The Origins of St. Patrick's Seminary

On September 20, 1898, five Sulpician priests and 34 young men gathered at the somewhat remote location of Menlo Park to inaugurate what was to become the preeminent seminary on the West Coast - St. Patrick's Seminary. At the time of its inception, St. Patrick's was the onlyAngel Prayer institution of its type west of the Rocky Mountains. One hundred years later Menlo Park is no longer so remote and other seminaries have sprung up in the west; but St. Patrick's Seminary continues in its efforts to produce men commensurate to their critical and holy vocation. Under the careful guidance of the Sulpician Fathers, young men (and some not so young) have been molded in mind, body and spirit to serve the Catholic Church in the western United States and the Pacific Rim.

The spirit of the Church depends largely on the quality of its priests. "As the clergy," Bishop Hugh A. Donohoe once noted, "so the people." Years before, in a sermon given shortly after the dedication of the seminary, Archbishop Patrick William Riordan concurred: "If the priesthood be weak, inefficient and wanting in zeal and erudition, the Church will be weak and moribund. If the priesthood be strong, the Church will partake of that strength." A solid seminary was of the utmost import if the Church in the West was to flourish.

The importance of establishing a seminary was keenly felt by San Francisco's first Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany, O.P. (1853 - 1884). Arriving in San Francisco in 1850, Alemany was soon beset by a host of problems including having too few priests, and even fewer good priests. In the days of the Gold Rush, California attracted some less than desirable characters; unfortunately some of these characters were also priests. Alemany wrote to a friend, "California has suffered too much from the bad example of some Spanish, Irish, and French clergy." Even before encountering these clerical miscreants, Alemany was firmly committed to establishing a seminary of his own. Prior to his arrival in California he had written, "I hope that God will grant us the grace very soon to have a seminary, that, in time, will furnish us the priests necessary to the needs of that diocese." Alemany made two attempts to establish a seminary - one at Mission Dolores, the other at Mission San Jose, both placed under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. Neither was successful. For the latter seminary, Alemany secured the services of the Marist Fathers from France; but they soon lost interest. The second St. Thomas floundered for several years before it was closed in 1885 by Alemany's successor, Archbishop Patrick W. Riordan.

The local vocations that were generated for the Archdiocese had to be sent elsewhere to study. Though few in number, they established the basis of a native clergy in San Francisco. Unfortunately, the number of vocations was not sufficient, and Alemany turned to Ireland to supply his clergy needs. He began receiving a steady supply of priests from All Hallows Missionary College in Dublin and St. Patrick's Seminary in Carlow; but Alemany never saw this reliance on Ireland as an answer to his long-term problems. A native clergy was still the necessity, and this required a seminary.

archbishop alemany
Archbishop Joseph
Sadoc Alemany,
O.P. (1853 - 1884)

Closing Alemany's seminary did not mean that Riordan had lost interest in developing a seminary. On his ad limina visit to Rome in 1888, Riordan stopped in Paris to meet the Superior of the Society of St. Sulpice, Henri-Joseph Icard, S.S., and request that he provide priests to staff a new seminary in San Francisco. The Sulpicians were a society of diocesan priests who devoted themselves to training seminarians. Founded in 1641 by Jean Jacques Olier, the Society had gained international renown as seminary instructors. In 1791, Archbishop John Carroll had obtained the Sulpicians to staff the first seminary in the United States, St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. Nearly a century later San Francisco looked to St. Sulpice to train its priests.

A decade prior to Riordan's request, Archbishop Alemany had also sought the services of the Sulpicians. Father Icard informed Alemany that the Sulpicians were overextended and lacked the necessary manpower to staff his seminary. A decade later Archbishop Riordan received the same reply.

Undeterred, Riordan proceeded to Rome, where he informed Pope Leo XIII of his plight. Leo reportedly responded, "I shall intercede for you. You shall have the Sulpicians." The Pope directed Cardinal Giovanni Simeoni, Prefect of Propaganda, to intercede as well. Simeoni wrote to Icard praising the Sulpicians for their "uncommon prudence and ability" and imploring him to accede to Riordan's request. The end result would be "an institution from which not only the Archdiocese of San Francisco but the entire Ecclesiastical Province can expect remarkable results."

