Building on a sturdy foundation.
This is where Father Jonathan Kelly found himself after inheriting a healthy and vibrant college seminary in 2021 when Archbishop Bernard Hebda appointed him ninth rector of Saint John Vianney. Gratitude pervaded his homily on the feast of St. John Vianney as he addressed more than 200 alumni gathered to celebrate 100 years of college seminary formation at Nazareth Hall and Saint John Vianney College Seminary.
“There is such a strong foundation of those who have gone before us. We simply want to reconnect our loyal but somewhat untapped group of alumni with Saint John Vianney and with each other,” he explained.
More than 200 men representing nine decades (1940s to 2020s) traveled from 15 different states to attend this historic event. Over 600 SJV alumni serve as ordained priests today, and 55 clergy – including four bishops, four former rectors, and four priests who are celebrating 60+ years of priesthood – joined for Holy Mass and a parking lot pig roast.
Guests arrived early to tour the 20,000 square foot addition completed this summer, including chapel (dedicated April 20 by Archbishop Hebda), priest staff residence spaces, guest rooms, interactive classroom, and spaces for woodcarving, music practice, exercise, and holy leisure.
Holy Mass was celebrated by Bishop Richard Pates, a 1965 Nazareth Hall alumnus who served as SJV’s third rector from 1981-1987.
Father Kelly invited all priests and bishops to offer their Mass intention for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon SJV, praying the program would remain organic and living, responding to the needs of today’s seminarians and future fathers:
“We hope everyone who walks into this chapel can experience the love of God who says, ‘You are my beloved in whom I delight.’ Because that kind of love elicits a response of one’s whole life to God’s will, whatever that might be.”
Strong cornerstones of SJV’s sturdy foundation were honored throughout the event. After Holy Mass, a moving remembrance was offered to the late Bishop Paul Sirba, who served SJV as spiritual director and floor dean for nine years and sent seminarians to the college seminary while bishop of Duluth. Bishop Peter Christensen, who graduated from SJV in 1981 and served as rector from 1992-99, gave the crosier received from Bishop Sirba’s family to Saint John Vianney. The late Bishop’s nephew, Paul Sirba, carved this shepherd’s staff in addition to the tabernacle door in SJV’s new chapel.
Tributes were also paid to the late Fr. Bill Baer who served as SJV’s seventh rector from 1999-2010. Alumni attendees—more than 25% ordained—bore witness to his words, “SJV forms men to be holy, virtuous, and faithful fathers. God-willing, many of them will become priests.”
A 2007 alumnus, the Honorable Judge John Sandy, recalled how college seminary prepared him for fatherhood. “This place has given me so much,” he said. “Lessons learned at SJV have made me a much better judge, better litigator as a trial attorney, better dad, better Catholic. It improved me in so many ways.”
Ben Barron, 2005 alumnus, echoed his appreciation: “SJV was full of esprit de corps, energy, optimism, and a can-do spirit. It was an irreplicable time of growth in maturity and grace with like-minded men. The brotherhood here reminds me that I’m never alone in the fight for holiness.”
Luke Spehar (SJV ’10) provided musical entertainment, performing a set of songs inspired by his time in college seminary, before rector Father Kelly closed the evening by announcing a three-day silent retreat for lay alumni to be held next summer.
Phil Roeser, SJV’s Director of Development, was thrilled to formally launch this alumni connectivity and engagement campaign. “As alumni of these esteemed institutions, you will hold the responsibility of upholding its values and nurturing a spirit of brotherhood,” he shared. “These connections are not just memories of the past but a beacon guiding us toward a brighter future. In today’s world, that’s going to matter. As we thrive, so does your beloved alma mater.”
His enthusiasm was supported by Rob Vischer, president of the University of St. Thomas. “I’m so grateful for what SJV brings to our campus,” he said. “It is a vocation of contagious joy. We are proud to count you as alumni of not only SJV but St. Thomas. We’re proud of your work, your faithful service, what you model for us and for the world.”
Young men ages 14-21 received education through high school and first years of college at Nazareth Hall from 1923-1970. Saint John Vianney College Seminary has formed Men in Christ, Men of the Church, and Men for others since 1968.
Today, SJV is the largest collaborative college seminary in the United States, representing dioceses throughout the nation, with approximately 100 undergraduate men in formation annually. Imitating the hidden life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, seminarians live in community on-campus as full-time undergraduate students at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.