PROVIDENCE, R.I. –– Although the 18 seminarians studying at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium, were sad to hear that the 154-year-old school will close at the end of this academic year, they are resilient, according to the Rhode Island priest who broke the news to them.

“They believe strongly that God, who has called them to be priests, has not changed his mind,” said Father Christopher Mahar, vice rector of the college, in a Nov. 22 interview with the Rhode Island Catholic, Providence diocesan newspaper, by telephone.

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“They’re still full of hope and faith in God, even if the location where they will undergo their formation changes,” he added.

Fr. Mahar, 40, a Coventry, R.I., native, said he, like the seminarians, was “in sorrow” at the news. He had just returned to Leuven after assisting chaplains at the U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany.

The shift in dioceses sending more of their seminarians to the Pontifical North American College in Rome, founded in 1859, has led to a significant drop in the number of dioceses sending seminarians to the American College, which is associated with the Catholic University of Louvain.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is responsible for the American College, recommended closure of the seminary based upon a current conference study concerning the number of seminaries in the United States.

The apostolic commission responsible for the study, directed by the bishops’ Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, cited low enrollment numbers, the significant challenges in peer formation in a small seminary environment, the shortage of priest faculty and the small number of sending dioceses as reasons for the closing. Stewardship of priestly and financial resources considered from a more universal church perspective also was cited.

In addition to his other duties, Father Mahar, an alumnus of the North American College in Rome, has been in residence at the American College in Leuven, pursuing a doctorate in theology and biomedical ethics.

The U.S. seminary in Belgium has prepared countless men – including many from the Diocese of Providence – for a life of service to God. Included among those were Providence Bishops Russell J. McVinney and Robert E. Mulvee and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Maloney, who served as rector there following World War II.