Riordan, not content with mere papal intercession, took his request to a higher source. On his way back to Paris, he stopped at Lourdes, where he sought Our Lady's help, asking her to intercede on behalf of his seminary. Whether it was the Pope, the Blessed Mother, or his own pleadings, Icard gave Riordan a verbal commitment to supply Sulpicians for his new seminary. It was to be another decade, however, before Riordan's plan came to fruition.

archbishop riordan
Archbishop Patrick
William Riordan
(1848-1958)

In December, 1890, as Riordan was just concluding the monumental task of building a new Cathedral for the Archdiocese, he began to direct his attention to the creation of a new seminary. He was informed by his attorney, John T. Doyle, that in order to incorporate the seminary in the State of California he needed to raise money and to determine the precise location. Riordan sought the assistance of several wealthy Catholics, who each responded with generous donations of $50,000: F.S. Wensinger, Judge Myles P. O'Connor, Joseph A. Donohoe, Mrs. Peter Donahue, an anonymous "Friend of the Seminary," and the MacDonough Estate.

With a substantial endowment in hand, Riordan now needed a location. This problem was resolved when Mrs. Kate Johnson, widow of Rupert Johnson, donated 83 acres in Menlo Park for the purpose of building a seminary. Mrs. Johnson had previously provided the funds and property for Mary's Help Hospital in San Francisco. The Johnson land was an ideal location for the new seminary, located between Atherton and Stanford University. The Stanfords provided the seminary access to a water supply, thus making the building of the seminary feasible. Various other courtesies were provided by the Stanfords, including a considerable donation by Mrs. Stanford toward the construction of the seminary chapel. The marble archway atop the front stairs at the seminary's main entrance was a gift to Archbishop Riordan from Mrs. Stanford at the opening of the seminary. With land, a water supply, and an endowment, Riordan filed the "Articles of Incorporation of the Roman Catholic Seminary of San Francisco," in the County Clerk's Office of San Mateo on October 29, 1891. The Trustees list included six priests and six laymen, in addition to the Archbishop.

architect drawing
Architect's drawing of the proposed seminary

Years of struggle lay ahead. Riordan hired highly respected architect Charles Devlin to design the new seminary. Devlin set right to work and completed a set of drawings by the end of 1891. In February, 1892, the site began to be cleared, and soon the foundation of the building was being laid. In June, 1894, the cornerstone was laid with a simple ceremony. The work continued over the course of the next four years, and by late summer 1898, more than two-thirds of the plant had been completed: the west wing, the administration wing, the dining hall, the kitchen, the convent and the power house. It was decided that this was sufficient to open the minor seminary.

Riordan had several practical considerations to address before the seminary could open. First, after the initial endowment, he had relied heavily on parish collections to build the new seminary, and he knew that he had to get the archdiocesan clergy behind the project if the seminary were to succeed. He also knew that there was a reluctance on the part of his heavily Irish clergy to support the new endeavor. According to James Gaffey, the Irish clergy were not convinced of the mettle of American-born seminarians. Gaffey writes, "The American youth, they felt, were constitutionally and temperamentally too delicate to bear the rigors of seminary or priestly life. There was among these priests the suspicion that the California boy was congenitally weak, living in a warm and debilitating climate and often bred from parents who had sought the West for reasons of health. The best prospects, it was believed, were to be found in the Irish seminaries where the faith was deeper and the weather more invigorating." (The Irish clergy's suspicion may have been borne out. An early entry into the rector's diary noted that the faculty believed the faith of American youth was less profound and vigorous than that found among the immigrant Irish who have arrived recently.") For years to come Irish surnames predominated at St. Patrick's.

