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History

By Reverend John P. Collins, Class of 1972

Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  It was founded on June 26, 1832 by Francis Patrick Kenrick, the third Bishop of Philadelphia.  The original seminary campus occupied three different buildings within the square block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Walnut, and Spruce Streets in Old City, Philadelphia on land that had been the site of St. Mary’s Church (Philadelphia’s first Cathedral), the Bishop’s residence, and the city’s first parochial school.  On April 18, 1838, the Commonwealth’s legislature granted a charter to St. Charles, permitting it to confer academic degrees.

Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick

The increase in enrollment soon caused the site to be very inadequate.  Accordingly, Bishop Kenrick purchased a partially completed three-story building at the corner of 18th and Race Street on August 11, 1838 for $12,000.  An additional $8,000 was required for the completion of the new building, which was opened to the transferring students on January 22, 1839.  From 1841 to 1852, the administration and faculty were members of the Congregation of the Mission (the Vincentians).  The final Vincentian Rector, Father Thaddeus Amat, departed from St. Charles to become a Bishop in the newly admitted state of California.  During the seminary’s stay in Center City, the November traditions of a St. Charles Day Celebration (1839) and Forty Hours (1853) were begun.  Bishop Kenrick would use the land adjacent to St. Charles for the erection (1846-64) of the current Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.

18th & Race Sts. 1839 – 1871

St. John Neumann, Philadelphia’s fourth Bishop (1852-60), desired to expand St. Charles to include a minor seminary for high school students and the first two years of college.  Therefore, he purchased a building formerly used as a girls’ Presbyterian school in Glen Riddle, Delaware County, for $11,000.  For the next twelve years, St. Charles would have two sites with two different Rectors.

On January 5, 1860, James Frederic Wood, a native of Philadelphia and a convert, became the fifth Bishop (and then later Archbishop) of Philadelphia.  Early in his tenure, in light of an epidemic of tuberculosis among both seminarians and young priests, he determined that the urban location of St. Charles was a dangerous one.  Himself a former banker, Wood was financially astute.  He sought out a more rural location.  Accordingly, beginning in 1863, he made several purchases of land totaling 137 acres in Lower Merion Township for $62,000, which would become the seminary’s “Overbrook” campus for the next 153 years.  For this action, the Bishop was severely criticized and the land was dubbed “Wood’s Folly.”

Preparatory Seminary, Glen Riddle 1859 – 1871

Groundbreaking occurred on the new campus on April 4, 1866, but economic factors delayed the construction of the new building until 1869.  Two more years were necessary to finish the seminary, which opened to 128 students on September 16, 1871.  The centerpiece was the Immaculate Conception Chapel, which was dedicated on December 12,1875.  The major and minor seminaries were combined on the Overbrook campus, while the Glen Riddle property eventually became Neumann University.  Improvements would be made by subsequent Archbishops such as Archbishop Patrick John Ryan (Chapel refurbished – 1885 and library-gymnasium building – 1909-1911) and Archbishop Edmund Francis Prendergast (St. Edmund’s Hall – 1913 and the Resident Sisters’ Convent – 1917).

The 1920s brought more overcrowding to St. Charles.  Philadelphia’s new Archbishop and alumnus, Dennis Cardinal Dougherty, met the challenge by constructing the college building, breaking ground during Christmas week of 1926.  The project, including the newly constructed St. Martin’s Chapel, was completed in 1928, and was dedicated on June 9/10th of that year, with an estimated crowd of nearly 250,000 people.  The cost of construction was five million dollars, which was completely paid off at the time of its opening.  The new building served the seminary well, helping to accommodate a student body of nearly 600 seminarians during the 1960’s Baby Boom.

Subsequent construction involved the erection of St. John Vianney Hall, a combination dormitory-classroom wing, just in time for Overbrook’s centennial in September, 1971 and the renovation of the Ryan Memorial Library in 2005.

Pope Saint John Paul II, 1979
 

Throughout its history, two popes and three “eventual” popes have graced the Overbrook campus with visits: Cardinal Pacelli (Pius XII), Cardinal Montini (St. Paul VI), and Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) visited before they were bestowed the papacy. Pope Saint John Paul II visited the seminary in October 1979, and Pope Francis stayed at the seminary during his visit to Philadelphia in September 2015.

Pope Francis, 2015

The seminary has awarded honorary degrees to a number of distinguished individuals who embody Saint Charles Borromeo’s mission.  They include: Saint Teresa of Calcutta, Mother Angelica, Avery Cardinal Dulles, Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Samuel A. Alito, Jr. In addition, over 80 of its alumni have been ordained to the episcopacy.

Led by its current rector, Bishop-elect Keith J. Chylinski, the seminary’s enrollment remains strong, drawing from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as well as many partner dioceses and religious orders. In the midst of these challenging times, the seminary’s work continues with great zeal and love. Against the backdrop of an increasingly complex world, the Church must continue to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. St. Charles strives to continue to respond to this mandate, by preparing the next generation of priests, deacons, and lay men and women as missionary disciples and shepherds after the Heart of Christ. 

The seminary is currently in the process of relocation to its next home – a new campus in Lower Gwynedd, PA. We have placed the entire project under the prayerful intercession of St. Joseph the Worker.

Construction is underway, which will help to augment our formation programs with updated technology, improved services and modern facilities. New chapels are being designed to pay homage to our patrimony. We are also looking forward to having state-of-the-art classrooms, offices, and a new library. The estimated cost of the project, including purchase of the property from Gwynedd Mercy University, is $54.5 million. Having new buildings, the seminary will be able to run much more efficiently, helping us to significantly reduce our operating costs. Our move-in date to the new campus is slated for August 2024.

By the Grace of God, St. Charles Seminary has been in service to the Church for almost two centuries. As our mission continues, we sincerely ask for your prayers and support. Please remember… when you help a seminary, you help the whole Church. Saint Charles Borromeo, Pray for us!

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