Seminary's enrollment is largest in 35 years
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
CONCEPTION - Things are booming all over at Conception Seminary College.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Benedictine Father Benedict Neenan, president and rector of Conception Seminary College, oversees construction of the college's St. Maur Hall, part of a $10 million capital improvements drive at the largest seminary college in the United States.
With this year's enrollment of 102 seminarians from 23 dioceses, the undergraduate seminary once again solidified its rank as the largest free-standing seminary college in the United States, and is planning on growing even bigger.
This year's enrollment marked Conception's largest since 1969. It also represents an 85 percent enrollment increase since 1995, when the college's enrollment hit a low mark of 56, said Father Benedict Neenan, the seminary's president and rector.
But Father Neenan declined to credit the college and its staff for the remarkable turnaround. Instead, he credited the students at Conception Seminary College, as well as the scores of people working and praying to increase vocations to the priesthood.
"I'd give a majority of the credit to the young men," he said. "It's not what we're doing right. It's what they are doing right."
Father Neenan said that more young men of traditional college age, between 18 and 22, are exploring the priesthood.
"There is a renewed openness from them to give the priesthood a try, to go to the seminary and see if it fits," Father Neenan said.
"Almost all of them have been influenced by a priest they know," he said. "They've been invited to test the seminary by a priest they know."
Father Neenan noted that seven of seminary's 102 students hail from the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and includes four seminarians in their first year of study at Conception. He credits the work of the people of the diocese for promoting religious vocations.
"The efforts of the Serrans and the Knights of Columbus, as well as the annual S.0.S. (Support our Seminary banquet in Kansas City) expands the visibility of the college and awareness of vocations," he said.
Keith Jiron, associate director of vocations for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, also noted that vocations work around the diocese is beginning to result in more young men seriously exploring the priesthood.
This year, the diocese will have 13 young men in seminary formation - seven at Conception, and six in post-graduate theology studies. That represents a 63 percent increase since 1995, when the diocese had a total of eight seminarians in process.
In addition, six new seminarians added to the roster this year represent the most new seminarians in a year since seven new seminarians came aboard in 1997.
"The work and prayers of the people are paying off," Jiron said.
Jiron noted that the diocese is still building the "culture of vocations" that Bishop Raymond J. Boland called for at the 2002 Diocesan Vocations Awareness Congress, the first ever such gathering involving scores of people from across the diocese.
"We're not yet there by a long shot," Jiron said. "But there is something in the mix that is coming together. We're getting there."
Jiron noted that on Oct. 28, the diocese will establish its fourth chapter of Serra International, a worldwide organization dedicated to fostering religious vocations, particularly on a parish-by-parish basis. The new Northland chapter will join chapters well established in Downtown Kansas City, Southeast Kansas City and St. Joseph.
"People in the pews have really been working at this," Jiron said. "Serra has been the backbone of a lot of it."
Father Neenan said the growth in Conception's enrollment has given the college a happy problem. It must now plan for space to hold a larger enrollment.
Construction is well underway on an expansion and modernization of St. Maur Hall, the college's main academic building. That project is part of a $10 million capital improvement plan that also included the construction of sponsoring Conception Abbey's Welcome Center last spring.
"We're thinking bigger," Father Neenan said. "We're thinking 120 (students) in the near term, and 150 in the longer term. But we'll take everybody who comes. We'll figure it out."
Contributions to Conception Abbey's capital improvements campaign can be sent to the Director of Development, Conception Abbey, P.O. Box 501, Conception, MO 64433-9988.