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Seminary to stay open
Catholic Diocese of Buffalo officials envision
an expanded role in training lay people

The campus doesn't bustle quite as much as in its early years, but Christ the King Seminary will continue to train candidates for the Catholic priesthood.

The Diocese of Buffalo's huge restructuring effort, which is expected to affect every parish in some way, has brought into question the future of the bucolic 132-acre campus in the Town of Aurora.

Some parishioners have suggested selling or leasing the campus and sending the diocese's priest candidates to another seminary for training.

Such a move, they maintain, would free up teaching priests for parish work and save the diocese thousands of dollars per year -- allowing more parishes to stay open.

But diocesan officials say they're firmly committed to keeping the seminary, which is celebrating its 150th year of operation.

"If anything, there's even more need for the seminary than there was before," said Monsignor David S. Slubecky, vicar general for the diocese.

And not only as a place for future clergy, he said.

In addition to training priests, the seminary plans to expand its educational programming for lay people, who are expected to take on greater leadership roles within the church.

Bishop Edward U. Kmiec has said the day-to-day operations of some newly reconfigured parishes will be led by trained pastoral administrators, rather than priests.

"We need a theological center to train our permanent deacons and lay ministers as well," said the Rev. Richard W. Siepka, president and rector of the seminary. "We're trying to respond to what the diocese's needs are."

The diocese already has moved two departments -- the office of the diaconate and the office of church ministry -- from the chancery in Buffalo to the seminary.

When it opened in 1961, during a boom in priestly vocations, St. John Vianney Seminary on Knox Road had room for as many as 180 seminarians.

The sprawling campus has six dormitories, a large dining hall, dozens of classrooms and offices, a chapel and one of the finest theological libraries in New York State.

St. John Vianney Seminary dissolved in 1974, when Christ the King Seminary, which dates to 1857, relocated to the campus from St. Bonaventure University, where it had been run by Franciscan friars. In 1990, the diocese took over its operation.

Enrolled this past year were 24 seminarians, about a third of whom were from other dioceses, such as Erie, Pa., and St. Catharines, Ont.

Diocesan officials said they hoped to find more potential priests in the future, and they view the seminary as crucial in the effort.

"It's a good recruiting tool, of course," said the Rev. Walter J. Szczesny, vocation director for the diocese.

Szczesny regularly takes potential seminary applicants to the campus to get a sense of the place and meet professors and current seminarians.

"Rather than having to say, 'Guess what, the seminary we use is 400 miles away in Baltimore,' " he said.

Still, diocesan administrators acknowledged that a campus filled to the brim with seminarians is unlikely any time soon.

"No matter what, it's not going to be like what it was in the '60s," said Slubecky.

Nationwide, the number of Catholic seminarians at the graduate level has fallen by 60 percent since 1965, when 8,325 men were enrolled in seminary programs. This past academic year, 3,274 men were studying for the priesthood in 47 graduate-level seminaries.

Christ the King administrators anticipate 22 to 26 seminarians for the 2007-08 academic years, as well as another 80 graduate students studying toward a master's degree and 130 to 150 people in nondegree certificate programs.

The seminary expects to complete its own strategic planning process in October.

The plan includes efforts to expand the school beyond Aurora, and in the fall, the seminary will offer satellite programs in Batavia and Williamsville. More locations will be considered in the future, said Michael Sherry, executive director of operations for the seminary.

It cost about $2.9 million in 2006-07 to operate the seminary, which has nine full-time and 12 part-time faculty members.

The diocese pays tuition and room and board estimated at $20,000 per seminarian, per year -- fees it would have to pay no matter where its seminarians were educated.

On top of that, the diocese provides a subsidy of about $285,000, for a total contribution of about a quarter of the seminary's operating costs.

"The seminary has not been a major cost for the diocese. We have a healthy endowment; we do some of our own fundraising. It continues to be a good bargain for the diocese," said Siepka.

The seminary's endowment is about $7.1 million.


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