ST. FRANCIS –– The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium, will close at the end of this academic year because of the small number of seminarians and difficulties in obtaining qualified priests for its faculty.

The decision to close it in June 2011 was announced to the public Nov. 22 by Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, who chairs the board of bishops of the American College. The seminary community had been informed shortly after a Nov. 17 confirmation of the board’s decision by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting in Baltimore.

“The seminary has served the church in the United States and other parts of the world faithfully, steadfastly and zealously throughout its 154-year existence, and so this is a sad moment for many of us,” Bishop Ricken said in a news release.

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U.S. seminarians in Belgium sad at decision to close school, but resilient

Msgr. Ross Shecterle, a priest of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, installed as 16th rector of the seminary Sept. 21, 2007, told your Catholic Herald in an e-mail that he is disappointed by the news, but not particularly surprised.

“As the rector, I was obviously part of the decision for closure. It was with a sad and heavy heart that I announced it to the men. I had hoped for a longer, brighter future,” he said, but the struggle to gain the confidence and support of the USCCB has ended. “We have worked hard over the past number of years capitalizing on the good work of my predecessors, but we were ultimately not able to cross particular thresholds,” he said. “I trust that the work we did was clearly guided by the Lord and in service of him.”

Fr. Phillip Bogacki, associate pastor of St. John Vianney Parish, Brookfield, who attended the college from September 2004 to July 2009, was informed of the decision in an e-mail sent to alumni community Saturday, Nov. 20.

“We knew we were always at risk. We knew this was inevitable at some point, we just didn’t realize that it would come to fruition and it would come to reality and now the reality is very shocking and very sad,” he said in an interview with your Catholic Herald. As a seminarian attending the college, Fr. Bogacki said he was challenged to learn how to deal with the various personalities with whom he lived, where no one could “sweep things under a rug.”

“I’ve found now that I’ve been there and now that I’ve been a priest a few years that it has benefited me enormously to be in an environment not unlike that of the Twelve Apostles where you have to deal with different personalities and meet it head on rather than evading it and having issues come up later in your priesthood.”

The college’s closing is a great disadvantage, he said.  “The issues that were brought up are not new at all. There’s always been concerns about enrollment. There’s always been difficulty getting priest faculty and getting funds, but we always made it work and in those difficulties, the college operated very, very well.”

Fr. Bogacki is devastated and hurt at the loss of the college where he learned from professors with an “incredible breadth of knowledge,” humility, faithfulness and love of the church, how to think critically about the tradition and to love the Christian faith, too.

Founded in 1857 by the U.S. bishops and associated with the Catholic University of Louvain, the college originally had a dual purpose – to train young European men to become missionaries in the United States, especially for the immigrant population, and to offer U.S. seminarians “the philosophical and theological riches available at Europe’s oldest Catholic university,” according to the seminary’s Web site.

Belgium was chosen as the site for the first U.S. seminary in Europe because the original plan for such a college in Rome could not be carried out because of political upheaval in Italy in the mid-19th century.

The Pontifical North American College, which opened in December 1859 in Rome with a dozen students, has an enrollment of 239 students – 226 Americans, 11 Australians and two Canadians – for the 2010-11 academic year; that was described on its Web site as “the largest enrollment in recent memory.” In comparison, 19 seminarians are currently enrolled in the American College in Louvain, which has a capacity of 125 students. Transitional Deacon Kevin Barnekow of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, who will graduate from the college in May, is one of the 19 seminarians from Green Bay, Madison, Hungary, Slovakia, China and England enrolled, according to Msgr. Shecterle. Deacon Barnekow will be ordained in Milwaukee, May 21, 2011, and will return to the college for final exams.

A USCCB news release about the closing said that “despite strong efforts, enrollment has not grown at the American College to a sustainable level.”

“Small enrollment creates significant financial challenges as well as difficulties for priestly formation,” it added.

“The difficulties in maintaining the necessary community environment for priestly formation led to the decision to close the American College,” the news release said.

Bishop Ricken expressed gratitude to the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, the theology and philosophy faculties of Catholic University of Louvain “and the people of Belgium for their support and collaboration … for these many years.”

In addition to the training of seminarians, the American College had in recent years expanded to offer graduate studies for priests, deacons and religious as well as sabbatical programs, a four-week summer institute and two-week renewal programs for priests, religious, deacons and laypeople.

Msgr. Shecterle noted that The Diocese of Green Bay, “through the inspiration of Bishop Ricken,” brought more than 30 people to the seminary to do what monsignor referred to as “The Green Bay ‘Extreme Makeover’,” where they replaced toilets, stripped 50-year-old wax from the corridors and chapel doors, completed minor and major maintenance, solved an electrical lighting problem in the chapel, painted, cleaned, tiled and retiled the foyer and sacristy, did plaster work and made it more comfortable for the seminarians.

Over the years, several seminarians from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee studied at the American College, including Fr. Timothy Kitzke, pastoral team member of Three Holy Women, Old St. Mary, SS. Peter and Paul, Our Lady of Divine Providence Catholic parishes.

More than 1,200 priests received their seminary training at American College over the years, including Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen.

While the Catholic University of Louvain owns the property that Msgr. Shecterle said was given to the college in perpetuity until they leave as a seminary, it will return to them. “Conversations will take place throughout the year between myself, the university and the USCCB regarding the disposition of property, archives, student files, patrimony, etc.,” he said.

The two world wars closed the seminary for a total of 18 years and the seminary was partially destroyed during World War II. When it reopened in 1952, it was with its first U.S.-born rector. The post had, up to then, been held by Belgian priests.

During the 1960s, the American College accepted responsibility for the pastoral care of the Catholics among the 10,000 Americans then in the Brussels area, attached to NATO and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe or working in various international business enterprises.

(Article includes information from Catholic News Service.)