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"A new Bishop White Seminary"
by Bishop William S. Skylstad
(From the May 21, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
My second priestly assignment, in 1961, was to be a teacher at Bishop White Seminary. At that time, the facility had been in existence for several years, established by Bishop Bernard J. Topel. His vision of the diocese’s future included several projects, not just Bishop White Seminary – he envisioned new parishes and the expansion of Catholic Charities services such as the House of Charity, to name a couple. Those projects have matured and grown over the years.
In the late 1950s, the regional seminaries were so full that the diocese was unable to find placement for those interested in discerning a vocation to priesthood, especially at the high school level. In those early years, Bishop White Seminary on 429 E. Sharp was both a residential school for students coming from outside of Spokane and a day school for City of Spokane residents. The resident boarders affectionately called the students from Spokane “day dogs.” When I joined the program in 1961, priests such as Msgr. James Ribble, Father George Haspedis, and Msgr. William Van Ommeren were already on staff.
When I arrived, the facilities were extremely crowded. I found it amazing how much happened in such a small space. A gym was added to the facility, but it became clear that the facility was much too small for the future. So Bishop Topel made the decision to build Mater Cleri Seminary in Colbert, which would house both high school students and the first two years of college. That was the traditional arrangement in those days, with the last two years of college concentrating on the study of philosophy before entrance into a theologate for the next four years. Then a seminarian would be ready for ordination to priesthood.
Mater Cleri Seminary opened in the fall of 1963 and remained in operation for the next 11 years, until 1974, when it was closed. Initially the first two years of college students were bused to Gonzaga University for classes until the collegians were transferred back to Bishop White Seminary for living and formation. Mater Cleri then became only a high school seminary. But the formation programs for seminarians were changing in the U.S., and all over the country, high school seminaries began closing. Mater Cleri also closed. The facility continued to be the home of St. Joseph Parish in Colbert until the parishioners built a new parish church. Mater Cleri was sold to a drug treatment provider. Soon thereafter the facility was sold again to Northwest Christian School, which operates the campus today. The money from the sale of the Mater Cleri property was divided between the parish and the support of formation for seminarians preparing for priesthood. The original purpose of the funds collected for Mater Cleri was honored, but at the same time, St. Joseph Parish had built up some equity in the building. The parish now has a beautiful new facility on Colbert Road.
Bishop White became a college house of formation for seminarians, with the students attending all of their classes at Gonzaga University. Because of its design and structure, the building was somewhat limited in terms of practicality, but it continued to serve the diocese well. I don’t know of any other building in the diocese that went through more renovations and changes over the decades.
Clearly the aging building with the increased demand for maintenance became considerable. The Catholic Foundation decided to take on the project of raising money for a new facility, and after a preliminary study, the decision was made to embark upon a capital campaign for the new project. Funds were raised, but the project was delayed because of our Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization process. Because of the delay for several years of building the new seminary, the original cost estimate escalated. With the assistance of the Catholic Foundation, the decision was made to move ahead anyway, since the faithful of the diocese had responded so generously to the funding request. With the assistance of Gonzaga University, the old Hutter home, which was the central structure of the old seminary, was moved across the street, to the east, and the new seminary began to take shape on the very site of the old.
GU’s president, Jesuit Father Spitzer, and the university itself have been wonderful collaborators down through the years, especially as construction began. With the seminary as a house of formation combined with the opportunity for an excellent college education at GU, this arrangement makes for a very good program.
The new facility is beautiful. We consecrated the altar in the new chapel on Monday, May 4. The students and the three priests on staff had moved in a couple of days earlier. The priests of the diocese will gather on Aug. 4, the Feast of St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, for the formal blessings of the new building.
I am profoundly grateful to the faithful of the diocese who have contributed to the building of the new seminary. You can be proud of it. We still have some debt on the new facility, but wisely, the decision was made to build at this time rather than delay any further. I am especially grateful to Father Darrin Connall, the rector of Bishop White Seminary, for his skill and dedication in bringing this new facility to completion. Father Connall tells me that he expects BWS to be full this fall. Other dioceses in the West are also sending students here. So we have been richly blessed in so many ways.
May God bless all and give you peace.
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