Meet the Seminarians
Meet the Seminarians

Meet the Seminarians

a My Dunrovin Story by Mary Meeds

We felt doomed. Bridget fielded one phone call after another in March 2020, canceling all groups at Dunrovin Retreat Center for the Spring. Soon the summer cancellations began. Dunrovin sat empty. No prospects loomed on the horizon. Would we be another coronavirus casualty?

This is the rest of the story.

Laid in gold brocade cloth and ornamented with fragrant lilies and yellow daisies, the Dunrovin altar shone gloriously on the Easter Vigil of April 11, 2020. St. John Vianney College Seminary students labored to decorate the chapel for each part of the liturgical holy days, as they wholly partook in the events of Jesus’ Last Supper, death, and resurrection. As far as I know, the Triduum has never before been liturgically celebrated at Dunrovin.

But how did Dunrovin move from a place of doom to the peak of the Easter liturgical celebration?

“It was a win-win,” says my husband, Jerome Meeds, Executive Director of Dunrovin. “We went from canceled weekends – the emptiness was sad because we are built for retreats where people encounter Christ and enjoy the beauty of this place – to God’s promise in the words ‘Trust Me.’ The seminarians were God’s provision for Dunrovin in a very bleak time.”

In mid-March, shortly after Minnesota was tipped upside down by the advancing COVID-19 contagion, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis contacted Jerome to inquire about the possibility of SJV seminarians staying at Dunrovin to continue their studies and, more importantly, to maintain their communal life by living together as a group. Due to the viral pandemic, the SJV College Seminary closed. Jerome commends the courage and perseverance of Fr. David Blume in pulling strings to send the seminarians to Dunrovin. Jerome spoke with me and the rest of the Dunrovin staff about the feasibility of creating a clean, distanced space for the guys. Could we be flexible enough to meet their needs?

As a staff, we grappled with the realization of new tasks and a change in the way we do things. To be successful in offering the seminarians a ‘cloistered’ life, the staff separated into those who were not allowed to enter the Retreat Center – including most of the staff, with some choosing to work off-site, at home – and those allowed to serve the seminarians by living in the cloister with them. Originally designated as a 32-day stay, my family and the Dunrovin staff stayed true to this separation for the seminarians’ stay of almost 60 days. The seminarians were not allowed to come and go. The Meeds’ family made the same commitment.

For nine graduating seniors, the time at Dunrovin would be their final SJV days. When Jerome welcomed all thirteen seminarians and two priests (spiritual directors Fr. Jonathan Kelly and Fr. Joseph Kuharski) to Dunrovin for the official start of the cloister on March 26th, he prophesied, “This will be a special time for you. It will be extraordinary.”  How could it be anything but extraordinary when the men who came are themselves quite extraordinary? We got a peek into their strength and vigor one week after the men arrived when Jerome heard a splash in the pond. He watched incredulously as two seminarians swam from end to end through the arctic water. Only a week prior, winter ice covered the pond. However, things much more incredulous than the frigid Spring Plunge were brewing at Dunrovin.

  • “This exceeded my expectations. I was in Rome this semester and coming home was hard, but I have been saying that the only thing better than Rome was the cloister 2020 at Dunrovin.” (Zac)
  • “My time at Dunrovin has been very beneficial for my health, stress, and prayer life. I have come to a deeper knowledge of my brothers.” (Joseph)

At first, I did not want to join the seminarians; I did not want to be the intruder in Man’s World. While saying ‘goodbye’ in mid-March to my friends in the outside world, I declared that Dunrovin was the seminarians’ space. I did not belong there. In particular, I felt shy about my presence in the chapel with these young men. At a time when our churches were closed, the seminarians celebrated the sacraments daily. Following a routine begun at the seminary on the St. Thomas campus, they began each day with a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration followed with celebration of the Mass. How could I refuse to join?

Hesitantly, I cooked a meal or two for the guys. One day I noticed a small banner that had been tacked on the wall above a door: So the seminarian, so the priest. Hmmm? I wondered what these words meant.

  • “Good brotherhood and prayer [in the cloister] have created a deeper desire for priesthood!” (Ryan)

The guys and I grew accustomed to seeing each other around the Center. I often did little chores or communicated with non-cloistered staff members while talking through a window. One morning I ventured to the back of the chapel, to my chair, according to the rules designed to keep the Retreat Center coronavirus-free. Adoration was peaceful.  Soon afterward, I attended Mass. And so, my observational journey with the seminarians truly began. Something far more valuable than rental fees was happening at Dunrovin during these weeks. Our future priests were in training.

