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

Students pose for a photo during a 1930s physics class at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. Though challenged by financial pressures during the Great Depression and later again in the 1960s, bishops and leaders continued to fight for the future of Detroit's seminary, which is celebrating 100 years this year. (Photos courtesy of Sacred Heart Major Seminary)

Editor's note: This article is the third 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. 

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

DETROIT — After opening the doors to its permanent and current location in September 1924, Sacred Heart Seminary soon fulfilled its mission of forming young men for the priesthood.

In 1926, the first college class of Sacred Heart graduated, with eight of the 10 graduates beginning their Sacred Heart career as high school sophomores in 1919: Frederick Borck, Bernard Crowley, Henry Donnelly, Francis Juras, Clare Murphy, Eugene Paddock, Joseph Torzewski, and Lorenzo Woods. William Cogley started at Sacred Heart in 1920, while Philip Maher began in 1925.

The graduates were ordained to the priesthood four years later in 1930, as the nation entered the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929.

Sacred Heart Seminary suffered along with the rest of America; a Dec. 28, 1933, letter from then-rector Msgr. Daniel Ryan to Bishop Michael Gallagher told of the school collecting only $9,275 so far that academic year for tuition and fees from 288 students.

Sacrifices had already been made. Priests on the faculty had not been paid for all of 1933, and although employees had been laid off, the rector still could not make payroll for the remaining workers.

The wolf was literally at the door.

“Different creditors are constantly calling on the phone, or sending collectors to the building, looking for payment of accounts,” Msgr. Ryan wrote in a letter kept at the Archdiocese of Detroit archives, adding later, “All this grief is finding its way into my office these days, and it is for this reason that I am writing you in the hope of some solution.”

Bishop Gallagher allegedly sold some of the seminary’s land to keep the school afloat, but records are scarce. Nonetheless, Sacred Heart endured, resuming its urban setting as the city grew around it. 

The first class to graduate college from Sacred Heart in 1926 looks ready for graduate studies as the next step toward priesthood.

As the years passed, enrollment steadily increased, and by the 1959-60 academic year, the seminary boasted 650 students — 230 in college, and 420 in high school. Projections indicated high school enrollment would reach 550 in three years. More room was needed, and in April 1960, Sacred Heart Seminary saw its second groundbreaking — this time for a separate high school on the southeast corner of the campus.

The move was appropriate for the times. The population of Detroit stood at 1.67 million, while Catholics in the now-archdiocese numbered more than 1.25 million. Bishop Gallagher had built Sacred Heart; his successor Cardinal Edward Mooney had overseen the construction of St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth for seminarians’ graduate studies; and now Archbishop John F. Dearden dug the first shovel of dirt for the new Cardinal Mooney Latin School.

Designed to accommodate 600 students, the new high school opened a year later on April 10, 1961. The Michigan Catholic reported that 455 pupils moved into the new building, which sported 16 classrooms, two science laboratories and lecture rooms, a library for 7,000 volumes and a 220-seat assembly hall.

Enrollment at the new high school peaked at 594 in the 1962-63 school year, according to documents maintained at the Archdiocese of Detroit archives, but then steadily dropped, following the trend of seminaries nationwide. Challenging times in the Church and culture were reflected in a decrease in vocations.

Additionally, the 1967 citywide racial disturbances that began only a few blocks from Sacred Heart prompted a new caution regarding the changing neighborhood. As Sacred Heart Seminary moved into its 50th year in 1969, rumors abounded that the high school would close, as students numbered only 207. 

However, now-Cardinal Dearden kept the doors open, writing then-rector Msgr. Francis X. Canfield on Feb. 24, 1969, that “it seems best to continue operation” of the high school. But cuts in both courses and staff would have to be made.

Parents and faculty sprang into action. These volunteer recruiters contacted nearly 4,000 seventh- and eighth-grade boys via classroom film lectures, home visits, seminary meetings, and CCD programs, according to The Michigan Catholic. But only 40 freshmen enrolled in the fall of 1969.

The Cardinal Mooney Latin School opened on the southeast corner of the seminary campus in April 1961 to more than 450 high school students.

Cardinal Dearden appointed Msgr. Canfield to lead a committee to study the high school’s future. Those in favor of keeping the high school open noted prospective enrollments for fall 1970 could double to 80. They also called for new, inventive programs that would draw more students from the suburbs. 

