By Pete Sheehan
Photo: Bishop William Murphy chats over dinner with college-level seminarians from the Rockville Centre Diocese during a visit to the Cathedral Seminary Residence Oct. 23. TLIC photo/Pete Sheehan
Douglaston — For college-age men considering a vocation to the priesthood, the Cathedral Semi-nary Residence here offers “the best of both worlds,” said Father Brian Barr, diocesan vocations director.
“They have a foot in both worlds,” Father Barr said of about 25 men from the Rockville Centre and Brooklyn dioceses who are living at Cathedral Residence while studying at St. John’s University or another local college. “They can have a normal college experience while beginning their formation for the priesthood. They can be with other guys who have that same goal,” said Father Barr, who is also director of campus ministry. Six men from the diocese are in the program here.
"This is one of our best-kept secrets,” said Msgr. Robert Thelen, rector of the Cathedral Seminary Residence. The residence is located at Immaculate Conception Center near the Nassau/Queens border, along with some of the offices of the Brooklyn Diocese.
At one time, the building housed Cathedral College, a college seminary which for years prepared undergraduates to be ready for advanced theology studies at a seminary in preparation for the priesthood.
The Douglaston program, which follows the guidelines developed by the Vatican and the U.S. bishops for seminary training, “helps college-age men discern their vocation — which might be to the priesthood — and prepares them for life in a major seminary,” usually the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, said Msgr. Robert Thelen, a former professor there and a former pastor. It offers the benefits of a college or minor seminary at a more modest cost.
“Most go to St. John’s, where we have a cooperative agreement — including reduced tuition — and take advantage of their wider course offerings and multiplicity of majors. A few go to Queensborough, Fordham, or St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue,” Msgr. Thelen said. They are required to take philosophy courses in preparation for major seminary studies.
“The four pillars of seminary preparation are academic, spiritual, pastoral, and human,” he explained. At the residence, they have daily Mass, Liturgy of the Hours, and holy hours. “Each of the men is required to have a spiritual director and meet with him regularly.” Spiritual directors also hold spiritual conferences for all the seminarians here.
The seminarians are required to engage in pastoral ministry, such as teaching religious education or visiting nursing homes. In addition, Msgr. Thelen conducts regular human development conferences on personal growth.
Bishop William Murphy visited the men in the program last week. “It is such a joy for me to be here with you again,” Bishop Murphy told the seminarians at Mass in the chapel. He chatted informally over dinner with the seminarians from Rockville Centre and spoke to the larger group following dinner.
Bishop Murphy was here earlier that week as well for “Operation Andrew,” an evening for young men interested in a priestly vocation.
“I felt the need to begin preparing for the priesthood now, not after I got out of college,” said James Renna, a senior at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, who entered Cathedral Residence in September. “I have the benefits of daily Mass, holy hours, and spiritual direction, but I can maintain my college experience at St. Joseph’s.”
Michael Bissex, a freshman at St. John’s and a parishioner of St. Matthew’s Church in Dix Hills, said that he likes the combination of going to classes at St. John’s while living with others who share an interest in the priesthood.
“You have the opportunity to attend classes, socialize and make friends with other students from St. John’s. At the same time, you keep the focus on your vocation by living here,” Bissex said.
“There is a real sense of unity, community and brotherhood,” said John Hargaden, a freshman at St. John’s and a parishioner of St. Margaret of Scotland Church, Selden. “A lot of us are in the same classes at St. John’s and can help each other out.”
In addition to the undergrads, there are several men who have already finished their bachelor’s degrees but lack a background in philosophy needed to begin major seminary studies. They are called “pre-theology” students.
James Shelton of St. Edward the Confessor Church, Syosset, who graduated from college in 2004 and managed a restaurant for three years, began the pre-theology program here in September. “My philosophy classes are here with members of the staff, but I take a Latin class at St. John’s.
“The guys here are first rate and the classes are great. They are challenging and bring me closer to God,” he said. “More people should know about this place.”