by the Seminarians of St Thomas Aquinas Seminary
"The seminarians have landed" said the volunteer, "Now this really is a seminary!" It was June 22 and Father Bourmaud had just arrived in Winona with the first large contingent of seminarians. This group was assigned to help with the seminary renovation project and to prepare for the Summer Boys' Retreat Camp.
That following Sunday, after having been banished from His tabernacle some eighteen years ago, Our Divine Lord returned victorious at the hands of Father Bourmaud who celebrated Mass on the seminary chapel's main altar. Four days later, with our Father Rector being consecrated Bishop in Ecône, our crew on Stockton Hill attracted local and national media interest.
The seminarians' mission: help to make the seminary function for thirty by August 1 (in time for the thirty-day Ignatian Retreat) and for seventy by September 1, the start of the new term. We arrived to find that "P. Sardegna and Sons & Co." and an elite corps of volunteers had completed the bulk of the restoration work. (Renovation continues still, by the way, on the second and third floor south wing.) A short list of the undertaking:
Because of your generosity, the seminary was well on its way to being a material success... and just in time for nearly seventy of us to begin the year. Not long after, the fruits of spiritual success were harvested.
A series of ordinations began on October 1, when eighteen seminarians were officially tonsured, and another nine were ordained to Minor Orders of Porter and Lector. If His Excellency Richard Williamson is a clerical "son" of Archbishop Lefebvre, then these were His Grace's first clerical "grandchildren." On Friday next, another nine were ordained Porter and Lector and an additional nine received Orders of Acolyte and Exorcist.
The Saturday following, some three hundred joined us to see Bishop Williamson dedicate the seminary chapel and celebrate a Pontifical High Mass in which sermon he called upon the best of America's young men and women to enlist their blood in the "War of God" for Truth and to learn love for "the house of the Lord."
On the Feast of All Saints, seven seminarians were ordained Subdeacons, and became (in the words of the ordination rite): "...tireless and watchful sentinels of the heavenly army in Thy holy sanctuary." The rite was heavy with holy symbolism. Over each ordinand's head the amice was drawn by the bishop, signifying the control of the tongue; their reception of the maniple meant God's claim to the fruit of their good works. Invested with the dalmatic, each stood before God, heralds girt with new powers—"clothed with beauty... and strength"—pre-figuring by this first of the Major Orders their approaching honor as alter Christi. That afternoon, twenty received the Sacrament of Confirmation.
A week later, Reverend Messrs. Shane Johnson and Craig Bufe received the first imposition of His Excellency's hands and were raised to the Diaconate. The visualization was easy: the Bishop, a transformer of the seven-fold gifts of the Paraclete, standing between heaven and earth, extending his arm to place his right hand upon each head and conducting the Divine current of graces to these two whose next step is the priesthood itself. As Deacons, our schoolmates have the power to preach, baptize, and distribute the Blessed Sacrament. Mother Church exhorts: "...that those who are prepared for the ministry of Deaconship, may, by the prayer of the whole Church, shine in the order of Levitical benediction... and resplendent with the grace of sanctification." Rev. Mr. Johnson has already departed for his native Australia, his eventual station, to be ordained there in mid-December, and becoming the first priest of the North American seminary since 1987.
How does the St. Thomas Aquinas of Winona differ from that of Ridgefield? Noticeably, this is a seminary! Ridgefield, though serving nobly for nine years, was a double-conversion; first from a residence, then from a former Jesuit retreat house. Our new home is a veritable fortress of the Faith. The Dominicans took no half-measures in its building. Its walls reflect the invincibility of the Truth taught within them.
In our more spacious Winona quarters, more organized work can be done faster. But, the increased physical size demands more maintenance, and that translates into a new twenty-five page house job "manual" which details the daily seminarian work tasks necessary for smooth operation.
We remember fondly the catacomb basement chapel in Ridgefield. There was that intimacy of being so close—even in the pews—to that tabernacle before which there had been cassocks taken, vows and engagements made, so many meditations and rosaries prayed. But, we also remember its back sacristy, overcrowded at each ceremony with ministers or seminarians or faithful, or our bookstore display or all of the above simultaneously!
The main chapel in Winona spares nothing to the King of Kings. The roof vaults upward in wood from walls of handsome travertine stone. The main altar rises from a jasper-colored predella back-dropped by a majestic twelve-foot crucifix on a facade of rose- and bronze-striated marble. A gold medallion of Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, is centered in the altar's front face. (Two sacristies flank the sanctuary and two more storage rooms are on the second floor.) A sixty-foot aisle from the sanctuary to the rear entrance door allow the grand processions ascending to the altar that the Ridgefield chapel was too small for. Fourteen figures in stained glass watch from either side, among them Our Lord, His Blessed Mother, St. Jude Thaddeus, and eleven Dominican saints (among them St. Thomas Aquinas). The rising sun sets them on brilliant, blinding fire, transfiguring each crystal saint with gleaming, glorified bodies. Here, our chant rolls and echoes prayerfully with a monasterial timbre.
Down the hallway are five times more office space than in Ridgefield and an equal increase for the Seminary's printing and mailing operations. (How did we manage in Ridgefield?!)
Our spanking fresh ten-machine laundry room is a far cry from Ridgefield's dark basement corner watched over by St. Theresa at her washboard.
Our new kitchen is big enough—has enough stainless steel, glazed tile, and heavy-duty appliance equipment—and is manned by such a promising young chef that it deserves advertising and a drive-up window!
The daily schedule is roughly the same as back East, but longer hallways make for greater distances between classroom and cell and chapel. For some of us, to be punctual means to run.
Ridgefield never lacked for outdoor activities. But, whatever it had, Winona has good or better. There is plenty of winding cyclist's pavement; soccer, football, softball, volleyball, and basketball, are right out our backdoor (where we've recently had to "share" our playing fields with some hungry cattle). And, we wonder whether the local deer watch our games from the tree lines: a dazed buck sauntered up to the rear kitchen door the other evening!
It's not the Catskills, granted, but a 349-acre backyard which includes some of the highest ground in the county is a ready-made trail-blazing challenge that surpasses our Ridgefield confines in scenic beauty. In 1805, explorer Zebulon Pike had written of the view: "On the right, we saw the mountains with the prairie in the rear like distant clouds. On the left and at our feet was the valley through which the Mississippi River wound itself... forming beautiful islands... a man may scarcely expect to enjoy such a view but twice or thrice in the course of his life... a most sublime and beautiful prospect."
One hundred and eighty-three years later, seminarians could see the same Mississippi mists Pike saw—shrouding the surrounding valleys in white, isolating the towering bluff peaks and forcing the meditation that the new seminary on Stockton Hill, St. Thomas Aquinas, is a "city set on a mountain," thrust above the very clouds of earth into Heaven itself. We know, in a way, it really is.
In the words of Superior General Schmidberger, this is "the most important building in North America." North America is missionary country and here, now, in her heartland, we train, by the grace of God, to be her missionaries.
It is especially fitting on this Thanksgiving Day, in this inaugural letter from Winona, that we thank you for providing the means to bring to life these long-suffering, long-abandoned stones—for your prayers, patience, and perseverance. "...Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Grateful as we enter the Season of Advent, we pray the Holy Family richly reward you.
Editor's Note: Renovation, maintenance and just the day-to-day expense of operating the Seminary is high. Won't you please remember St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in your list of Christmas gifts? Even a very small amount will quickly add up if enough benefactors send even a very small amount! Their address is RR. 1, Box 97A-1, Winona, Minnesota 55987.