In a gesture to the Irish clergy, but perhaps just as importantly to the Irish laity who had so generously supported the project, Riordan decided not to name the new seminary after St. Thomas Aquinas as his predecessors had done. Rather, he named the new institution St. Patrick's: "I have placed this work under the patronage of a great Apostle, St. Patrick, not indeed for personal reasons, but because he is the patron saint of a great Catholic race which has suffered more than any other for religion's sake, the most devoted, the most generous, and most priest-loving race within the fold of the Church of Christ." Significantly, Irish champion Fr. Peter C. Yorke was invited to write an article for the seminary's dedicatory booklet on "The Need of a Native Clergy." Yorke observed that immigrant priests were necessary during periods of immigration; but once a diocese was settled as San Francisco now was, it was incumbent upon the people to supply their own priests. "Ultimately the solution of the priest supply depends on the people. If the people will not give their children to the service of the sanctuary, there can be no priests. The question, therefore, is: Can the people be got to do their duty in this matter?" The Archdiocese was soon receiving a steady supply of seminarians.

history dedication
Seminary dedication - August 24, 1898

Riordan circulated a bulletin announcing the opening of the seminary and appealing to prospective students. The circular clearly states the goal of the seminary and the signs of a vocation: "The object of this Institution is solely to furnish a suitable course of instruction, and proper moral training for boys and young men, who desire to devote their lives to the service of God, in the Holy priesthood. Prominent among the early signs of vocation are: Innocence of Life, Piety, Respect for Sacred Things, Good Christian training by virtuous parents, Love of Study, and Steadiness of Purpose." Those believing that they had a vocation were to obtain a letter of recommendation from their pastor and "Present themselves to the Most. Rev. Archbishop, at the Cathedral residence, 1100 Franklin St., on Tuesday, August 2d, at 10 A.M." A test was administered and those who passed were invited to attend the seminary, which would open in late September.

Riordan was not terribly concerned about the number that responded to his circular. He wrote, "I cannot say how many boys we shall have at the opening or during the first year. The fewer the better. I am convinced that the seminary will grow from year to year, and it is better that it should grow slowly."

history rector
Jean-Baptiste Vuibert, first rector of St. Patrick's Seminary (1898 - 1904)

By this time, the Sulpicians had committed five priests to staff the seminary, three Frenchman and two Americans. Heading up the new seminary was Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Vuibert, S.S. Trained at the Grand Seminary of St. Sulpice in Paris, Vuibert was ordained on June 10, 1865. He served as professor of Rhetoric and History at St. Charles College in Ellicott City, MD, for thirty-one years, before being appointed St. Patrick's first rector. He arrived in San Francisco in July, 1898.

Vuibert had been preceded by Father Richard Wakeham, S.S., who had purchased the furnishings for the new seminary. They were joined by three additional Sulpicians - Adrien-Antonie Serieys, S.S., Charles Hogue, S.S., and Rene Brule, S.S. (the youngest and only Sulpician to arrive directly from France).

On Wednesday, August 24, 1898, the solemn dedication of the seminary took place. Archbishop Riordan was joined by Bishops George Montgomery of Los Angeles (later his coadjutor) and Thomas Grace of Sacramento, along with more than 100 priests of the Archdiocese. Significantly, no lay people were in attendance. The dedication was a simple affair. The Monitor described the event, "Exactly at noon the Most. Rev. Archbishop, attended by Very Rev. Father Vuibert, the Superior of the Seminary, two Sulpician fathers and two students, who acted as acolytes, began the dedication. The Archbishop read the prayers, the Sulpician fathers making the responses. The seminary was then solemnly dedicated in the interest of religion and learning under the patronage of St. Patrick, to the honor and glory of God. The Pater Noster was intoned and at its conclusion the Archbishop attended by the assisting clergymen and the acolytes, one carrying the thurible and the other the vessel of holy water, proceeded in procession through the building, passing along the line of the left corridor then up the second staircase and along the upper corridors, and down the main stairway to the table where the Archbishop had offered the first prayers. The priests, who had assembled from all parts of the diocese, stood in a semicircle around the entrance leading from the vestibule where they remained in silent prayer."

Following the dedication a banquet was celebrated in the seminary's dining hall. Archbishop Riordan addressed the gathering proclaiming, "I have sought to build upon a solid foundation. The work has not been intended for a day, but to endure many, many years after we are gone." Bishops Montgomery and Grace also spoke expressing their hopes that their dioceses would also benefit from the new seminary. On Tuesday, September 20, the seminary received its first students and was officially opened as a minor seminary with 31 high school students. Also in attendance were three advanced students (John W. Brockhage, Francis M. Havey, and Charles F. Myers) who were to complete their seminary training by being privately tutored by the Sulpicians. Besides completing their studies, these three also served as instructors at the seminary. Soon the minor seminary was operating according to its daily routine. The first solemn liturgy was celebrated on Sunday, September 25. The first man to be ordained from St. Patrick's, Patrick Collopy (July 29, 1899), received the greater part of his schooling at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore. The first man to complete his entire course of study at St. Patrick's, John M. Byrne, was ordained in June, 1908.

