History of St John Vianney Seminary NPC

In his forward to Joy Bain’s history of St John Vianney Seminary, Bishop William Slattery noted that a seminary encapsulates the history of a local church. The story of St John Vianney Seminary NPC, therefore, reflects some of the struggles, weaknesses and successes of the Southern African Church. We trace this back to the formative years of Apartheid in 1948 when three separate seminaries existed in the country: Pavensey, Hammanskraal, and St John Vianney. Today, questions regarding the Church’s decision to give in to the Apartheid regime’s intrigues, a decision that ultimately enfeebled priestly formation and retarded the growth of the Church’s own conscientisation, are still not satisfactorily answered. St John Vianney Seminary, says Bishop Slattery, has travelled a tortuous road.

Before 1922 no priests were trained in South Africa, but with the publication of Pope Benedict XV’s Encyclical Letter Maximum Illud, Apostolic Delegates were tasked to set up seminaries for the training of indigenous clergy. Pope Pius XI also issued Ad Catholicum Sacerdotium to this effect. The task of establishing a seminary in South Africa in accordance with the two papal documents mentioned fell in the hands of Dominican Archbishop Bernard Jordan Gijlswijk, who was the Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1923-1944. After his visitation of the local vicariates and prefectures, Gijlswijk summoned all the local ordinaries and ecclesiastical superiors to Kimberley in 1924 where the issue of the training of local priests was discussed. However, the Marianhill Missionaries already had plans for the building of St Mary’s Seminary at Mariathal while the St Augustine’s seminary had been opened by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1924 in Lesotho. Gijlswijk encouraged these works but stated that he had in mind one seminary for the whole country. When Gijlswijk died in 1944, his successor Martin Lucas SVD began the formation of a consultative body of bishops later to be known as the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference while fostering the idea of a national seminary. Although Cape Town and Port Elizabeth were considered for the building of the seminary, it was Pretoria that won the day. Archbishop Lucas, the Apostolic Delegate, considered Pretoria to be ideal given the fact that the apostolic delegation had been transferred from Bloemfontein to Pretoria and because the site at Waterkloof was suitable. The current site was bought from the Sisters of Nazareth for 4000 British Pounds with Bishops Hurley and O’Leary contributing substantially. The seminary was to fall under the Church Interest Department of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference under Bishop Hurley.

On April 14, 1948 Archbishop Lucas opened St John Vianney Seminary in temporary quarters at Queenstown because of delays in constructing the seminary in Pretoria. The temporary accommodation was donated by Bishop Rosenthal of Queenstown. In May 1948 the seminary began with eight seminarians: Reginald Orsmond, Hugh Kerr, Felim Salomon Anthony Dougherty, Michael Duigan, Patrick McKenna, Patrick Thornton, Reginald George Fletcher and Clarence Lloyd. The seminary would continue at Queenstown until 1950 when the foundation stones were laid in Waterkloof. During the December holidays the seminary was finally relocated to Pretoria with Fr Fergus Barrett OFM continuing as rector. From 1948 until their withdrawal in 1998 the Franciscans were responsible for the formation and education of hundreds of seminarians.

Fr Barrett’s tenure as rector came to an end in 1966 and the Franciscans who ran the seminary appointed Fr Norbert Carroll OFM as the new rector. It was in Fr Carroll’s first year of office that the Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology (BST) was introduced. The storm after Vatican II affected students, priests, and religious worldwide, with mass departures. St John Vianney Seminary was not spared, losing fifteen students in 1966. The Council had called for pastoral training for seminary students and this came into effect at St John Vianney in 1967 after a meeting with representatives from St Peter’s Seminary. Prior to 1971 seminarians couldn’t wear lay dress, couldn’t visit one another’s room, and couldn’t go outside the seminary. These rules were changed in 1971. Students also addressed an open letter to the bishops asking for a multi-racial seminary since St John Vianney Seminary catered for white students only. However, it would take a few more years before the seminary would become multi-racial. Fr Carroll was succeeded by Fr Bernard Frank Doyle OFM as rector in 1972.

Fr Doyle encouraged collaboration between the different race groups at St Peter’s and St John Vianney seminaries. In May 1976 Bishop Stephen Naidoo informed staff and students that there would be only one seminary-St Peter’s at Hammanskraal-and that St John Vianney would have to close. However, with the student uprising in 1976, St John Vianney was spared. St Peter’s closed down during the second semester as a result of the student unrest and six of its senior students we admitted at St John Vianney for the remainder of the year. Unfortunately, these black students had to leave shortly afterwards for fear that their communities would label them as traitors. They addressed a letter to the bishops to this effect. Despite their short stint at St John Vianney, these black students had proved that the notion of a multi-racial seminary was possible. In 1976, under the auspices of Fr Bonaventure Hinwood OFM, the seminary set up a radio studio with equipments donated by the South African Broadcasting Corporation and a folk Mass was broadcast for the first time in May 1976. The idea of a TV studio was approved by the bishops. In 1977 Fr Doyle was succeeded by Fr Myles Russell OFM as rector, a position he held until 1984.

It was during Fr Myles’s reign as rector that the seminary became racially mixed. In total they had nine coloured, one Indian, one Chinese, twenty-two white and two black students. In 1978 twenty-one black students were admitted to the seminary. It was Fr Myles who introduced psychological screening of students to help identify those not suitable for the priesthood. A spiritual year was introduced in 1983 to help develop the spirituality of the seminarians and for the first time students were evaluated yearly. Fr Myles was replaced by Fr William Slattery OFM as rector in 1984.

