St. Joseph’s Seminary begins its 125th academic year

An interview with seminary rector Bishop James Massa, who reflects on the history of St. Joseph’s, the formation and education provided at the seminary, and the challenges facing today’s seminarians.

Auxiliary Bishop James Massa of Brooklyn, N.Y., rector of St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., processes with fellow prelates at the conclusion of a Mass Sept. 16, 2021, marking the 125th anniversary of the opening of the seminary. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

The establishment of seminaries was a major initiative of the clerical reform taken up by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. English Cardinal Reginal Pole apparently first used the word “seminary” in 1556 in the present understanding of the word, as an institution devoted to the formation of the clergy. The word “seminary” derives from the Latin seminarium meaning “seed bed”—an institution where a vocation to the priesthood develops from the original seed planted within a young man by the Lord to make a total consecration of his life in service to the Church. After years of formation in the seminary, that seed is to reach its full growth by ordination day.

Pope Pius IX, in his 1935 encyclical “Ad Catholici sacerdoti (“On the Catholic priesthood”), wrote of the importance of seminaries at the heart of the Church’s mission. “The seminary is and should be the apple of your eye,” he told the bishops, “… the chief object of your solicitude.” He said that the importance of any other apostolate “is not to be compared with that of the seminaries, which is capital and indispensable” as “from the cradle to the grave the priest is ever beside the faithful, a guide, a solace, a minister of salvation and dispenser of grace and blessing.”

On September 21, 1896, the first academic year began at St. Joseph’s Seminary, which is located on forty acres atop Valentine Hill in the Dunwoodie neighborhood of Yonkers, New York. In its storied history, Dunwoodie (as it is commonly called) has educated and formed thousands of future priests.

In commemoration of Dunwoodie’s 125th anniversary, the seminary’s rector Bishop James Massa recently spoke with CWR about the seminary’s history and continuing mission.

CWR: Tell us a bit about your own vocation and how long you have been working at Dunwoodie and in what capacities.

Bishop Massa: I owe my vocation to a long line of mentors, beginning with my parents. My mom and dad, of Irish and Italian backgrounds respectively, modeled for me a firm faith in Jesus and a love for his Blessed Mother. They weathered many storms in our family life because they remained rooted in the Mass and daily contact with the Lord in prayer.

My other mentors included a wonderful Sister of St. Lucy Filippini for whom, as a high school student, I taught “C.C.D.” (religious-ed) to children from public schools. Every Wednesday after class, this exceptionally kind nun would drive me home and answer questions about the priesthood and religious life that led me deeper and deeper in my personal discernment.

In later years, I came under the influence of wonderful diocesan priests and Jesuits who accompanied me as my calling gradually unfolded. Perhaps the most influential of all was the future cardinal, Avery Dulles, whose role as my mentor in graduate theological studies confirmed for me that my priestly ministry would be devoted to the formation of other priests.

CWR: Please provide a survey of Dunwoodie’s history and some of the highlights of the past 125 years.

Bishop Massa: Oh, where to begin? Our founder was a visionary. At a time of rapid institutional expansion for the Church in New York, Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan saw the need to build a seminary for the training of clergy for the Archdiocese and the wider region. He enlisted the Sulpician Fathers (diocesan men who devote their lives to seminary work) to staff the seminary, and with his keen administrative abilities directed the construction of our beautiful Renaissance-style buildings that are a testimony to a vision that unites the old world of European Catholicism with the dynamism of an American Church newly invigorated by the mass migration of Catholics from Ireland, Italy and the Slavic countries.

The history continues with St. Joseph’s Seminary becoming a center of Catholic intellectual life, as evidenced by the publications of its faculty and its own journal, Dunwoodie Review. Though some of the faculty fell under suspicion during the Modernist crisis of the early twentieth century, the seminary continued to offer a rigorous theological education to its students. I think of the great names from this period, including the philosopher Francis Patrick Duffy (1871-1932), later chaplain to the “Fighting 69th” of World War I fame. The future Maryknoll martyr, Francis Xavier Ford (1892-1952), walked our grounds contemplating his call to be a missionary to the people of China. The long line of rectors and priest scholars, not to mention the Sisters and lay staff who poured themselves into service to the seminary, helped the seminarians of the Great Depression-era, World War II and the Cold War, to respond generously and faithfully to whatever their (arch)bishops and local dioceses might ask of them. The seminary’s enrollment grew in this period, and so did our campus with the addition of a sports center named after the late Cardinal Francis Spellman who became a powerful voice for American Catholicism at mid-century.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) brought on many church reforms and changes in theological method that were left to talented faculty to implement. In the aftermath of the council, spirited discussion and debate took place among faculty and students over how best to communicate Catholic truth in the new society being shaped by the Vietnam War conflict, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate. In this period our students came under the mentorship of priest-scholars like Fr. Robert Imbelli (dogmatic theology), Msgr. Joseph Komanchak (ecclesiology), Msgr. John Meier (Biblical Studies), Msgr. Thomas Shelly (Church History), and Msgr. William Smith (moral theology) whose impact on theological conversations in the United States would have lasting influence.

Two obvious high points over the past twenty-five years were the visits of two popes. In 1995, Pope St. John Paul II led the community in Vespers on the eve of the centenary, and in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI presided over a prayer service for the disabled community as well as an outdoor youth rally that drew tens of thousands. Our community shared in the grief of our city on September 11, 2001, and saw many of our alumni comforting first responders at Ground Zero and in the parishes where they celebrated funerals for our beloved fallen.

