really been blessed by his leadership. He was clearly a gift of Divine Providence.”

Exceptional Leadership

The new rector is Father Kevin Rhoades, a St. Charles graduate; Mount alumni are equally optimistic about him. Agreeing that “the Mount has had incredible rectors,” Father Berghout thinks Father Rhoades may turn out to be the best yet. “He’s a canon lawyer; he’s also deeply versed in patristics and biblical spirituality, and he’s worked in an inner-city parish in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.”

An outstanding feature of the Mount’s organizational structure is its independence from any diocese or order. Followers of American clerical politics will perhaps not find it surprising that this fact should turn out to be an aid to orthodoxy and sound spirituality.

The council of priests to whom Father DuBois turned over the Mount when he became bishop of New York “owned the place until the late 1960s, when the archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal Sheehan, asked them to give up ownership and hand it over to a board of trustees,” says Msgr. Roeltgen. “This board is principally lay. There are priest members, and the archbishop of Baltimore is a member. He is the chancellor of the seminary, and has to approve appointments of professors, but he does that in consultation with the other bishops who send students there, and also with the board of trustees.” The board appoints its own successors.

When an opening occurs for a professor, the rector asks the academic dean, who reports to him, to conduct a search.

The academic dean consults with the rest of the faculty. Thus, self-perpetuation is an operating principle both for the board of trustees and for the faculty.

The seminary is linked to Mount St. Mary’s College; each is a distinct school within a single corporation. The college handles the money for both institutions. This does not dilute the seminary’s independence, however, because tuition pretty much pays the bills. Also, the rector of the seminary is a member of the college president’s cabinet and has a seat on the budget advisory committee, the capital improvements committee, and the planning council.

“We have to deal,” says Msgr. Roeltgen, summing up the relationship. “Let’s say the college proposes that there should be only one theology department for both the college and the seminary, which over the years has been proposed by various people. Suppose they want to run the theology department, and leave us just the aspect of priestly formation. Well, we couldn’t possibly agree to that, because for us academic theology is an integral part of priestly formation. We would lose our identity. So we protect our independence, but it’s a delicate balance because we’re still part of the whole. We can’t deny that.”

The different philosophies of the college and the seminary were showcased abruptly last spring when a job fair, run by a consortium of local colleges, took place at Mount St. Mary’s College. “One of the exhibitors was Planned Parenthood,” recalls Father Berghout. “Messiah College, an evangelical college down the highway from us, pulled out, but Mount St. Mary’s College did not, so some of the seminarians held a protest.”

This was part of a wider cultural clash between the college and the seminary. Father Berghout recalls: “The college has the reputation of being something of a partying place, but that has not prevented the seminary from keeping its identity and its mission.”

Commitment to Basics

The seminary relies on the college for its philosophy courses. “One or two philosophy professors there were not necessarily supportive of the faith,” says Father Berghout, “but for the most part philosophy is in good shape at the college.”

External structure to one side, a critical component of the Mount’s success seems to be its placement of academics within a context of intense Catholic spirituality. Item number one in the Mount’s official directives for Community Living is: “A deepening of personal faith fostered especially by personal prayer.” The Directives also recommend the “Ten Commitments” of the late Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, which begin with the commitment to daily Mass and to “a daily regimen of prayer consisting of meditation, the Divine Office and other devotions, such as the Rosary and Stations of the Cross.”

And then there’s commitment number five: “The commitment to truth which alone can steel one against the vagaries of the ‘spirit of the age’ or whatever is considered the ‘in thing’ of the moment.”

In liturgy, the Mount stresses reverence. “I think it’s extremely important,” says Father Kevin Rhoades, the incoming rector, “that we have a dignified, beautiful liturgy. A daily Mass could be very simple. When we have feasts or special occasions, we have more music and more ceremony. But in any event, it’s done well: It’s orderly, reverent, dignified—a certain noble simplicity.”

“They synthesize academic, spiritual, and social formation,” says Father Gould. “It all comes together.” “The spiritual life takes priority there,” recalls Father Loras Grell, a Mountie who is now assistant director of vocations for the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. “For instance, during my time there, we started having daily exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.” “It’s changed since I was there,” says Peoria’s Father Donton: “The spirituality has actually grown, if that’s possible.”

Most of the priest-professors double as spiritual directors to the seminarians. “For instance,” says Msgr. Roeltgen, “Father Rhoades here teaches systematic theology and canon law, but he also serves as spiritual director and formation adviser to a number of the students.”

Potential temptations of the flesh are faced squarely. “The commitment to celibacy for life as the discipline of the Latin Rite,” reads Msgr. Ellis’s fourth commitment, as reprinted in the Mount’s handbook, is “a commitment which should guide and inform one’s relationships with women. This commitment also ought to encourage those with a homosexual orientation to face it openly, and honestly employ the guidance of a wise spiritual director who will, in conjunction with the grace of God, help him bear the cross while faithfully exercising the priestly ministry.”

With an eye to the college with which it is historically and organizationally linked, the seminary tells its students: “Conscious of their commitment to celibacy and chastity, seminarians are never allowed to date; even relationships which give the appearance of dating can be a cause of serious scandal, and hence are to be avoided. . . . No seminarian is to visit any collegian’s room at any time, for any reason, without the express prior permission of the Dean of Students.”

