Over the last several years, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has seen what Fr. John Hemsing, rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, terms “a modest increase” in the number of men studying to become priests for the archdiocese.

In 2011-2012, there were 28; for the opening of the 2015-2016 school year, there were 33.

However, the seminary is also providing formation for seminarians from the Dioceses of La Crosse, Green Bay and Joliet – something Fr. Hemsing considers “a reliving the history of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary,” as for much of its 170-year existence, the seminary has trained priests for all of the state’s dioceses.

“Even when I was a seminarian here, there were seminarians here from Madison, Green Bay and La Crosse,” he said. “For a while, other dioceses began to send their guys other places, but in the last few years La Crosse and Green Bay have been sending some of their seminarians here for their priestly formation.”

History, formation emphasized

In inviting bishops to send their men to Saint Francis de Sales for formation, Fr. Hemsing notes the institution’s history – the oldest seminary in the United States that has remained on the same property for 160 years.

“We’re not going away. We have a great tradition of forming men for the priesthood,” he said, noting 4,000 men have been trained for priesthood during the seminary’s history; 42 alumni became bishops; seven became archbishops and three became cardinals.
Fr. Hemsing also emphasizes the formation seminarians receive.

“We teach what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. You’re not going to get anything way out there or anything that would be construed as not part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and what the Catholic Church teaches,” he said. “That’s very important for bishops to know – that their seminarians are going to be trained in the traditions and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.”

‘Teaching parishes’ key

Each seminarian is assigned to a teaching parish when he begins his first year of theology studies, the start of his final four years of formation.  

“In those four years, he is connected with one parish and a pastor who is his parish supervisor and with a parish teaching team,” Fr. Hemsing said. “The parish teaching team meets with him on a regular basis to critique his ministry style and what he’s doing in the parish.”

Every year includes a particular concentration of parish life, e.g., administration, catechesis, human concerns, liturgy, etc.

“They get an experience of working in a parish, pretty much like priests, without being priests,” Fr. Hemsing said. “They have the opportunity to give faith witnesses, catechize, help people prepare for sacraments that one day they will be celebrating as a priest.”

He noted that by being in the parish for four years, seminarians get to know parishioners, as well as students in school and religious education classes, go through the liturgical cycle of Scripture once, and see how that parish celebrates Christmas and Easter year after year.

Fr. Hemsing said teaching parishes take the “investment” they make in seminarians seriously.

“Parishioners are very candid and upfront with me when talking about the seminarians,” he said of the consultation he does. “They all speak wonderfully of them, but then they also say he can use fine tuning on this or tweak that. So it really is a great program.”

Fr. Hemsing noted that during the ordination rite, he presents the candidates and the archbishop asks him, “Do you find them to be worthy?” and he responds, “After consultation with the people of God and those concerned with their training, I have found them to be worthy.”

“With regard to the teaching parish model and committee, we really consult with the People of God to see if this man is worthy,” he said.
Dedicated men answer call

Fr. Hemsing’s enthusiasm for the seminary’s history and its formation extends to the seminarians themselves.

“I have a great respect for each one of the guys here studying for the priesthood — for their dedication and for their openness to new things, looking at church in a new way, coming to understand their calling and what that means in our world,” he said.

Fr. Hemsing said that when he talks to groups and benefactors about Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, he tells them stories about the seminarians.

“They are really fine men dedicated to the church, dedicated to their relationship with God, dedicated to the People of God,” he said. “These men have had to stand up in a society that really does not honor what they are seeking. Yet, they are willing to stand up and say, ‘I want to be a priest. I want to serve God, I want to serve the people.’”

Fr. Hemsing said people are hopeful when they hear about the seminarians.

“People like to hear that there is a future for our church, and that there are men who are studying for the priesthood, which is wonderful,” he said.

Prior to becoming the seminary’s rector in October 2011, Fr. Hemsing was a parish priest, a perspective he uses in evaluating seminarians.

“I see in these men a real priestly heart. These are men who are not looking for any kind of honors or glory or anything, but to be people of service. That is quite profound,” he said.  “As a parish priest for 23 years, I always ask myself as I’m evaluating them, ‘As a priest, would I want him to be my associate pastor?’ or ‘Would I be willing to serve with this man in a parish?’ When I say yes, we move on. That’s where it hits the ground.”