After three previous attempts, Sacred Heart Seminary was founded at last in 1919

The first class of freshmen enrolled in the newly founded Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit pose for a photo on the first day of classes in September 1919, a century ago. That first class of freshmen were known as “the pioneers” for the seminary community, since they completed both high school and college at the seminary. (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

Detroit's Bishop Gallagher saw a seminary as 'badly needed' — more than a new cathedral — in the early 20th century

Editor's note: This article is the first in a monthly series looking back on the history and faith of Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary, which is celebrating its centennial year in 2019-20. Read other articles in the series here.

DETROIT — When the now-Sacred Heart Major Seminary first opened for classes on Sept. 11, 1919, it marked the determination of Bishop Michael J. Gallagher of Detroit to prepare young men of the diocese for priesthood.

In fact, Bishop Gallagher had stressed the importance of the priestly vocation during the homily he delivered at his installation Mass only 10 months prior in November 1918.

“I preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is the highest duty, the highest privilege, the highest good that can be brought to man,” he told the crowd gathered at what is now SS. Peter and Paul (Jesuit) Church in Detroit, then the diocese's cathedral, according to the Detroit Free Press

Yet, previous efforts to open a seminary paved the way for Sacred Heart.

Launching a seminary: harder than it looks

In 1798, the French-born Sulpician priest Fr. Gabriel Richard was assigned to Detroit, then a trading post in the Northwest Territory with a rapidly growing population of both Catholics and Protestants. He soon became the pastor of Ste. Anne Church.

But his love of teaching acquired at a previous assignment at a Baltimore seminary soon became apparent. He asked his superior whether he and his assistant priest, Fr. Jean Dilhet, could begin teaching Latin to a few boys in an effort to eventually prepare them for the priesthood.

Fr. Richard’s famous words uttered after the fire — Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, or “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes” — not only evolved into Detroit’s motto, but also signaled that the establishment of a seminary in the diocese would again be attempted.

“They are from 9 to 15 years old, but few of them know how to read well, and scarcely two know how to write,” he wrote to Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, as quoted in an article written by then-Fr. Earl Boyea in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue of Sacred Heart Major Seminary’s Mosaic magazine. “It is a hard undertaking indeed, as these children belong to parents who are hardly able to provide them for ink and paper.”

Bishop Carroll gave permission, and Frs. Richard and Dilhet in October 1804 established a “college or clergy school” in a couple of rooms in the rectory. But the school was short-lived, as it and practically every other building in Fort Detroit succumbed to the Great Fire in June 1805.

Fr. Richard’s famous words uttered after the fire — Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus, or “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes” — not only evolved into Detroit’s motto, but also signaled that the establishment of a seminary in the diocese would again be attempted.

That second endeavor came in 1846, under the direction of Bishop Frederic Rese of Detroit and co-adjutor Bishop Peter Lefevere. In fact, the Catholic Almanac for 1847 actually lists the Seminary of St. Thomas, noting there were “four seminarians devoting themselves to philosophical and theological studies.” Enrollment increased to nine in 1848, but fell to seven in 1849.

The two bishops wanted the boys to complete a study of classics equivalent to a high school education before enrolling as seminarians. But the students often lacked the basic learning to even enter high school. St. Thomas was encountering the same problem as the first seminary — a lack of able candidates — so it closed in 1854.

The third attempt came in 1873, when Detroit Bishop Caspar Borgess called a synod for all priests of the diocese and successfully urged them to support the creation of a seminary. With financial help from Catholics across the diocese, the Seminary of St. Francis opened in 1886 in Monroe, in a building originally constructed as a central high school for three parishes. Initial enrollment tallied 35 students. But seminary operations burdened diocesan finances, so Bishop Borgess’ successor, Bishop John Samuel Foley, closed the school in June 1889.

Fourth time's the charm

When Bishop Gallagher was named to lead the Detroit diocese, the time was ripe for yet another attempt. And the words he spoke at his installation Mass served as a harbinger of things to come.

