Have you ever walked by a building and thought, I wish I could see what’s inside? Now you can. On Sunday, April 30, St. Francis de Sales Seminary is proud to present its annual Open House, an offer that includes behind-the-scenes access to wander the hallowed grounds and explore the sacred spaces seminarians call home.
Fr. John Hemsing, rector of the seminary will welcome guests to one of the oldest seminaries in the Midwest. In its 172nd year of service, visiting the Seminary at 3257 South Lake Drive, in St. Francis, also offers the public the chance to pray with and for the seminarians.
St. Francis de Sales has operated on one site longer than any seminary in the United States, established in 1845, by the first bishop of the then-Diocese of Milwaukee, John Martin Henni, who later became Milwaukee’s first archbishop.
According to Fr. Hemsing, the seminary originally opened in Bishop Henni’s home on Jefferson Street, but quickly became overcrowded.
“A new site was chosen on the southern edge of Milwaukee Bay in 1853,” he said. “When a visiting papal envoy saw the beautiful location, he said, ‘Make this place holy.’”
The cornerstone was laid in 1855 and the building, named the Salesianum, in honor of its patron saint, was dedicated on the feast of St. Francis de Sales in January of the following year.
“A few months after the start of the Civil War in 1861, Bishop Henni consecrated Christ King Chapel and the original 11-foot gilded cross was placed on top of the cupula,” said Hemsing. “Additions were made to the building in 1868 and 1875. It was renamed Henni Hall in 1956, the centenary of the seminary’s dedication. Henni Hall was renovated in 1989 and is currently in the midst of another renovation to create more student rooms out of its fifth-floor storage space.”
While Henni Hall continues to serve as the focus of seminary life, the 70-acre wooded campus on the shores of Lake Michigan also includes the Salzmann Library, a gymnasium, printing shop, the archbishop’s residence, a cemetery and a grotto in the woods.”
From his first days as Archbishop of Milwaukee, Archbishop Jerome Listecki recognized that the most notable sign of the archdiocese was not St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, but the tower of St. Francis de Sales Seminary.
“The picture of the ‘antebellum’ seminary tower seemed to capture the attention of many of our faithful,” he wrote in a profile of the seminary in a January 2017 blog, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. “Perhaps, because it represents the oldest seminary in the entire Midwest, or because so many priests have studied under the dome, or simply because of the architectural beauty.”
Since 2011, the Sheboygan native has served as the 19th rector of the seminary; and attended St. Francis de Sales Seminary for 12 years prior to his 1988 ordination. He served as a parish priest for 23 years before returning to the seminary as rector.
According to Lisa Brielmaier, Director of Advancement at SFDS Seminary, she explained that under Fr. Hemsing’s leadership, the seminary returned to being a provincial seminary again.
“This means that every diocese in the state is now sending men to St. Francis de Sales Seminary for formation,” she said, adding, “Fr. Hemsing is also responsible for the transformation of much of Henni Hall, including new classrooms, new student rooms, the Cardinals’ Room and St. John Vianney Chapel.”
Currently there are 52 seminarians in various stages of formation, ranging from the college program and ESL (English as a Second Language) to pre-theology and the four-year theology program.
“Of these men, 35 are studying specifically for the priesthood,” said Brielmaier.
The annual Open House includes Mass in Christ the King Chapel, followed by seminarian-led tours of the campus. Weather permitting, visitors are welcome to walk through Seminary Woods to the cemetery and grotto.
“Last year, we had an overflow crowd for the 11 a.m. Mass, with about 200 people in attendance,” said Brielmaier, adding, “many others came later just for a tour.”
There are four pillars of priestly formation; human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral, explained Fr. Hemsing. The faculty at St. Francis de Sales Seminary teaches the human, spiritual and pastoral programs, while Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology in Hales Corners leads the academic training.
“Prior to ordination, a seminarian earns a master’s degree in divinity,” Fr. Hemsing said. “Perhaps the most notable comment about the seminary today is that it is thriving. After an uncertain future in the early 2000s, it is now going from strength to strength as more bishops choose to send men here for formation. Our current fifth floor renovation project is evidence of our momentum. We are building 16 new student rooms because we do not have enough rooms for next year’s enrollment.”