Archbishop leads alumni, faculty, seminarians and benefactors in celebrating a century of formation at Detroit's seminary

DETROIT — As he preached Sept. 27 before a full chapel of seminarians, faculty, alumni and friends of Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron paused and fixed his attention on a pew to the west side of the nave.

It was there, he remembered, that he had almost given up on his priestly vocation so many years ago. 

It was 1964, and the future archbishop was a sophomore at the seminary high school, back after Thanksgiving vacation.

“I sat in the pew next to the pillar, because you can’t get through there, so I wouldn’t be bothered,” the archbishop said. “Even after a year, I felt homesick. I sat there, and I had to think about whether I wanted to continue to be here.”

Four years later as a college seminarian, he found himself another time in the choir loft, praying and asking God to reveal His will. Both times, the archbishop said, it was the Lord who offered the graces he needed to stay the course.

“I had to die to myself,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “And I give God praise and thanks for that grace.”

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron preaches during a Mass of thanksgiving Sept. 27 to kick off Sacred Heart Major Seminary's centennial celebration.

Leading the seminary community in a Mass of thanksgiving for Sacred Heart’s 100th anniversary, the archbishop reflected upon the countless quiet graces offered to seminarians, priests, faculty and lay students over the seminary’s rich history.

Eleven bishops and more than three dozen priests concelebrated the Mass, which was attended by more than 400 alumni, current and former faculty and trustees, students, benefactors and family members. In addition to Cardinal Adam J. Maida, concelebrants included bishops who graduated from or served at Sacred Heart, including Saginaw’s Bishop Robert Gruss, Lansing’s Bishop Earl Boyea and Steubenville, Ohio’s Bishop Jeffrey Monforton.

The Mass, which was followed by a dinner in the seminary’s gymnasium, kicked off a yearlong centennial celebration for Sacred Heart, which will include a theological symposium next month, an Advent concert and a neighborhood picnic in the spring, among other events.

A Heart aflame with love

One hundred years after Sacred Heart first opened for classes on Sept. 11, 1919, in a rented space in what is now Detroit’s Midtown, Archbishop Vigneron acknowledged the many “big events” in the seminary’s history, from the “courage” of Bishop Michael J. Gallagher in raising $6 million “in 1920s money” to fund its construction to its steady growth in the wake of the second World War.

Even in the recession years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sacred Heart had reason to celebrate its survival as a blessing from God, the archbishop said.

“Money was so tight that the rector then had to rent space in the basement for a goat to be kept as part of a Montessori school,” said Archbishop Vigneron, who himself served as rector of Sacred Heart from 1994 to 2003. “It’s true. We came that close, but we survived.”

Priests who serve as professors, educators and formators for Sacred Heart Major Seminary process into the chapel to begin the centennial liturgy. 

Another pivotal moment came in 1988, when Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka established a graduate school of theology at Sacred Heart, a decision that led to the re-foundation of Sacred Heart as a place of “national renown” for preparing priests and lay leaders for the new evangelization.

While all those moments are appropriate subjects for giving thanks, “the glory of these 100 years is what God has done in human hearts,” Archbishop Vigneron said.

Reflecting upon Sacred Heart’s namesake, the archbishop said the Scripture passage chiseled into the seminary’s cornerstone, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart” (Jer 3:15), is a constant reminder of the heart of Jesus Christ, which “burns with an infinite love” for his flock.

“The more awesome we understand His heart to be, I think the better we will be able to give God thanks and praise tonight,” Archbishop Vigneron said. “In His Sacred Heart, in the Incarnation, Jesus makes his very own that part of our human being, our human family, which is a symbol for love given and love that begs to be reciprocated.”

“To have that kind of heart, to have a heart that’s aflame with the very heart of Jesus Christ, the love of the Good Shepherd, is not easy,” the archbishop continued. “It requires dying, and those are the graces often unknown and unmarked for which we especially, I think, should give God thanks.”

Marking the occasion with a Mass isn’t just an appropriate response to those graces, Archbishop Vigneron said; it’s essential.

Those in attendance included alumni, benefactors, current and former trustees and faculty, as well family members for priests and lay leaders who were formed at Sacred Heart.

“We’re Christians, so when we remember our blessing, we are to be moved to thanksgiving,” the archbishop said. “And we’re Catholics, so when we begin to thank God, we know that the right way to do it is to lift up our hearts to the Lord and to offer our thanksgiving in union with our Lord Jesus Christ, who is even now in front of His Father, giving thanks. And so we, his members, tonight are joined with Jesus our head in giving thanks.”

Msgr. Todd Lajiness, the current rector of Sacred Heart, thanked the archbishop for his presence and message to the seminary community.

“It is with great joy, great humility and great hope that we gather as a community, lifting our minds and voices to the living God who has, by His providence, guided us, been present with us during all these years, and we’re confident He continues to lead us as we go forward for another 100 years,” Msgr. Lajiness said.

Seminarians, alumni grateful for formation

For several of the alumni in attendance, the centennial Mass was a chance to reflect on memories and to give thanks for the graces of their own formation years.

“I remember quite often gathering for prayer in the chapel,” said Msgr. John Budde, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Milford, who attended Sacred Heart from 1964-68 for high school and 1968-72 for college. “We had such a good brotherhood. I have lifelong friends from here, and we have established a lifelong comradery and community.”

While hundreds of priests have been taught and formed at Sacred Heart over the decades, the seminary's lay formation programs in recent years give it another reason to give thanks, Archbishop Vigneron said. 

Msgr. Budde recalled educators such as Fr. Paul Berg, a philosophy professor, who left a “real profound impact on us,” as well as Christian service opportunities that impressed upon the seminarians the importance of reaching out to those in poverty.

“Sacred Heart Seminary became seen as the heartbeat of the whole diocese, and it has continued to be so because of the number of lay people who have been schooled here and have gone out into the parishes,” Msgr. Budde said.

Such a commitment to service and discipleship continues to make its mark on today’s seminarians, said Jeremy Schupbach, a first-year theology seminarian from St. Daniel Parish in Clarkston.

“It’s all about discipleship,” Schupbach said. “That’s the word that comes to mind, and also the word that our rector, Msgr. Lajiness, speaks to us most about. It’s about learning exactly what it is to follow Jesus, and to be close enough to him to listen to him, and ultimately, in that listening, to hear his will.”

Schupbach said he’s grateful for the world-class formation and instruction he receives at Sacred Heart, which includes a 30-day Ignatian retreat, pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to Rome, and a “peaching boot camp” during the summer.

The Mass booklet for Sacred Heart Major Seminary's centennial is seen propped up in the chapel before Mass begins.

“As far as I can tell, no other seminary in the United States has a program like we have with the preaching boot camp, which brings in acting professors to share public speaking skills,” Schupbach said. “The array of formation tools they put at our disposal here is one of the best array of tools that is given to seminarians anywhere in the United States.”

Schupbach said Sacred Heart has a reputation as one of the premiere seminaries in the country, thanks to world-renown professors such as Mary Healy, Ph.D., and Ralph Martin, Ph.D.

“Our entire faculty is really amazing. People know the names,” Schupbach said. “I would just say from my experience of being on the inside, people wouldn’t know our priest formators as well — they aren’t big names — but I have just as much respect for them.

“It’s not an easy thing to take a man who’s been raised in our present culture and bring him into the paradigm shift that is discipleship,” Schupbach added. “It’s about following Jesus.”