More than 2,000 people attended Saint Francis de Sales Seminary’s annual dinner in October 2022. (Photo courtesy of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary)

The Holy Spirit is having a significant impact on vocations in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

The archdiocese has 45 men studying for the priesthood, and there are 80 total seminarians from seven dioceses studying at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary.

“We are bursting at the seams,” said Fr. Luke Strand, who became the seminary’s rector in June. “We had men living in offices last year because we didn’t have enough places for them to go. When they renovated this building in 1989, they renovated it to accommodate 34 seminarians.”

The support of the Catholic Stewardship Appeal is a gift that will bear fruit even decades down the line.

“The real benefit of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary right now is that we are training priests, not just for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, but for the entire state and beyond, and the investment the CSA makes in its Milwaukee seminarians who will be pastors in our parishes here in Milwaukee is significant,” Fr. Strand said. “We would not be able to train our Milwaukee men without the CSA’s investment in their future priests. Someone who’s making a gift to CSA has a desire for all of the ministries of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to grow and (a desire) that the impact of the Gospel might be known here.”

To accommodate that exponential growth, a renovation project was completed last year that added 27 rooms to Meyer Hall.

The seminary can now accommodate up to 85 prospective priests, but that might not even be enough in a few years. There are proposed changes to the formation process that could add time to the beginning and end of the education period.

In addition to possibly having to add new rooms, structural changes will need to be made to the building and grounds. Amongst those possible repairs are the roof, HVAC systems, the air conditioning and the building’s iconic dome.

“From a bricks and mortar standpoint, we are going to need to make a significant investment in this mid-1800s campus to make sure that our buildings are viable,” Fr. Strand said. “In the midst of that, we are not going to lapse in the formation we are offering our men.”

The growth in vocations — especially aspiring priests — has been staggering since Fr. Strand joined the vocation office for the archdiocese in 2012. At that time, there were 17 seminarians for the archdiocese.

“Through this whole unified vocational approach, we’ve seen, as the archbishop says over and over, a real culture of vocations being created here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” Fr. Strand said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why, over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a lot of men enter the seminary. It’s all the work of the Lord. Being in the vocation office for 10 years, one realizes that it does not depend on us. We work as though it does and then if any fruit is borne, we know it’s the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s the work of God. I think that’s what every priest does with his life — he gives himself fully in service of the Lord Jesus and the Church, and then if anything good happens, it’s solely because of what God has done.”

That ethos of laying the groundwork and then putting the seeds in God’s hands has led to Milwaukee becoming one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the nation for vocations.

Fr. John LoCoco, the vocation director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, can see the Lord’s handiwork in the phenomenal success the archdiocese has seen.

“It is the Lord who calls these men, not me,” Fr. LoCoco said. “My task is not for a man to enter the seminary or to get married; my task is to help these young men grow in an awareness of God’s will and have the courage to follow it. The environment is rich because of His activity. But also, I look around and (see that) the prayers of so many people in this diocese have an incredible effect. The men in discernment know this, they feel this.”

Saint Francis de Sales Seminary is known for its strong formation program (the growth from one sending diocese to six is a testament to that), and Fr. Strand is able to make tangible how that reputation has been developed and blossomed.

“We’re not trying to re-invent the wheel,” Fr. Strand said. “We’re trying to form men who love God and are resilient, and are able to go out in the midst of a very complicated world and preach the Gospel. It’s really looking at who the seminary is producing, and that’s the biggest selling point. That’s why we had 2,000 people at the annual dinner — because our seminarians are in parishes and people love these guys. Our newly ordained priests are getting out there and offering just a really beautiful witness to their love of God and their love of the Church, and that inspires people.”

Fr. LoCoco can also see the type of men who are being produced by the seminary (and he noted the recruitment of prospective priests is more about the quality of men, as opposed to the quantity).

“I am continually edified by the maturity, desire, intellect and prayer of these men in the house,” Fr. LoCoco said. “I genuinely appreciate and enjoy spending time with them. I think it helps for people to recognize that what makes our culture toxic or secular or difficult is not absent from the environment our candidates are drawn from. They are coming out of an environment in which little to none of their friends and family practice the faith. And yet, in this isolation and environment, they continue to manifest a real joy for the Lord and desire for the people of God.”

And while Fr. Strand notes the financial support is appreciated, welcomed and necessary, he said there is another simple way to assist in the work they are doing to lay the foundation for the next few decades of the Church.

“We count on and rely upon the prayers of all the people who support the seminary and who love the priesthood,” Fr. Strand said. “I humbly ask for prayers. Prayers really keep us rooted in what’s most important.”