The Mount deals with issue of homosexuality “as openly as possible,” says Msgr. Roeltgen, “so there isn’t any question in anyone’s mind about the Church’s teaching and that the clergy are not exempt.”

“We deal with sexuality in the rector’s conferences, and also in the personal, one-on-one spiritual direction,” adds Father Rhoades. “Each seminarian has had a different background, family relationships, and friendships. We help them grow and be celibate and integrate that experience into their spiritual life in order to live it in a healthy and mature way.”

Crowded But Loving It

One feature of life for seminarians at the Mount is that they have built-in accountability partners and trainers in the fine art of getting along with others: namely, roommates. Msgr. Roeltgen notes that almost all seminarians have to share rooms with other seminarians: Doubles, not singles, are the rule. It may seem a small point, but Father Berghout considers it integral to the formation one receives at the Mount. “The Mount is very homey,” he says, “and a part of that is that it’s a little bit crowded. You have a roommate for the first year or two. At other seminaries, you get your own room, or even your own two rooms—a bedroom and a study.” But the Mount’s “crowding” is friendly rather than stifling. “Often, you can pick a buddy from your diocese to room with,” continues Father Berghout. “It’s part of the reason the Mount has an environment that’s friendly, not stuffy or clerical.”

The fraternity among Mount alumni is a fact that came up repeatedly in our interviews. “These are the guys I’d go to Alaska with,” declares Father Gould (himself a St. Charles man). “There’s a real brotherhood among the priests who go there,” notes Lincoln’s Father Grell.

“I was there while they were renovating some of the buildings,” recalls Father Donton, “and the newer guys, up through second-year theology, had to live in trailers out on Echo Field. At Christmastime they put lights on top of their trailers to spell out ‘Merry Christmas’ for the benefit of us older guys up on the hill. In the spring they had a ‘tacky trailer’ contest. One trailer had a car up on blocks out in front, but I think the winner was the one where the guys rented some chickens and put up a chicken coop.”

At a time when many dioceses are relying on older vocations to replace the younger ones that aren’t there, the Mount continues to attract younger men, or, to be more precise, it draws on dioceses where younger vocations occur: Individuals apply to seminaries through their diocese. “Our seminary probably wouldn’t attract a whole lot of second-career people because of the physical arrangements,” notes Msgr. Roeltgen. “We wouldn’t have as many private rooms. Our population is still fairly young, and very committed to the teachings of the Church, whether they grew up in a strong Catholic family, or they came to the Church as converts.”

The Supernatural Factor

Converts? “Yes. Our dean of students, Father Leo Gross, a priest of the Arlington Diocese, is a convert. He was an Episcopal priest. Our professor of liturgical studies, Dr. Pamela Jackson, came into the Church while she was a student at Yale.”

Msgr. Roeltgen considers the fervor of his students a recent phenomenon and a sign of renewal. “You might say, well, if a man’s going to be a priest, he’s going to come with that commitment. But that wasn’t necessarily so twenty-five years ago. There was still a lot of confusion and uncertainty. But these men have a pretty clear sense of direction and are very guided by the teachings of John Paul II. What I see now more than ever is a very strong apostolic spirit. They’re eager to get out and preach the Gospel and they’re eager to find ways of communicating the faith to people. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen in my nine years here.”

It ultimately comes down to the supernatural factors. “There are three keys to the formation you get at the Mount,” says Father Berghout. “Marian devotion; a very Eucharistic focus, with a holy hour every day; and adherence to the Magisterium. I think the intercession of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton has been very much at work here. You know, there’s a large gold statue of Our Lady in the grotto on the campus. Many a seminarian has gone there to ask Our Lady for a little help, and it seems they always get it. It’s a great statue: The Federal Aviation Administration reimburses the Mount the costs of keeping it illuminated at night, because pilots use it as a landmark, like the dome at Notre Dame. A seminarian raising his mind and heart to the Mother of God in that way during his formation is going to receive a lot of graces.”

When all is said and done, the Mount is not the only U.S. seminary in great shape. “The seminary you should be writing about,” said Father Daniel Gee, colleague of Father Berghout at All Saints in Manassas, “is St. Charles. That’s C-H-A-R-L-E-S, in Overbrook, Pennsylvania. Great department in spiritual theology, great department in moral theology, even though they’ve lost John Haas. Great seminary!” Other high-quality seminaries listed by Msgr. Roeltgen and Father Rhoades are St. Joseph’s in Dunwoodie, New York, Kenrick-Glennon in St. Louis, Missouri, and the seminaries in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and Columbus, Ohio.

But there seems to be a consensus that Mount St. Mary’s is a very special place—with the caveat that, in an ideal world, it would be typical rather than a standout.

“Once at a committee meeting,” recalls Msgr. Roeltgen, “someone said, now Mount St. Mary’s has a rather traditional image; what are you going to do about that? I said, well, we’re pretty comfortable being who we are. We always need to be challenged, and we should never be complacent, but we should be where the Church is and where the Holy Father is. If that’s traditional, well, that’s what we try to do.”


  • David Wagner

    David Wagner is a professor at Regent University School of Law.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...