old entrance
Early entrance to the seminary

The first annual commencement took place on May 31, 1899, bringing the seminary's first year to a successful conclusion. The exercises were presided over by Archbishop Riordan and included violin solos, choral performances and scintillating speeches such as John Byrne on "The Latin Declensions and Conjugations," and George W. Hoey on "Architecture in Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Persia." Father Vuibert concluded the ceremonies with a brief speech that warmly applauded the students' efforts during the inaugural year.

The seminary continued to develop over the course of the next several years. 1902 saw the opening of the Department of Philosophy with six students, all of whom had enrolled in St. Patrick's in September 1898: John M. Byrne, George Englefield, Maurice Fitzgibbon, Joseph Johes, William McGee, and Frank Sharp. St. Patrick's was now a major seminary.

In 1903, the seminary was graced by the arrival of the Little Sisters of the Holy Family (Les Petites Soeurs de la Sainte-Famille) from Sherbrooke, Canada, to take care of the "domestic services" of the seminary: cooking, laundry, cleaning. The Little Sisters were a relatively new order having only been established canonically in 1896. Their foundress was Blessed Leonie Paradis. On July 11, 1903, nine sisters including superior Sister Marie-de-la-Nativite, born Clementine Marchand, arrived at St. Patrick's. For more than 90 years they would provide extraordinary service to the seminary community.

1903 also marked the beginning of construction on the East Wing of the seminary, which was to serve as the "Senior College." Construction also began on the main chapel. The crypt of the chapel was completed and dedicated by Coadjutor Archbishop George Montgomery on August 4, 1904.

1904 was a landmark year for St. Patrick's. First, the Department of Theology was opened, thus the twelve year academic program was now complete and in place. Second, Father Edward P. Arbez, S.S., arrived at St. Patrick's. Arbez became one of the leading scripture scholars in the United States, later serving as the first president of the Catholic Biblical Association in 1936. He remained at St. Patrick's until 1928. Finally and most significantly, 1904 marked the arrival of the new Superior of the Seminary, Henri A. Ayrinhac, S.S. More than any other individual Ayrinhac placed his personal stamp on the early years of St. Patrick's, serving as rector from 1904 to 1930. Father Vuibert stepped down and became head of the collegiate department.

Ayrinhac was born in St. Gregoire in Aveyron, France, on March 21, 1867. He received his seminary training at the Grand Seminary of Rodez, where he decided to become a Sulpician. He was ordained in 1891, and received his S.T.D. from the Minerva and his Jungian.C.D. from the Apollinaire in Rome. In 1893 he was sent to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, where he taught Dogma. In 1902, he became Professor of Moral Theology and Superior of the Philosophy Department. In 1904, he was sent to assume the role of superior at St. Patrick's Seminary.

Ayrinhac's 26 year rule at St. Patrick's became legendary to St. Patrick's many alumni, who affectionately referred to him as "The Boss." His style was strict and demanding, blunt and to the point. His severity at times seemed inordinate, but gradually his gentler side came to be appreciated.

By the time of his death in 1930, he was revered. The student magazine The Patrician paid special tribute to him: "You knew him - the gentleness of a dove, the wisdom of a serpent, the patience of Job, an angel in temper, a demon for discipline, a fulfiller of the law - the 'Boss' both of his children and himself." The tribute concluded with a poem entitled "The Boss" which is reprinted not for its high poetry, but for the depth of emotion it expresses:

rector-boss
Henri Ayrinhac, 'The Boss' Rector (1904 - 1930)

First Ruler of this house of God,
O "Boss" beloved. That name is thine
Who wert a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring and define
What ways by us are to be trod
To reach the goal of our desires -
Lot envied by the angel choirs,
What joy to take the priestly Cross,
"Another Christ" - when trained
assured and blessed by,
"The Boss"

 


Ayrinhac established St. Patrick's Seminary as a major presence on the West Coast.