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Diocese will close seminary in Fargo after next school year

In what is a surprise to many, Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo announced Thursday he was closing Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo after the next school year because of dwindling numbers of students and high costs.

In what is a surprise to many, Bishop Samuel Aquila of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo announced Thursday he was closing Cardinal Muench Seminary in Fargo after the next school year because of dwindling numbers of students and high costs.

Aquila said in an interview Thursday that the news was not widely known in the diocese before he announced it, but that any look at the falling numbers of students could have figured a closing was imminent.

He said it won't affect the recruitment of men to the priesthood but will save the diocese money.

A Catholic educator in Fargo told the Herald the news was surprising and saddening, because the seminary is seen as a scholarly and spiritual treasure for the diocese. It's unusual for a diocese of only 85,000 people to have a seminary.

The announcement comes only three months after the diocese celebrated the 50th anniversary of the late Archbishop Aloisius Muench (pronounced "Mensch") being named a cardinal by the pope in December 1959, the only cardinal in the diocese's history.

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A German-speaking native of Milwaukee, Muench was bishop in Fargo from 1935 to 1959 and became internationally known when he was named an archbishop after World War II and sent by the pope to post-war Germany to aid in the recovery in 1946.

The seminary named after Muench is 48 years old and is a "minor" or college seminary, as opposed to the post-graduate "major" seminary where priests do their theological studies for three years just prior to being ordained.

It opened in 1962, the same year Muench died.

About the program

The students at Cardinal Muench enroll at North Dakota State University to get their bachelor's degree while also taking courses and living at Cardinal Muench, on the north end of Fargo near the Red River. On graduation from NDSU and Cardinal Muench, the students then go on to major seminary, usually at one near Baltimore, in St. Paul or in Denver, where Bishop Aquila had helped start John Vianney seminary while he was a priest there.

Only 10 men are attending Cardinal Muench now: three will graduate May 13, and seven plan to return, the only students registered now for next year, Aquila said.

Aquila said that while the seminary provides excellent spiritual formation, "the question also arises as to whether a seminary community of that size can provide appropriate forma-tion for the men in their first years of study and discernment for the priesthood."

A better use of donors' money would be to fund their education at other seminaries with less cost, Aquila said.

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The Fargo diocese has 10 men in major seminary now: in Rome; in Emmetsburg, Md; and in Denver.

Until 2001, Cardinal Muench also ran a high school for young men planning on the priest-hood on the seminary's spacious campus on the north end of Fargo along the Red River that includes a gym and chapel, as well as dorm rooms. More than 900 men have attended the seminary in 48 years, and 100 of them have been ordained priests, according to the diocese.

The diocese has no plans to sell the property, but will look at more ways to use it for parish and diocesan activities, Aquila said. It could be used as a parish, a school or for retreats, he said.

Call for review

In connection with the closing announcement, Aquila also called Thursday for a close review of all Catholic schools in the Fargo area and with plans to start a new parish in the Horace, N.D., southwest of Fargo.

Aquila said the fast growth in the greater Fargo area meant good planning was essential. Demographic studies show that 5,000 or more people will be added to the south Fargo area in the next five to eight years, Aquila said.

According to a news release from Aquila on Thursday, the annual cost of educating a student at Cardinal Muench is $115,000, of which the student pays about $15,000 in tuition, room and board. The cost is high because of the low enrollment, Aquila said.

Major seminaries, for example, cost about $35,000 per student.

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"It is not good stewardship to underwrite each college-level seminarian at $100,000 per year," Aquila wrote. "While subsidies would decrease with higher enrollment, the question of stewardship remains."

Four priests and five professors and other staff members work at the seminary.

Four of the five professors at the seminary teach at NDSU in areas such as philosophy, classics and religion, but are paid by the seminary as part of a long-standing agreement with NDSU.

The seminary will pay the professors' salaries through the end of the next school year.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com .

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