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Seminarians return this fall to live in a community bubble

25 August 2020

Appears in: Archdiocesan News

As students return to living in residence at St. Joseph Seminary this fall, they’ll find the rules even tighter than they are accustomed to.

Like NHL players in Edmonton for a truncated hockey season, seminarians will be living in a community bubble with new restrictions aimed at protecting the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. They will be able to leave campus in their free time, but classes, activities and living in residence will have limitations and changes when the fall term begins Sept. 2.

In fact, the limitations forced by the pandemic may be a teaching tool for the future priests.

“It’s hard to know what ministry will look like in the future,” said Rev. Stephen Hero, rector of St. Joseph Seminary. “There might always be some physical distancing now in parishes. I don’t know. In that case, being here and together, facing them and living them, struggling with them, talking about these things together is a good preparation for ministry.”

A total of 32 seminarians and six priest teachers will call St. Joseph Seminary home this year. Fifteen seminarians will be studying for the Archdiocese of Edmonton; the rest for other dioceses across Western Canada. Six will be starting their first year, two of them studying for the Edmonton Archdiocese. The arrival of two others, one from the Philippines and another from Nigeria, is dependent on student visas.

“It’s going to be a hard year in terms of financially,” Hero said.

The seminary can accommodate 60 students, so this year’s number is ideal, given the special measures needed. As in most educational institutions, students will need to maintain physical distancing in class, in the dining room, and in the chapel. Food service will no longer be buffet-style. As well, contact tracing information is being gathered in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Sports and other extracurricular activities may also be affected.

Even vacation time may be affected for seminarians who live out of province and need to quarantine both on their arrival home and back in Edmonton. Stricter cleaning protocols will be also be in effect, and there is a no-guest policy at the moment, so family members can’t visit and no masses will be open to the public.

If COVID-19 is suspected, a seminarian would be isolated. If it’s confirmed, a plan to quarantine the seminary is in place as part of a rapid response plan.

Five third-year seminary students will continue their full-time internship year living with a priest in a parish rectory. However, pastoral placements for younger students – often a few hours at a time in schools, Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes or baptismal preparation – won’t continue this year.

Large classes will be online through the University of Alberta and Newman Theological College, with some physical distancing in place for smaller classes specific to seminarians.

Newman Theological College will have a mix of both online and on-campus courses, given the requirements for social distancing, said Jason West, president of the college. There will be fewer on-campus classes, and the number of students who can attend physically is also limited.

“We are confident that the offerings will meet the needs of all of our students, so that everyone will be able to get the classes they need without delaying their program,” West said in a statement. “We are hopeful that as the situation develops through the year, that the winter semester may proceed more normally.”

After a summer of preparation, all classes will be online for the 1,919 students enrolled this fall at St. Joseph’s College, the Catholic institution on the University of Alberta campus.

“I believe students have come to see that there is an ongoing impact of the pandemic,” Shawn Flynn, acting president of the college, said in an email interview.

“I am sure there will be feedback, and ways to adjust after this fall semester; we will all learn how to do things differently, listen, adjust, and improve. The key will be listening and empathy between students, faculty, staff and administration.”

The 1918 flu pandemic shut down the U of A for two months, but St. Joseph’s College wasn’t established at the time. More recently, the college housed victims of the Fort McMurray fires in 2016 and managed a flood in the women’s residence last March.

“But the pandemic impacts all dimensions of the college life, from academics to residence to our worshipping community,” Flynn said. “Across the college, our leadership team has considered each dimension from residence numbers to food services, and developed appropriate plans. I do not believe the College has seen something like this before.”

Given the unprecedented and changing COVID-19 situation, Flynn added that “everyone will have to understand that this is a marathon, and we will all need to respond if and when things change.”

St. Joseph Seminary has been planning the return of students since last spring, when their term was cut short by a month due to COVID-19. One option was to have them arrive after Christmas. However, Father Hero said the situation seemed to be improving – even though there is no vaccine yet – and there was no guarantee that the pandemic restrictions would be eased in the foreseeable future.

“As time went on, we realized it would be better that they are here in a formation program even though there are limitations on what we can do, rather than everybody being remote and separated,” Hero said.

“It’s better for their formation to be together in person as much as possible even if there’s going to be a different way of living together in community. At least when they’re in the building, the guys can pray together in person and can have conversations rather than being isolated.”

Hero said living in community, forming relationships and interactions between each other and the priests on the formation team, is critical to preparation for ministry and a “great deal” would be lost without it.

“It would be like a correspondence school or something,” Father Hero said. “Formation happens everywhere, not just in a classroom or conference time or in the chapel. The way the Church forms seminarians is you live in community normally with very rare exceptions. You can hear the Word of God, and the will of God, more clearly through the Church, not just by myself.”

Father Hero said responses to the COVID-19 pandemic – online masses, in particular – can also provide lessons for future priests in terms of their ministry.