The next hint came in April 1919, when the bishop adamantly refuted a rumor of land purchased for a cathedral, telling the Detroit Free Press that any such deal was years away, since a school for priests was a priority.

“In the first place,” he told the newspaper, “I want to build a seminary, which is badly needed, before taking up the cathedral property.”

Bishop Michael J. Gallagher of Detroit succeeded in the longtime goal of establishing a seminary in the city.

Only three months later, in July 1919, the Free Press reported that Bishop Gallagher was seeking a temporary building to accommodate 30 to 40 students for the first two years of high school for an as-yet-unnamed seminary, with the intent to add an additional grade level in succeeding years.

“Sooner or later, we shall build a fully-equipped building,” the bishop told the newspaper. “Before we do, however, it will be necessary to make a drive for funds.”

Detroit residents gleaned more details when both the Free Press and the diocesan newspaper The Michigan Catholic in September 1919 ran front-page articles about and photos of the newly named Sacred Heart Seminary and its faculty, housed in two large, red brick houses and a double garage located at 59 to 79 Martin Place. The original site of the seminary is now occupied by Harper University Hospital.

Leading the teaching staff was the Fr. Dennis A. Hayes, chosen as rector of the new seminary in recognition of “his untiring and indefatigable energy” in recently building a parish school in Coldwater, Michigan, both newspapers reported.

Joining Fr. Hayes to round out the faculty of four were Fr. John C. Vismara, D.D., coming from Kalamazoo; Fr. William J. Flanagan, S.T.L, most recently of the Latin high school in Lansing; and Fr. George A. Fette, Ph.D., formerly a professor of chemistry and natural science at the Ohio State Dental College in Cincinnati. Fr. Fette was a former classmate of Bishop Gallagher’s and would be teaching mathematics at the new seminary.

Finally, a seminary for Detroit

However, despite the arrival of an apostolic blessing from Pope Benedict XV, the founding of the seminary on Sept. 7, 1919, was a bit inauspicious. The buildings were still undergoing renovation and could host neither classes nor boarders. Students were left to find room and board elsewhere in the city until the buildings were ready in November.

The first day of class took place a few days later, on Sept. 11, 1919, in Holy Rosary School due to the generosity of Msgr. Francis J. Van Antwerp, who also opened his own home to the four new faculty members.

Sacred Heart students look out from Holy Angels Hall, a 70-room apartment building on Martin Place that was rented in 1921.

But the city of Detroit now had a seminary, and both newspapers recognized the importance of that over a new cathedral or a new episcopal residence.

“The education of youth for the sanctuary pertains to the very heart and life of the church and must always be of first thought,” the media reported.

Fr. Hayes echoed that sentiment when he noted the seminary would offer both the environment and means needed to encourage a vocation to the priesthood.

“Most of us priests come from the ranks of the poor,” he was quoted in both newspapers, “and our parents could not have paid the bills for our education and we would never have been ordained had we not been assisted by the bishop and the diocese.”

Sacred Heart’s first students affirmed his words, as they came from traditionally large Catholic households, with their applications listing the number of children in the families at 10, 12, 14 and even 16, according to The Michigan Catholic. As of the first day of classes, Fr. Hayes reported that he had received 80 applications, with half enrolled and 75 to 85 expected when the school term was in full swing.

Those freshmen enrolled in the fall of 1919, who eventually graduated from Sacred Heart in the spring of 1927, were known as “the pioneers,” since they completed both high school and college at the seminary. Yet they were treading a time-honored path to a Catholic vocation, as the founders of Sacred Heart sought to enrich them with the four pillars of priestly formation — human, spiritual, pastoral, and intellectual.

“We aim to make real boys, masculine boys, learned boys, boys of self-control, boys who think,” Fr. Hayes stated in the two newspapers. “We want it distinctly understood from the very start that this is the objective and this the ambition, this the aim of the Sacred Heart Seminary, Detroit.”

Mary Massingale is a freelance writer who worked with Sacred Heart Major Seminary to research and write a book documenting its history and service to Detroit and the new evangelization in celebration of the school’s centennial.