In this last quarter of a century, the seminary moved to adopt accredited degree programs in theology for lay women and men and candidates for the permanent diaconate. On the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo (November 4), 2011, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan signed an agreement with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre to train future priests for the downstate New York region in a single program of priestly formation to be located at Dunwoodie. Through this new partnership, St. Joseph’s Seminary also established branch campuses at the Douglaston and Huntington seminary campuses so that the Master of Arts in Theology degree could be offered to qualified lay women and men and deacon candidates at those locations.

Other partnerships have emerged in recent decades with communities of consecrated life, such as the Friars of the Renewal, founded by our late faculty member Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR (1933-2014), the Idente Missionaries, and the Piarist Fathers and Brothers. Over the last five years, the seminary has also welcomed priesthood candidates from the Neo-Catechumenal Way, who undergo their formation at one of two local Redemptoris Mater seminaries.

Other religious societies and dioceses/eparchies have also chosen St. Joseph’s Seminary as the agent for forming their future priests, deacons, catechists and leaders in various ecclesial roles.

CWR: How many seminarians are currently in formation at Dunwoodie and from what dioceses and religious orders?

Bishop Massa: When factoring in the above-mentioned communities of consecrated life, as well as our philosophy students receiving seminary formation at Douglaston, we enroll about 75 seminarians. Thirty-five or so are residential diocesan seminarians living on the Dunwoodie campus. The other cohorts commute from their religious houses where they receive human and spiritual formation, as well as pastoral training.

CWR: What degrees can one attain at Dunwoodie? Are studies there reserved to seminarians alone?

Bishop Massa: Seminarians typically receive the Master of Divinity degree, which is the standard credential for clergy of all denominational backgrounds in the United States, and the Bachelor of Sacred Theology degree. The latter is awarded through our faculty by the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome. In addition, seminarians may write a master’s thesis in their final year and receive a Master Arts in Theology degree.

Candidates for the permanent diaconate and lay women and men enroll in our MA in Theology program and have the choice of writing thesis or sitting comprehensive exams. As of this fall, lay students may also enroll in a completely online version of the MA program.

In addition, the seminary also awards post-baccalaureate and post-master’s certificates in different subject areas of theology.

CWR: What are today’s seminarian’s like? What do you think is the most important aspect of their formation?

Bishop Massa: Like their forbears 125 years ago, today’s seminarians love Jesus and hold fast to the belief that in the Catholic Church his memory and reconciling power are preserved most faithfully.

Of course, they are also products of their culture. Born for the most part between the mid to late 1990s, this cohort of seminarians belongs to Generation Z. They do not know a world without smartphones and smart classrooms, and so one of the spiritual challenges is assisting them in the management of their technological devices. Though in most cases they have benefitted from better catechesis than was perhaps afforded the generation just ahead of them, they experience most acutely the tension of being a Catholic believer in a world now dominated by materialist ideologies that offer a contrasting vision of the human person and human flourishing. They are somewhat immune to scandals within the Church and secular culture, though they continue to struggle with trusting persons in authority.

Many dioceses in the United States are recommending a propaedeutic year of spiritual formation for seminarians before beginning graduate studies in theology, which would include fasting from technology and a firm grounding in the spiritual disciplines of a priestly life.

A number of these men also come from families in which their natural fathers are absent either from their homes or from their lives altogether. Healing these wounds becomes a special challenge to formation for a ministry built on spiritual fatherhood for the faithful in Christ.

CWR: What events do you have planned this academic year to commemorate Dunwoodie’s 125th anniversary?

Bishop Massa: We formally began the anniversary year on September 16th with an opening Mass and barbecue at which several hundred alumni and friends of them seminary were in attendance. It was a joyful reunion presided over by Cardinal Dolan and his brother bishops.

Two lectures are planned, one on October 1st with the acclaimed theologian and lay evangelist, Scott Hahn, and another on February 3rd, 2022 with the world renown New Testament scholar, Monsignor John Meier.

On December 4th and 5th, we welcome guests to a special anniversary Advent and Christmas concert in our main chapel.

A closing Mass and gala is also planned for the spring, at which we look forward to awarding our first Founder’s Medal to a distinguished Catholic leader.

All in all, it looks to be a wonderful Jubilee Year of gratitude for the life and mission of St. Joseph’s Seminary, which has left its mark on the American Catholic community. And what a grace for it all to happen in the Year of St. Joseph!


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About Father Seán Connolly 62 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Ordained in 2015, he has an undergraduate degree in the Classics from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts as well as a Bachelor of Sacred Theology, Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Theology from Saint Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York. In addition to his parochial duties, he writes for The Catholic World Report, The National Catholic Register and The Wanderer.

5 Comments

  1. Here’s a question that no one has the courage to ask Bishop Massa: “What percentage of your seminarians are heterosexual?”

    • I guess you have not yet read the 76 page report issued just this past week about the pervasive rot of homosexuality that has afflicted our seminaries over the past 50 years, Father. When you have completed your reading of the document, let me know if my comment was “snide.” Until you have read the document, reserve judgment.

    • Dear Father, perhaps I’m missing a nuance. How does the deacon’s comment exhibit anti-clericalism? And, I’m not sure I understand your speculation concerning envy. It may not be prudent to lead a conversation by asking such a provocative question as the deacon has done. However, the question still has merit. The question seems reasonable enough given many serious concerns about the culture of many seminaries, and the seeming inability of bishops and administrators to correct highly problematic behaviours. We’ve had confirmed for us the widespread misbehaviour of priests and seminarians in well-researched reports such as those published at The Pillar, which exposed the serial use of dating-apps by priests.

      Pax tecum.

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