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Nearing a Century of Serving the Faithful
One of the problems facing the early Church of Detroit was staffing its parishes. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Roman Catholic missionary orders sent priests to minister to the growing Catholic population and undertake the conversion of the Native Americans. Later, priests were recruited from the Catholic countries of Europe. However, the need to develop a native Michigan clergy remained. A seminary would be necessary to train young men for the priesthood.
Several attempts to establish a preparatory seminary were undertaken during the nineteenth century. Success was achieved in July 1918, when Most Rev. Michael Gallagher, bishop of Detroit, announced the founding of Sacred Heart Seminary.
The fall of 1919 began the seminary's first academic year. Living quarters for boarding students and administrative offices were located in two cramped houses in midtown Detroit, on Martin Place. As enrollment jumped and more dormitory space was needed, Bishop Gallagher leased a duplex and later a seventy-room apartment building on Alexandrine Avenue. (Harper University Hospital occupies this area today.) Seminarians walked, sometimes for a mile, to nearby parish school buildings to attend classes.
Students were enrolled for classes in the first two years of high school, with a class added each subsequent year. The seminary added a college department in 1922, the same year the first high school class graduated. The first college class graduated in June 1926.
Detroit's population was exploding and so did Sacred Heart's enrollment, reaching 212 students in 1921. An inspired Bishop Gallagher met this welcome "vocation crisis" by initiating a fund drive throughout the diocese to build a new seminary complex. "God wills it!" he exclaimed, and Detroit's parishioners responded with astounding generosity. In February 1923, supported by $9 million in pledges, the bishop was able to break ground on twenty-four acres of farmland on the trolley line in the northern suburbs of Detroit, at the present site of Chicago Boulevard and Linwood Avenue.Sacred Heart Seminary opened the doors of its 360,000 square feet, Gothic Revival-style building in September 1924. The designer was the Detroit firm of Donaldson & Meier, architect of many of southeastern Michigan’s most celebrated buildings and churches of this period. The facility could accommodate 350 boarding and 150 day students.
Detroit's own Pewabic Pottery studio designed and manufactured the ornate tiling that decorated the hallways of the first floor and in the main chapel. Today as then, it is one of the largest collections of Pewabic tile in the country (perhaps only the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C, has more). In 1982, he seminary complex was honored to be included in the National Register of Historic Places.
As the number of students continued to increase in the high school and college programs through the decades, it became necessary to build a separate building. The Cardinal Mooney Latin School, as it was known, was built on the southeast corner of the seminary campus. From 1961 to its closing in 1971, this building housed the high school program.
On the northeast corner of the campus is the iconic "Black Jesus" grotto of the Sacred Heart. Christ's face, hands and feet were painted black during the first day of the 1967 Detroit civil disturbance. The act was controversial at first (Was it vandalism? An expression of racial pride?), but over time the statue's symbolism has evolved. It is now a nationally-known icon representing Christ's love of all peoples, and is a point-of-pride for Sacred Heart's neighbors. The seminary has pledged to keep the features of the Sacred Heart statue black for all time.
A new phase of Sacred Heart’s history began in July 1988. The institution added a Graduate School of Theology to its College of Liberal Arts, and underwent a name change, becoming Sacred Heart Major Seminary. The Institute for Ministry was established in 1989 to facilitate the education of lay men and women for professional ministry in the Church. Extensive renovations to the building and grounds were accomplished at this time, including the replacement of 2400 windows.
Another milestone occurred in September 2004. The Congregation for Catholic Education approved the aggregation of Sacred Heart to the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome (Angelicum). This collaboration permitted the seminary to offer programming for the Bachelor (STB) and Licentiate (STL) in Sacred Theology. (The STL is the first of its kind with a specialization in the New Evangelization.) Six endowed academic chairs were established the same year. The STL program adopted a convenient “blended” format in 2013, with most courses being offered online and the remainder taken during five-week residency terms for four summers.
There was a near tragic ceiling fire in the main chapel in February 2009. The seminary took this opportunity to clean, repair and restore the chapel’s canvas ceiling panels, stained glass windows, masonry and pews, and conserve its artistically significant Stations of the Cross. Scores of fine art restorers, painting specialists, roofers, masons, electricians and other skilled craftpeople worked for six months on the project to restore the chapel to its original splendor.
To accommodate the recent increase in seminarian enrollment, construction began in November 2010 to renovate Immaculate Heart of Mary Hall that had been shuttered since the early-1970s. Ten new student dorm rooms were added, including bathroom facilities, a laundry room, and visitor rooms.
The physical “footprint” of the campus expanded in March 2016, signifying Sacred Heart’s long-term commitment to the City of Detroit. An outstanding donation by a benefactor allowed the seminary purchased six plots of land directly west of the campus. The property acquisition gives Sacred Heart the necessary space to increase parking, enhance green space, and allow its programs to flourish.
Throughout 2017, the property is being cleared of derelict structures, which will enhance the historic charm of the neighborhood while increasing the safety of campus and neighborhood. The new property will be integrated into the existing campus and include hundreds of additional secured parking spaces to better accommodate the many visitors to the seminary’s events. By the end of 2017, visitors will enter the seminary from a new entrance on Lawton Street (which will be closed), with the current entrance reserved as a service entrance.Since its inception, Sacred Heart Major Seminary has enjoyed the financial and prayerful support of diocesan officials, alumni and the people of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The seminary has responded to the needs of the Church of Detroit and beyond by preparing priests, deacons and lay men and women to be heralds of the Gospel and especially today missionaries of the New Evangelization.