Fr Slattery’s term of office was marked by intense racial unrest in the country. However, he continued the work of racial integration in the seminary by appointing Fr Simon Ngcobo OFM as dean of discipline who was later replaced in 1988 by Fr William Lovett OFM. In 1984, Desmond Tutu visited the seminary, soon after receiving the Nobel Prize, to talk to students and staff on the role of the priest in post-Apartheid South Africa. A year later students at the seminary marched to the Union Building to demand among many other things the complete dismantling of Apartheid laws. When Fr Slattery fell ill and resigned in 1990, Fr Graham Rose was appointed as acting rector and eventually as rector. Fr Slattery was the last Franciscan rector. The coming of Fr Graham Rose marked the gradual end of the Franciscan involvement in the seminary.

One of the highlights of Fr Rose’s era as rector was the visit of Pope John Paul II to South Africa in which the seminarians were involved in the Mass and ceremonies at Gosforth Park. Fr Rose also continued the renewal of the curriculum and entrenched the three fold phases of priestly formation that had been kick-started by his predecessors. An agreement was reached in 1995, among the SACBC, the Seminary, and Unisa, in which the Seminary became involved in the post-graduate Catholic theological studies undertaken through Unisa. In that same year, the affiliation of St John Vianney Seminary to the Urbaniana University in Rome was renewed. However, though the seminary experienced a chronic shortage of staff this did not significantly derail academic programs. Jesuit priest Fr Michael Lewis established a department for pastoral formation at the seminary in which theology students spent their last academic years in pastoral activities. The post-synodical exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis was published in 1992 dealing with priestly formation. Accordingly, the seminary divided the formation of the priest into four stages: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral. When Fr Rose’s term of office ended in 1997 he was succeeded by Fr. Mlungisi Pius Dlungwane, the first black rector. Nineteen-ninety-eight (1998) marked the celebration of the seminary’s golden jubilee under the direction of the Irish Franciscans. With the departure of the Franciscans who had staffed the seminary since 1948, Fr. Mlungisi had to begin his reign by countering staff shortages. Fr. Nick King SJ took over from Fr. Bonaventure as Dean of Studies with Fr. Mike Lewis as vice-rector. A third Jesuit, Fr. John Baldovin, a renowned liturgist replaced Sr. Madge Karecki. In 1999 Archbishop Lawrence Henry of Cape Town recalled all his students with immediate effect amid alleged student indiscipline. He had wanted full control over his students. It wasn’t long before the Jesuits announced that they, too, would be leaving in 2002. It was becoming clearer that the seminary needed diocesan clergy to run it.

Fr Mlungisi’s epoch as rector was a very difficult one in the post-Franciscan run seminary. He saw a great need for, and concentrated on, spiritual, intellectual, human and pastoral formation. The seminary began issuing a Higher Diploma in Ministerial Skills to emphasise the pastoral dimension of seminary formation. The Higher Diploma was awarded for the first time in 1999 and was later recognised by the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA). The then deputy minister of education, Fr. Smangaliso Mkhatswha, awarded the Higher Diplomas to the first students. In June 2000 it was announced that Fr Mlungisi had been appointed auxiliary bishop of Mariannhill and during the plenary session of the SACBC, Fr Sithembele Sipuka was named as the new rector. With Fr Sithembele completing his doctorate overseas and only available to take up his new post in 2001, Fr Mike Lewis was asked to be acting rector for the second semester of 2000. In 2008, Fr Sithembele was to oversee the long-anticipated unification of both the St Peter’s seminary that had moved to Garsfontein and that taught only philosophy with the St John Vianney Seminary that taught theology. Henceforth, philosophy and theology students of all races were to reside in one seminary. At long last, the vision of Dominican archbishop Bernard Jordan Gijlswijk who was Apostolic Delegate to South Africa from 1923-1944 was fully realised.

Following his appointment as Bishop of the Diocese of Mthatha in February of 2008, Fr Sipuka was succeeded by Fr Enrico Parry who was appointed to the position of President later that year. Fr Enrico and his staff accomplished great things for the seminary including getting the South African Qualification Authority (SAQA) to recognise the Bachelor of Arts (Philosophy), Bachelor of Theology, and the Bachelor of Ministry Degrees that the seminary currently offers. In October 2009, the first Graduation ceremony was held where BA (Phil); BMin and Bth Degrees were conferred. One of the main challenges that Fr Enrico and his staff had to face was the practical implications of the merger. To cater for an enlarged academic institution a new Library was built on the west side of the main building, and the newly built library, named “St Peter’s Library”, was blessed and opened by Bishop Sipuka on 11 April 2011.

Fr Parry left the Seminary at the end of his term as President in mid-2011, and Fr Molewe Machingoane, then the Vice-President, was appointed as President at the end of that year. In addition to consolidating the existing programmes of the Seminary, he is presiding over the expansion of St John Vianney Seminary NPC to cater for the growing numbers entering the Seminary. In May 2013 the SACBC approved the construction of a new Residential Block to accommodate an additional 30 Residential Students. On 9 June 2014, less than a year after construction had commenced, Bishop Dabula Mpako, chairman of the Seminary Commission, blessed and opened the new building, which was named the St. John XXIII Residence.