"For a Seminary, New Missions In a New Age"

The Seminary of the Immaculate Conception

Huntington, Long Island New York

New York Times Story 1985

By Thomas G. Lederer



     In the 1920’s when it became apparent that St. John’s Seminary in Brooklyn could no longer train all the Roman Catholic priests needed for parishes in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Brooklyn and Queens, Bishop Thomas E. Malloy decided that a new seminary should be built.


     In 1924, the Diocese of Brooklyn, which at that time served all of Long Island, purchased Rosemary Farm, a 200-acre estate in Lloyd Harbor.  In 1930, amid the lush meadows and thick stands of trees, the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception was constructed.


     Fifty-five years later, the four-story, 320-room Mediterranean-style edifice and the grounds remain virtually unaltered.  Yet the seminary’s academic and sociological complexions have changed dramatically over the years, reflecting the changes in the Roman Catholic Church since 1965, when the Second Vatican Council ended.


     Although the seminary still trains most men from Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens who aspire to the priesthood, the institution sees itself more as an educational resource than as the monastic theological academy it once was.


     “In the early 1970’s, with the dawning of the age of the laity within the church, it became obvious that the seminary must expand its mission,” said the Rev. Michael J. Himes, the academic de   “Administrators realized that serious graduate theological studies had to be offered to men and women looking to enter the lay ministry of simply looking to expand their horizons.”


     Father Himes and others within the Catholic hierarchy predict that by the year 2000 there will be more lay ministers than priest.  The seminary offers instruction in Eucharistic ministry to both men and women, and the deacon program for men, as well as master’s and doctoral programs in theology.


     In 1965, before the theological programs for the laity were developed, 207 students working toward ordination attended the seminary full time.  In 1975, there were 120 students studying for the priesthood, and last fall there were 77.


     “Those statistics are deceiving because our total student enrollment is as high now as its ever been,” Father Himes said.  The difference is that, in 1975, students studying for the priesthood (for a master of divinity degree) outnumbered the master of theology students two to one.  Now that trend has reversed, he said.  Last fall there were 150 master of theology students in addition to 77 studying for ordination.


     Church officials say that the option offered by such theology programs may be one reason that fewer men are choosing to become priests.


     “Young men now realize that there are ways other than the priesthood to answer a religious calling,” said William Vendley, 37 years old, the seminary’s associate academic dean and a professor of systematic theology.  Dr. Vendley, a layman and a former Maryknoll missionary, lives in East Northport with his wife, Gwen, and their four children.


     In the early history of the institution, the only women allowed at the seminary were the Dominican Sisters of Amityville, whose housekeeping responsibilities closely resembled indentured servitude.  But now there are many women studying on campus.


     Two female students this summer are Sister Lorraine Noone, 59, of Colton, Calif., and Suella Henn, 43, a Setauket mother of three, who are both studying theology.  Sister Lorraine, a chaplain in a California hospital, wants to become a director of religious education.  Mrs. Henn has a doctorate in biochemistry and said she may eventually seek work either in college campus ministries or in the field of medical ethics.


     Since the number of resident students at the seminary has declined, there has been talk of closing the school or merging it with a facility such as St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.


     “Some people are of the opinion that closing the seminary would be prudent or that the amalgamation of two facilities would be economically wise,” said Auxiliary Bishop James J. Daly of of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which encompasses Nassau and Suffolk Counties.  “But neither option has been given serious consideration.   It is the kind of resource that one just does not want to give up.”


     Bishop Daly said that the seminary of the Immaculate Conception was the first in the United States to initiate a change in its pastoral program to better prepare priests for like within a parish.  The seminary shifted the pastoral year-the time spent working in an assigned parish as an understudy-from the fifth to the third year of study, allowing student priests to back into the seminary to work on areas where they need help, especially in personal growth.  Other seminaries around the country have adopted similar policies.


     “In spite of how well prepared a student may be academically, if he cannot relate to people he cannot be a successful priest,” Bishop Daly said.


     In addition, candidates for the priesthood now go through stringent psychological screening before being admitted to the seminary, and have access to therapeutic counseling on campus.


     Many other changes reflecting the complexities of modern life have been made at the seminary.  Since the Second Vatican Council, for example, topics such as sexuality and drug abuse have been incorporated into the teaching of church dogma.


     “We subscribe to Reinhold Niebuhr’s view that theology must be taught with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other,” Father Himes said.