Douglaston – Cathedral Seminary House of Formation

by Ed Wilkinson

Father Luis Saldana and student Walter Genito chat in the assistant rector’s office.

There have been a lot of changes at the Cathedral Seminary Residence program for students contemplating the priesthood. The four-year residential program in Douglaston has been forming college-age men who are considering vocations as diocesan priests.
This past year, the students from Brooklyn and Queens were joined by men from the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, as part of the St. Charles Borromeo Inter-diocesan Partnership in spiritual and theological formation. Students from the Dioceses of Scranton, Syracuse and Rochester have also become part of the program.
Next year, even the name of the residence will be new as the era of the Cathedral Seminary House of Formation begins.
“We are a college seminary residence, but we are not a major seminary,” explains Msgr. Robert Thelen, rector. “As a college residence, we are developing Christ in the young man. In the major seminary, the emphasis is on developing Christ in the theologian.
“There a great deal of sensitivity to the age range. Being 18 is a lot different from being 25,” he adds.
Msgr. Thelen emphasizes that the men are encouraged to live among their peers, with a special emphasis on prayer and communal living as they discern whether God is calling them to lives of service as priests.
The students have a regular schedule of morning and evening prayer, as well as daily Mass. They eat together twice a day. But they dress as normal college students. Religious garb, such as cassock and surplice, are only worn during liturgical services.
Currently, there are 75 young men living on the Douglaston campus. Most of them attend classes at St. John’s University, just a short bus ride away, although the residence leadership does entertain the possibility of attendance at other schools. The students pay their own tuition.
Most of the students major in Philosophy studies, but the program also is open to other majors, with a basic core curriculum in Philosophy.
“Nothing is effortless,” says Msgr. Thelen. “With the influx of students this year there were some growing pains. But being larger has enabled us to be better academically as well as communally.
“When you have more people, you can have a better exchange of ideas. It’s also a richer ecclesial experience with people from different dioceses talking with each other.”
The bishops, as well as the vocation directors, of the dioceses represented in Douglaston all have visited and celebrated Mass with the entire community while meeting individually with their own students.
For Ralph Edel, a fourth year student from Good Shepherd parish, Marine Park, the growth in the house has been encouraging. “Coming down in the morning for prayer and seeing almost 80 guys in the chapel is very exciting. It’s great to know there are young guys outside our own neighborhoods who share our views and ideals and we’re all here for the same purpose. There’s a great camaraderie here. It’s been a great year!”
The residence maintains a faculty to teach some philosophy courses, which also are open to pre-theologians, students with college degrees who need basic Philosophy in order to move on to Theology studies in the major seminary. Faculty members also serve as spiritual directors to the students.
Msgr. Thelen is assisted by Father Marc Swarthvagher, academic dean; Msgr. Conrad Dietz, Philosophy professor; and Fathers Ray Roden, Joseph Fonti, and Fred Marano, spiritual directors. Joining the staff this year from the Archdiocese of New York are Fathers Joe Kelly and Luis Saldana, and from Rockville Centre, Father Brian Barr, diocesan vocations director.
Future plans involve the possibility of offering a masters of theology degree and also expanding its reach to include more dioceses.
“The possibilities are endless,” said Msgr. Thelen. “After all, we have New York City as a backdrop.”

Msgr. Robert Thelen, rector, chats with Edwin Bonafacio (NY) and Anthony Marcella (NY).