They came to the chapel in frocks. Surplices, I believe, is the correct title. I was surprised. These pond-swimming, football-playing, bonfire pyromaniacs scrubbed up quite well. The young men processed solemnly into the chapel, dressed in the white garments of seminarians. They were already taking on a sacred identity.

How is a man formed as a Catholic priest? Bring him to the altar. There he prepares the altar for the celebrant. He serves. Reads. Sings. Incenses. Learns. He is always watching the priest. I turned the phrase around: So the priest, so the seminarian.

It touched my heart to witness the seminarians as they practiced elements of the Mass. Vocal or quiet, studious or athletic, freshman or senior, all came to the altar sobered and serious. Deep voices chanted in Latin song, worshipping Jesus Christ. While the world was fasting, we were feasting. I wondered, should I feel guilty?

  • “This time has helped me to look at the world…of the laity…by having daily Mass while the majority of the Catholic population cannot. This has been heartbreaking, as I wish I was able to deliver the sacrament to them, but I can only lift them up in prayer.” (Jack)

It was a gift to be at Mass with the men and share their sacred space. Day by day, it seemed Fr. Kelly and Fr. Kuharski let their guard down with the guys. Each became less of The Boss and more of The Father, walking alongside their spiritual sons. The priests offered rich homilies, sharing their hearts as they shaped the seminarians. I contemplated, so the seminarian, so the priest. As these young men are formed now, so they act later as priests. It began to make sense.

Remembering the world’s immersion in the incomprehensible consequences of the viral pandemic, Fr. Kuharski urged us toward hope during an Easter week homily. “If you take one page from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and judge the entire volume by it, you may, out of context, decide that this story is not good, true, or beautiful. God sees the entire story. God knows the ending.”  At the altar, we let go of our limited vision and found supreme reminders of hope. I was blessed to watch my husband grow in hope through God’s care. While the world was fasting from the Eucharist, Jerome was feasting. He has not been able to attend daily Mass for years. Sometimes God’s love surprises us.

Not all was somber and ceremonious. Following morning Adoration and Mass, the men ate breakfast, performed light chores, and studied. They also played. They laughed. They bantered. Joe and Jack became Hollywood directors when they created a dystopian film about the quarantine. Do not expect a happily-ever-after ending! After a student-leader-turned-tyrannical dictator trapped everyone at Dunrovin for a year, the men plotted a daring escape. The film was clever, creative, and darkly comical.

At the end of seven weeks, the seminarians told me their favorite Dunrovin memories:

  • “Watching the short film we made together”
  • “Sharing meals”
  • “Spending the afternoon on an island”
  • “The giant 20-foot bonfire”
  • “Running a virtual half-marathon”
  • “Playing Mafia together on Saturday night”
  • “Burying Randy in the sand”
  • “Spending so much time with our priests! They are so funny and I got to see them on more of a human level.”
  •  “Celebrating the Easter Triduum together as a seminary community, which has never happened before.”

My favorite memory of the seminarians occurred on the first Sunday of May. As I quietly sat waiting for Mass to begin, Fr. Kelly asked me if I would crown Mary after the homily. In 59 years, I have never been asked to crown Mary. Of course I would! The guys had hauled in a statue of Mary and placed her near the altar. Kneeling between Fr. Kelly and Frankie during the Marian consecration prayers, I giggled when I noticed how dirty our outdoor statue looked. Then a maternal love welled up in my heart for these young, eager, sincere men. I offered them all to our Blessed Mother at that moment. Finally, Frankie handed me a tiny hand-woven wreathe of greenery, crafted an hour earlier from fresh Springtime grasses.

‘Turn it over,” whispered Joe nearby. “It is upside down.”

Turning the delicate wreathe over, I gasped to see dainty violets interwoven through the greenery. So sweet, these young men loving Mother Mary. She loves her sons. I wiped away a few tears.

A juxtaposition exists within these priestly men. The quiet of adoration. Of pondering. Of prayer. The activity of serving. Of preaching. Of relating. All unite to form the priest.  I wonder about the men’s futures. I wonder if memories of these weeks at Dunrovin will fuel them for sacrifice. Recently our Archdiocesan priests offered drive-thru confessions, parking lot Communion services, funeral consolation for a solitary bereaved family member. What will God ask of these seminarians?  

Quietly waiting on the Lord, these men seek His plan for their lives. So, we return to the altar to listen for the voice of Jesus. The altar – a place set apart. A place of sacrifice where God’s love is made manifest. A place to gather and celebrate.

Mary Meeds moved to Dunrovin Christian Brothers Retreat Center in 1999, when her husband, Jerome, accepted the Director’s position. They raised their four children at Dunrovin, sharing relationship and ministry with the De la Salle Christian Brothers.