The other side pointed out operating costs per student were double that of other area Catholic high schools, as a shrinking pool of pupils still required a certain curriculum to maintain accreditation. They also noted the current high school student was “too young to comprehend the significance of priesthood,” resulting in only 12 percent of recent freshmen progressing to ordination, according to The Michigan Catholic.

But two out of every three priests in the archdiocese had attended high school at Sacred Heart. How could they end that tradition? The committee voted to keep the school open.

Yet, the ultimate decision was up to Cardinal Dearden, and Msgr. Canfield broke the news to the students in a March 5, 1970, letter:

“Yesterday afternoon the Cardinal announced to the High School faculty the decision to close the Seminary High School. He told us it was one of the most regrettable decisions he had ever been called to make as a bishop.”

However, the rector also wrote that the high school “served well the needs of its day, the needs of us all. … Let us pray with genuine fervor that vocations to the priesthood will increase because we need priests and it’s good to be a priest!”

Yet the same fears surrounding the closure of the high school surfaced a few years later regarding the seminary itself.

Cardinal Dearden in August 1975 greeted members of a seminary task force with a letter stating that declining enrollment and mounting expenses suggested that “the time has come for a review of the Seminary with a view to the future.”

However, he recognized Sacred Heart’s importance to the neighborhood, city, and Church.

“… In giving the specialized preparation that it offers, the Seminary is carrying out an indispensable role in the life of the Church here,” he wrote.

He mandated three stipulations from the task force:

  • A minor seminary (lacking a graduate school) would be located within the Archdiocese of Detroit.
  • Minor seminary students would be subsidized only if they are part of the seminary program located within the Archdiocese of Detroit.
  • The minor seminary formation program would be under the direction of diocesan priests, appointed by the Archbishop of Detroit. 

Sacred Heart’s future appeared secure — or was it? Administrators left nothing to chance, hiring a Detroit public relations firm to help oversee the school’s first-ever recruitment campaign. “Recruit a Candidate for the Priesthood Week” was slated for Nov. 24-30, 1975. Pastors at 350 parishes and principals and faculty at 45 parochial high schools throughout Metro Detroit were asked to encourage young men to attend an orientation day at Sacred Heart Seminary in early December.

Then-Fr. Francis R. Reiss, director of recruitment and admissions for Sacred Heart, stressed the seminary’s four-year liberal arts courses did not require a commitment to the priesthood.

“On the contrary,” he stated in a press release. “We seek young men who may still need to identify the path they want for their life travel.”

Fr. Reiss (now a retired Detroit auxiliary bishop) further noted the seminary’s current freshman class was composed of a “significant number” of students aged 24 and older, who had tried the work world after high school but found it “less than rewarding in their need for spiritual integrity.”

The public relations firm planned a 60-second TV commercial featuring scenes of Sacred Heart students serving senior citizens, participating in community youth programs, and happily gathering on Alumni Day. Newspaper advertisements featured a photo of current Sacred Heard Seminary college senior Ron Tycholiz offering a written testimonial on discovering “Spiritual Integrity.”

“Then, with that conviction,” he wrote, “I knew too that no man can have a more rewarding calling than to put into action a Priesthood of Jesus Christ to share Spiritual Integrity with others.” 

The recruitment effort was new and heartfelt, but current enrollment at Sacred Heart stood at 67. Was the campaign enough to overcome such a deficit? And what would the task force recommend?

Committee members sent their recommendations to Cardinal Dearden in early January 1976, chief among which were the following: 

  • Sacred Heart Seminary should keep its identity as a separate institution, granting its own degrees and teaching many of its own courses while requiring students to take more classes at other Detroit-area universities for a greater diversity of professors and classmates.
  • Sacred Heart Seminary should be based at its current location since it offers complete facilities and is within easy driving distance of the other universities.
  • Regular publicity efforts should continue to promote the seminary, and professional advice should be sought on how to best use seminary space unused by low enrollment.

A mere three months later, Cardinal Dearden accepted the task force’s recommendations in a letter:

“What you have done is to offer the strongest kind of reassurance that the direction that has been proposed is a sound direction. And it is full of hope, I believe, for the future of Sacred Heart Seminary.”

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.