As Plymouth seminary closed, Sacred Heart evolved into a major seminary in 1988

Sacred Heart Major Seminary underwent a major renovation during its 1988 refounding, when all 2,400 windows were replaced. It succeeded St. John's Provincial Seminary in Plymouth Township as the major seminary for the Detroit archdiocese, as well as other dioceses in the Michigan ecclesiastical province. (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

Led by then-Archbishop Szoka, Sacred Heart's 'second founding' led to current programs for priestly and lay formation

Editor's note: This article is the sixth 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. 

DETROIT — When Cardinal John F. Dearden of Detroit decided in 1976 to keep open the doors of a struggling Sacred Heart Seminary, he did so with an eye toward a hope-filled future. Little did he know that just 12 years later, Sacred Heart would be “refounded” as a major seminary with a theologate, or graduate school of theology.

Part 1: After three previous attempts, Sacred Heart Seminary was founded at last in 1919

Part 2: Bishop Gallaher's never-quit approach led to construction of Sacred Heart Seminary

Part 3: Surviving tough times: How Sacred Heart Seminary endured, with an eye to the future

Part 4: Simple yet ornate, chapel serves as the 'heart' of Sacred Heart Major Seminary

Part 5: As racial tensions ratcheted in 1943, 1967, Sacred Heart played key role for peace

But Sacred Heart’s gain stemmed from the loss of St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth. 

Established in 1949 under the leadership of Cardinal Edward Mooney of Detroit, St. John’s provided graduate-level theological education and spiritual formation for priesthood candidates from the five Catholic dioceses in Michigan: Detroit, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and Marquette, and later, Gaylord and Kalamazoo when those dioceses were created in 1970. Subsequently, all seven dioceses contributed financially to the operating costs of St. John’s.

It was a seminary of many “firsts”: The first seminary owned and operated by a province of dioceses; the first to incorporate women on the full-time faculty; and the first to admit religious and lay men and women to degree programs, according to an article on its closing in the June 10, 1988, issue of The Michigan Catholic.

But those “firsts” could not save St. John’s from declining enrollments and rising operating costs. When it was announced in April 1987 that the nearly 170-acre campus would cease operations the following summer and its theologate would be moved to Sacred Heart, St. John’s had only 51 candidates enrolled for the priesthood. But its operating budget for recent years had hovered around $1.5 million to $2 million, with all seven dioceses subsidizing 40 percent to 50 percent of the total, according to the same Michigan Catholic article.

The financial burden on the dioceses — especially the smaller ones — was unsustainable. Something had to be done.

St. John's Provincial Seminary stands on 170 acres in Plymouth. After its closure and the transfer of its theologate to Sacred Heart Seminary in 1988, the property has since been used as a venue for conferences, retreats and weddings, and also features a hotel.

“Then-Archbishop Szoka made that decision very prayerfully,” said current Sacred Heart rector Msgr. Todd Lajiness, who was a student at Sacred Heart during the refounding. “It certainly shows the commitment of the archdiocese not only to the city but to a centrally located institution of formation.”

Fr. Robert Byrne, then-rector-president of St. John’s, announced the closing to faculty and students on April 29, 1987.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Fr. Byrne told the May 8, 1987, issue of The Michigan Catholic. “The rumors had been around so long that this was more of a confirmation of what everybody had expected or feared.”

But St. John’s ending was a new beginning for Sacred Heart. 

“It was a time of really being a pioneer,” current Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, who served as Sacred Heart’s academic dean at the time, said in an interview. “Everything had to be refounded, and it was a way to rethink all of the structures of the seminary and put them on a trajectory for growth.”

But there was much to be done. Transfers of current St. John’s students to Sacred Heart had to be configured and streamlined; academic programs for both priesthood candidates and lay students had to be developed; faculty had to be hired; and the building itself had to be renovated to create a separate residence hall and chapel for theologate students, as well as construct a new library for the merged collections.

In a June 1, 1987, letter notifying an official with the Association of Theological Schools of the upcoming closing and refounding, St. John’s academic dean Fr. William Meyers listed three and a half pages of changes already in the works, stating, “As you can see, Detroit takes the word Renaissance literally!”

Then-Archbishop Szoka assembled an academic planning team under the leadership of Msgr. John Nienstedt and included current and future leaders of the Catholic Church: Msgr. Francis Reiss; Fr. Meyers from St. John’s; Frs. Allen Vigneron, Earl Boyea, John Quinn, Leonard Blair, Paul Kriemes, James Jorgenson, and John Budde, and faculty member Patricia Cooney Hathaway, Ph.D. 

