Seminarians at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary spent months renovating the 95-year-old Miller Gym and accompanying space. Here, the cardio room is being blessed. (Photo courtesy of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary)

With names such as Sons of Thunder Bowling Alley and St. John Paul II Weight Room, Saint Francis de Sales Seminarians are getting some heavenly help with their workouts. Through the financial assistance of benefactors, the seminary recently completed a two-year renovation of Miller Gym.

Originally built in 1926, with the funds from the estate of Ernest Miller of the Miller Brewing Company, and after nearly 100 years, the gym had fallen into disrepair and was nearly unusable.

A couple of years ago, the seminary sent out a survey to seminarians to determine the primary uses of the gym as well as the desired future uses, said Matthew Kirk, a third year seminarian and the gym committee chairman.

“We then started to cast a vision of the gym, and we slowly started to implement this vision. For example, the gym’s cardio room originally looked like medieval torture devices, and now we have modern-day torture devices,” he joked. “In all reality, we tried to build a gym that can be used by all seminarians in order to form healthy priests.”

The hope was the gym would be transformed into a place seminarians felt drawn to use and serve as an attractive, functional place for the next 95 years.

Kirk organized workers, procured needed materials and kept each project in line with the gym’s overall vision.

“Specifically, I organized members of the gym committee as they finished any projects by communicating with the maintenance staff and the Vice-Rector, Fr. Luke (Strand),” he said. “In addition, many of the projects involved financial support in buying some materials or finding a donation. It was a lot of fun helping to find the right materials that would work with the vision.”

According to Fr. Strand, every room in the gym was part of the renovation project and included adding cardio equipment, the weight room and a parlor with a pool table and foosball. They also have a ping pong room and the bowling alley, and redid the lofts in the viewing area.

“We put in scoreboards, backboards and a suspension system, as well as renovated the locker room and bathrooms,” he said. “The entire project was almost exclusively done by the seminarians and, over quarantine, all the men worked three hours each day in addition to their classes. They tore down plaster, repainted the old bowling alley ceiling and we redid all the wood floors ourselves. We had the electrical and boiler work done by professionals, but the seminarians did the bulk of the work, including fixing a leaking roof and tuckpointing.”

The gym is utilized more each day due to the vast increase in the seminary population. Several years ago, there were maybe two dozen men enrolled, but now there are 60 in the house and with the increase in men, there was a greater need for social activities and space for competition.

“When I was a seminarian here, most of the rooms were mothballed as it was in disarray and ceiling tiles were falling in. All we could do was play basketball and didn’t even have rims — I installed those myself,” said Fr. Strand. “Priests who were ordained five or 10 years ago were shocked to see the transformation.”

Participating in the renovations was a lot of fun for Kirk, who is also a mechanical engineer.

“It was great fun to put time into problem solving. In addition, many of the seminarians put in numerous hours on Saturdays, painting, redoing floors, hanging up pictures, cleaning grime off the walls, throwing away clutter and many other tasks,” he said. “It is great to see how many people are enjoying the fruits of many hours of hard work.”

Credit for the names goes to Fr. Daniel Williams of the Diocese of La Crosse. He thought of the idea to name the rooms after saints that have some sort of relationship to the activity of that room.

“For example, St. John Paul the Great loved working out through his daily swim; therefore, we named the weight room after him,” said Kirk. “In addition, we named the lounge room after Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati because he loved companionship and fraternity through healthy leisure.”

Other names include St. Thomas Aquinas Cardio Room, St. John Vianney Locker Room, Zacchaeus Viewing Loft, St. Catherine Bicycle Room and St. Martha Canteen.

“We have an icon of each saint in each room and Fr. Hemsing, our Rector, blessed them and oversaw the project,” said Fr. Strand. “St. Thomas Aquinas was chosen for the cardio room because he was a huge man. St. Catherine was picked for the bicycle room because she was killed by being stretched out on a big wheel.”

No funds from the seminary budget were used for the gym renovation, said Fr. Strand and, since the seminarians did so much of the work, they are especially excited for its completion.

“We just opened it up fully and it feels complete now,” he said. “We added Wi-Fi and screens in the cardio room, as well. This gym is used every night of the week, we have scheduled sports each night and have a very active group of healthy seminarians. This is one of the best gyms in the entire city of Milwaukee and we are grateful for those who support this project. It added to the fraternity of the seminary.”

To recognize Earnest Miller for the gym, there is signage throughout that speaks to the Millers. All the work days for the gym were called, “work in Ernest” days in honor of Miller.

The overall vision has come to fruition and Kirk said he’s excited the gym offers something for everyone.

“Some people love to use the Sons of Thunder Bowling Alley while other people are drawn to other sports in the Our Lady of Victory Court. Some people like to work out in the St John Paul the Great Weight Room while others like to use the St Thomas Aquinas Cardio Room,” he said. “I and many people are very happy with the results, and we are excited to be able to share this joy and gift with the seminarians for the next 95 years.”