Our History: The Full Story

When Father William Mark Duke, at the age of forty-eight, was called from New Brunswick in 1928 to become Coadjutor to the ailing Archbishop Timothy Casey of Vancouver, this archdiocese extended all the way to the Alberta border and comprised also the present dioceses of Nelson and Kamloops. This far-flung territory had a Catholic population of 87,000 as compared with the approximately 475,000 today in just the Vancouver Archdiocese alone. Although the vast region had a serious shortage of priests and was in grave financial difficulty, the Apostolic Delegate, Archbishop Cassulo, encouraged Archbishop Duke to establish at least a minor seminary. “Go on,” he told the young archbishop, “and Providence will help you!” A note in Archbishop Duke’s diary for July 2, 1931, read: “Day of decision. ‘Go on and Providence will help you!’”

Archbishop Duke makes a beginning

From then on matters moved rapidly Father Francis Chaloner, a priest on loan from the Archdiocese of Liverpool, England and pastor of Revelstoke, B.C., was appointed rector; and Father J.P. Kane, who had been a teacher before pursuing priesthood studies, was to be bursar. Father Chaloner had studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris and had received a licentiate in Canon Law at the Apollinare in Rome. He had come from England to rest and recover his health.

The Thomas and Annie McNeely home on a 129-acre estate at Ladner, a gift to the Archdiocese, was readied for the first seminarians. Renovations and construction began immediately to accommodate fifty students. Although classes could not yet begin at the seminary that September (1931), the dedication did take place on October 25, 1931, the Feast of Christ the King, before a gathering of 800 faithful and thirty-five priests. Father Donald Campbell, ordained ten years later, would be the first priest alumnus of this seminary.

Three names for the new seminary had been proposed to Archbishop Casey, now a patient in St. Paul’s Hospital: Sacred Heart, St. John’s, and Christ the King. Archbishop Duke, on August 3, announced the name of the seminary in St. Patrick’s Church, Vancouver, where vocation-minded Father Louis Forget was pastor.

Though God alone knows all the hardships of the early years of the seminary, Pope Pius XII sent these words of encouragement to Archbishop Duke twenty-five years later:

“We are aware how arduous this labour is and how many difficulties it presents. But the carrying out of so serious a duty will give you the greatest consolation!”

As early as 1932, on his way to the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Archbishop Duke stopped at Toronto and Kingston to plead with Archbishops McNeil and O’Brien for priests to help at the new seminary. Father Allan Quinlan of Toronto and Fathers J. G. Hanley and S. B. Plunkett of Kingston volunteered to lend a hand. All three served on the faculty for a time and then returned to their dioceses, Father Hanley eventually to become editor of the Canadian Register and a monsignor.

Two deep interests of Archbishop Duke converged to bring the Benedictines to Vancouver: the desire to have a Benedictine monastery in his diocese and his concern for the future of the seminary. In the late 30’s the junior seminary-which included philosophy was having increasingly serious difficulty due to staff shortage. Father C.J. McNeil, whom the archbishop had sent to the Catholic University of America to do graduate work in philosophy in 1932, joined the faculty in 1935, but by 1938 illness forced him to give up teaching. He died the following year. Father John Chisholm joined the faculty in March 1938 but died that September.

Father Chaloner, now Monsignor, rector and confidant of the archbishop, was of the opinion that, unless some community was brought in to staff the seminary, it would surely fail. Along with Monsignor Louis Forget he suggested that the Benedictines of Mount Angel, Oregon, who were in seminary work and with whom the archbishop was already in contact regarding a foundation, be invited to take over the seminary.

As early as 1931 the archbishop had revealed to Father Charles Moser, OSB, one of the Indian missionaries on Vancouver Island, that he would like to have the Benedictines in his diocese. But Bernard Murphy, then abbot of Mt. Angel, thought that such a foundation was impossible. The abbey was heavily in debt, nearly $750,000 owing to a tragic fire which destroyed in one night the entire monastic complex with its schools. The first unit of the monastery and school had just been rebuilt. Father Charles Moser then wrote to the Abbot of Engelberg, Switzerland, who replied that, though he was interested, Engelberg had just accepted a request from the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith to make a foundation in the Cameroons, West Africa, and direct a seminary there.

Benedictines approached, arrive in 1939

Archbishop Duke’s invitation was one of the first matters Abbot Thomas Meier of Mt. Angel took up after his election in 1934. That same year, with four confreres, he visited Grand Forks, B.C., where the archbishop thought a monastic foundation could be made and where religious life might also bring a healing experience to the Doukhobors. This plan did not receive a favourable response. Later other offers were made: the Jesuits had property near the University of British Columbia and the archbishop suggested the Benedictines might begin a college there if the Jesuits did not, or a modest start might be made by taking over the small parish of Chilliwack.

On December 3, 1934, Archbishop Duke with Archbishop Henry O’Leary of Edmonton and Bishop Peter Monahan of Calgary paid a surprise visit to Mount Angel Abbey. They had dinner with the community and met with the monks at recreation. The first Benedictine attempt to make a foundation in Western Canada had actually been in Calgary, where the monks of Ampleforth, England, had made a start twenty years earlier, but it came to a sad end due to differences in educational policy.

The first definite step toward today’s Westminster Abbey was made by Mount Angel in 1938 by the decision to withdraw from the Indian missions on the West Coast of Vancouver Island in favour of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and, thus, to make some personnel available for a new foundation. In September of that same year Archbishop Duke asked Mount Angel Seminary to take his five philosophy students (Joseph Franks, Raymond MacDonald, Colin MacKinnon, James Sowerby and Cyril Town), while five other seminarians (J. Edward Brown, James Carney, Joseph McInerney, Gordon McKinnon and James Masse) who were ready for theology moved on to St. Joseph’s Seminary, Edmonton.

