Anyone who’s driven past the corner of Lancaster and City Line avenues and seen the majesty of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary knows just how striking the campus is. Fronted by the mammoth cross displayed during Pope John Paul II’s 1979 visit, it’s all imposing buildings and vast swaths of green. But as impressive as the property is on the outside, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is more concerned about what happens inside.
Bishop Timothy C. Senior knows that the 150-year-old campus is a landmark and a symbol for the city’s Catholic community. “It’s beautiful, magnificent and very historic,” says Senior, who’s an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese and the rector at St. Charles. “But our core mission is the formation of priests and deacons for the Church, not to maintain a building.”
That secondary responsibility will be wiped from the Archdiocese’s ledger within four years. In 2019, Main Line Health purchased the property for $43.5 million, and the seminary has until the 2024-25 school year to move. Meanwhile, Gwynedd Mercy University and the seminary just signed an agreement of sale for a parcel of land on the northern border of the school’s campus that’s just a 10th of the size of the current site.
The big news would appear to be how Main Line Health will develop its 150-acre acquisition, which sits across the street from Lankenau Medical Center. Right now, the health system isn’t ready to comment on that. There’s also the question of how St. Charles will begin its new life at Gwynedd Mercy. The seminary has had four other homes since its founding in 1832, and several other colleges around the country have seminaries on their grounds. “We’ll be moving to a new campus, where we can invest in our future and be much more sustainable,” Senior says.
That sustainability is a key part of the equation. For many years, all of the money raised by the seminary’s capital campaign has gone to the upkeep of the property and addressing debt, rather than making improvements or building an endowment. Holding onto such a large parcel of land was extremely costly. The seminary serves about 155 students at various stages in their 11-year journey through college and theological training, preparing priests for service in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and 14 others.
The 15-acre lot on Gwynedd’s campus includes Alexandria Hall and Visitation House, which are used for housing and ministry activities. Though they’ll initially serve as the seminary’s primary buildings, it can build other structures and perhaps enter into an arrangement with the college that would allow seminarians to use existing facilities on campus. “Having a seminary contiguous to a university will provide a much broader experience for our men,” Senior says. “Gwynedd Mercy has been wonderful. They’ve welcomed us, and we’re optimistic and hopeful we can bring this to fruition.”
For some entities, receiving a historical designation is a tremendous honor. For St. Charles, it was almost a catastrophe. In July 2018, the seminary was named a Class 1 historic resource by Lower Merion Township, which almost torpedoed discussions between the Archdiocese and Main Line Health. By conferring that status on St. Charles, the township gave itself the opportunity to veto any plans to demolish all or part of the campus by current or future owners. The response was not favorable. “The discussion of the designation has created a real chill … on our prospective purchaser,” seminary attorney Carl Primavera told Main Line Media News at the time. “The impact and the harm on the seminary are not something that comes to the imagination of an overactive mind of an attorney or is something that is speculative. We’ve been in negotiations with an important purchaser, and when this came about, they immediately stopped negotiating.”
There were reports of a letter circulating from Senior that expressed extreme disappointment with the decision. Township commissioner Liz Rogan countered that Lower Merion was only trying to ensure that it would be in a suitable partnership with entities acting in a way that benefits Lower Merion.
It’s hard to imagine Main Line Health not doing that. Over the past several years, it has expanded and improved Lankenau, making it one of the area’s top hospitals for heart care. If it uses the seminary property to provide more opportunities for patients, it couldn’t be anything but good news for Lower Merion, aside for maybe some traffic headaches.
It’s also good news for Gwynedd Mercy, which is one of many Catholic colleges and universities in the area trying to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace that could be in for a seismic shift in coming years as prospective students consider their educational options in the wake of COVID-mandated remote learning. Though the seminary won’t add any students to the Gwynedd Mercy enrollment, its purchase of the grounds will provide much-appreciated capital, and its seminarians will add to the school’s campus life.
At a January Zoom meeting of the Lower Gwynedd Township Supervisors, Gwynedd Mercy president Deanne D’Emilio spoke about how the collaboration will fit well with the school’s goals while also not overwhelming the campus, thanks to a 150-acre parcel the school purchased in 2018. “The strategic plan for Gwynedd Mercy has a goal to become a Catholic university leader in professional and healthcare education,” D’Emilio told supervisors. “We believe working with the seminary, another respected institution, will enhance both institutions and contribute to our goal to be a Catholic university leader.”
Ultimately, it’s just another chapter in the seminary’s long history—though one that won’t change its objective. “We’ve remained faithful to our tradition and mission, and we’re now even stronger and more effective in fulfilling that tradition,” says Senior.