Their first assignment was to come up with a mission statement, which at that time read as follows: “Sacred Heart Major Seminary has as its primary purpose the preparation of students, on the undergraduate and graduate level, for priesthood. Responding to the desires of the local Church, Sacred Heart Major Seminary also provides resources for preparing religious and laity for ministerial service in the Church.”

The committee was then tasked with creating three graduate degree programs. The Master of Divinity degree would be reserved for priesthood candidates, while the Master of Arts in Theology would be open to priests, religious and laity. Additionally, the Master of Arts in Pastoral Studies (MAPS) would be geared toward preparing students for lay ecclesial ministry, with a concentration in catechetics, pastoral ministry or spirituality.

Both master’s degrees open to the laity would be housed under the new Institute for Ministry, which evolved from the Institute for Pastoral Ministry created in 1976.

Now-Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing recalls Sacred Heart’s transformation into a major seminary as an exciting time.

“To be able to design something from scratch, seeking out best practices, and being involved in very thoughtful conversations was very formative for me,” Bishop Boyea said during an interview. 

However, he acknowledges crafting degree programs for both the laity and the priesthood created a bit of tension for the first few years.

“There were forces which wanted to focus only on the latter or wanted no distinction between these streams of formation,” Bishop Boyea said. “Our intent, as faculty, was not to collapse that tension but live with and learn from it. It seems to me that such a balance has been achieved over these years.”

Meanwhile, a multi-million-dollar renovation of Sacred Heart’s structure — both inside and out — had begun.

Current Sacred Heart students were moved from one part of the building to another as individual dorm rooms were updated and enlarged to twice their original size. A chapel for seminarians was created from a classroom, and recreation rooms and a laundry were added to the newly named St. John Vianney Hall. Plumbing and electrical wiring were replaced and brought up to code.

St. John Vianney Chapel - Theologate Chapel was created from a classroom during Sacred Heart's 1988 refounding. The chapel and its stained-glass windows were designed by Michigan artist Margaret Cavanaugh.

All 2,400 windows were replaced; every classroom was plastered, carpeted and equipped with chalkboards, desks, chairs, and tables; and the building’s exterior was sandblasted, using a total of 5,600 100-pound bags of sand.

“It was like living in a perpetually functioning factory,” said Bishop Jeffrey Monforton of Steubenville, also a Sacred Heart student at the time.

Additionally, a new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system was installed during the winter months, and “we didn’t have heat for a couple of days,” Msgr. Lajiness said.

To accommodate the more than 60,000 volumes from St. John’s library, a basement crypt storage space (never used for remains of bishops) located under the main chapel was turned into the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Library in honor of the man known as Sacred Heart’s “second founder.”

New storage and food preparation areas were created in the kitchen, which was outfitted with new cooking equipment. Meanwhile, the refectory was completely renovated, incorporating an elevated dining room floor for better positioning with the windows for more effective natural lighting.

The completed project, as well as the journey to get there, was impressive.

“The image of a comprehensive ‘makeover’ of the Sacred Heart campus remains in my mind as if it were yesterday,” Bishop Monforton said.

One of the jewels created by the makeover was the St. John Vianney Chapel — Theologate Chapel. Crafted from a plain classroom with a lecture platform and double-hung windows, the chapel was the creation of Warren resident Margaret Cavanaugh. 

The artist started her career with the renowned Detroit Stained Glass Works, the oldest such studio in Michigan. Upon its closing in 1970, Cavanaugh opened her own studio and was soon celebrated for her design of worship spaces and stained-glass windows. 

Cavanaugh had a solid theological background and reportedly was well known to Cardinal Szoka and enjoyed his confidence. 

Yet the windows she created for the Vianney chapel were done in a contemporary style, with abstract designs flowing from window to window and using colored glass of varying textures and types instead of painted glass.

The “Windows of Creation” featured in the chapel tell the story of the first chapter of Genesis and cover three walls in a panorama of curvilinear sections of vibrant blue, green and rose-colored glass. Working with the limitations of the former classroom, she used large spiral waves that flow throughout the window casements and the three vistas. 

In a 1993 essay she wrote about the Vianney chapel and gave to Sacred Heart, Cavanaugh noted the use of light in the space: “Pure light before all else gives one an experience of God,” she wrote. “I have deliberately used the spectrum and introduced prisms (bevels) that cast this purity of light. The glass is unpainted so direct color is reflected and the room receives as much exterior light as possible.”

Her hope for the chapel was simple yet reflective of a space intended for prayer and spiritual formation.

“Most of all I hope to portray the presence of God in all creation and our connection to all that is,” she wrote. “'God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.’” (Gen. 1:31)

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.