On July 22, 1939, the Archbishop of Vancouver in an official document invited the Benedictines to make a foundation in his diocese with a view to take charge of the Seminary of Christ the King. In a chapter meeting the following week, Mount Angel voted to accept the invitation. The Benedictines were to teach in the seminary the coming year with the assistance of Father Francis A. Clinton as bursar and Father Benjamin Csaki as professor of philosophy. After a year of trial, the Benedictines would be free to decide about the future. There were nineteen students that first year.

Deer Lake, and further growth

Six months later, however, the difficult decision had to be made whether to remain at Ladner-the original site of the seminary-or to move to another location, or return to Mount Angel. Fair Acres, a seventeen-acre estate on Deer Lake — then in New Westminster, now in Burnaby — was chosen. In due time a contract was drawn up between the Abbey of Mount Angel and the Archdiocese of Vancouver.

When the monastery, known as Westminster Priory, became independent in 1948, the archbishop requested that a new contract be made between the priory and the archdiocese to be ratified by the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, as the Congregation for Catholic Education was then called. Among the provisions of the contract were stipulations regarding the appointment of officials and professors, supervision of the course of studies and the setting of fees. The Benedictines were to have the ownership of the property and the archbishop would normally send students to this seminary. In order to secure the stability of the school and of its specially trained faculty, it was stated that the Benedictine community would retain in perpetuity the right to have a major and minor seminary in which both religious and secular students could pursue priesthood studies. There were also provisions for changing or terminating the contract. It was originally to last for twelve years, but even at the end of that time neither party could withdraw from the agreement without the approval of the Holy See.

In 1951 the seminary began to offer the four years of theological studies, making it possible for a student to remain in British Columbia for his full priestly formation.

Permanence at Mission

Already on October 30, 1944, a larger site with a farm was providentially located at Mission, B.C. The move was only accomplished a decade later, in 1954, one year after the election of Prior Eugene Medved as the first abbot. At the time the buildings were far from complete, which fact entailed great sacrifice. Various additions were made over the ensuing years and a wide program of landscaping took place. Finally, in 1979 it was decided to build the long- awaited abbey church, the centre of so much monastic and seminary life. Construction began as a project for the 1500th anniversary of the birth of St. Benedict (480-1980) and it was completed in 1982, when Cardinal Basil Hume (1923-1999) dedicated it.

In conformity with their long academic tradition, the Benedictines applied for civil recognition of their academic program at the college level. Upon the recommendation of the Academic Board for Higher Education in British Columbia, the Minister of Education in 1966 introduced a bill in the B.C. legislature which granted the Seminary of Christ the King authority to confer the Bachelor of Arts Degree as well as degrees in theology.

During the years prior to the II Vatican Council, but especially during the Council severe criticism was made of the role of the priesthood and of the so-called “Council-of-Trent” seminary training. The fall-off in the number of vocations, the high percentage of seminary drop-outs and the defection of priests, not to mention the accelerated costs of maintaining large institutions, opened the way for various radical changes and wide experimentation in various countries of the world. The minor seminary in particular came under heavy fire.

Westminster Abbey, taking all this into consideration and after a number of serious community meetings, decided to keep the minor seminary open for some of the same reasons which moved Archbishop Duke to found it, namely, the limited number of Catholic schools in the province — especially in the rural areas with their scattered populations, the weakness of Catholic family life in the region that is the most secular province in Canada, and the absence in the province of Catholic institutions of higher learning. It was felt that in line with the II Vatican recommendation on minor seminaries the Benedictines could offer young men an appropriate environment to foster and test the early inspirations to the priestly ministry and to the consecrated life.

From the very beginning attention was given to accumulating a valuable library necessary to carry on the work of the seminary. There are now over 55,000 catalogued books of reference supplemented by access to the Fraser Valley Regional Library and that of a nearby university college.

In 1973-74 a large athletic field was constructed with the aid of a Canadian Forces field unit; in 1977 the gymnasium-auditorium was completed.

One cannot omit from this brief history the invaluable service rendered to the seminary by the Grey Nuns of Pembroke, who were in charge of the domestic work during the most difficult early years and during the war with its blackouts and food rationing. Special mention, too, must be made of the Benedictine Sisters of St. Lioba, who replaced the Grey Nuns in 1951 until 1968 when, due to the shortage of vocations, they had to be called back to Germany to take care of their order’s commitments there. Grateful mention should also be given to the dedicated lay women such as Teresa De Covey, Willie Kleyn and Pauline Lanzo, who helped the Sisters.

Reference could also be made to the part the seminary took in negotiations and revision of the Municipal Act, which in 1957 granted exemption from property tax of non-profit educational institutions. This was a welcome change that put British Columbia in line with the rest of North America. More recently, too, the minor seminary, along with other independent schools in B.C. began to receive some grants when the Provincial Government by an historic decision enacted into law the Independent Schools Support Act of 1977.

Archbishop Duke’s interest in the seminary was commonly known. The prayer for vocations to be said after Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was taken up by neighbouring dioceses. Two bursaries for the education of young men at the seminary were established, one by Archbishop Duke a few years before he died and a second by Monsignor D.A. MacLean of Victoria, professor at the Catholic University of America, during the administration of Bishop James Hill.

Let this short account of the seminary’s history end with the proud mention of the five bishops and 225 priests who have been educated in whole or in part at the Seminary of Christ the King and the 60 seminarians and 1420 alumni who are laymen, many of them closely associated with priests and outstandingly dedicated to the work of the Church and their country.