History of St. Mary’s
History of St. Mary’s
Fr. Jean-Jacques Olier and the Society of St. Sulpice
St. Mary’s history begins with the history of the Society of Saint Sulpice and its founder, Fr. Jean-Jacques Olier. In 1641, Fr. Olier established a seminary outside Paris: a much-needed answer for clergy who were not known for being well prepared for ministry. When Fr. Olier was named pastor of the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris the following year, he moved the seminary to the parish and The Society of the Priests of Saint Sulpice was born.
It did not take long for bishops throughout France to see the good results that came from the Sulpician dedication to priestly formation. Soon Sulpicians were asked to oversee the operations of many seminaries. Though Fr. Olier died in 1657, the Society lived on and prospered—as did its seminaries and model of formation.
New Nation, New Diocese, New Bishop
Over a century later, in the same year as the adoption of the new constitution for the United States of America, the Diocese of Baltimore was created on November 6, 1789. Its territory was vast: everything east of the Mississippi, north to the Canadian border, and south to Florida (then held by Spain). The first bishop in the United States, John Carroll found himself shepherding 30,000 Catholics with only 35 priests.
Sulpicians Respond to Bishop Carroll’s Request
Bishop Carroll knew he would need a seminary devoted to preparing priests for the new nation. He sent a request to the Society of Saint Sulpice in France–then facing their own dangers with the violence of the French Revolution. The Sulpicians sent Fr. François Charles Nagot along with some companions and seminarians to begin the first Roman Catholic seminary in the United States.
Arriving in Baltimore
When Fr. Nagot and his companions arrived in Baltimore, they took possession of Baltimore’s old One-Mile Tavern on the edge of the city. There, on October 3, 1791, they began the first classes with the five seminarians they brought with them from France. Since then, St. Mary’s marks October 3rd as “Founders Day.”
From Building to Campus: 19th Century Development
As the nation grew, so did St. Mary’s. In 1805, St. Mary’s was chartered as a civil university in Maryland.
Through the first half of the 19th century, a campus grew on Paca Street in Baltimore. It was anchored by a chapel designed by Maximilian Godefroy and dedicated on June 16, 1808 by Archbishop John Carroll. The chapel remains to this day as a national landmark.
St. Mary’s Sulpicians Help Elizabeth Ann Seton
Around 1806, Elizabeth Ann Seton met Abbé Louis William Valentine DuBourg when he was preaching in New York. At that time, DuBourg was president of St. Mary’s College, and was interested in establishing a small school for children. With the concurrence of Bishop Carroll, he invited Seton to Baltimore, where her sons were enrolled in the college. She arrived on June 16, 1808 and took up residence at the nearby house while she was briefly living in Baltimore during 1806 to 1809. The home was later named for her and now contains some historical and biographical exhibits on her life and work. In 1809 she moved to the new Sulpician seminary in Emmitsburg, MD and, on July 31, established the Sisters of Charity dedicated to the care of the children of the poor.
First Ecclesiastical Faculty in the United States
In 1822, Pope Pius VII established the seminary the country’s first ecclesiastical (pontifical) faculty with the right to grant degrees in the name of the Holy See. The seminary continues to offer the pontifical STB (Baccalaureate in Sacred Theology) and STL (Licentiate in Sacred Theology) degrees for all qualified students.
Sulpician Fr. James Joubert Helps Mary Elizabeth Lange
Mary Elizabeth Lange was an immigrant to the United States from Haiti. After settling in Baltimore, she saw the need for the education of African American children and opened a school for them in her home. At the same time, Sulpician Father James Joubert was teaching catechism to Haitian children in the Lower Chapel at St. Mary’s Seminary. Seeing their difficulties with reading, he, too, recognized the need for schooling. After meeting Elizabeth Lange and her friend Marie Balas, they established a new school for African American children.
Lange came to feel a call to consecrated life and spoke to Fr. Joubert. He agreed to support her and Balas and persuaded Archbishop James Whitfield to approve the new community. On July 2, 1829 Lange and three other women took first vows in the the Oblate Sisters of Providence which they founded. The order was established with the primary purpose of the Catholic education of girls. It is the first African American religious congregation.
St. Mary’s Constructs a New Seminary Building on Paca Street
Constructed in various stations from 1876 to 1894, a new building was erected on Paca Street. It was designed by E. F. Baldwin a Baltimore architect. The building was razed in 1975 and the property was sold to the City of Baltimore for St. Mary’s Park.
Fr. Michael J. McGivney Graduates
St. Mary’s most famous alumnus is Fr. Michael J. McGivney (now, Blessed Michael McGivney), class of 1877.
Following ordination, Fr. McGivney became an assistant pastor at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven, Connecticut. Fr. McGivney brought a zeal for ministry, an empathy for struggling immigrants, and a desire to aid those most on the edges of society, particularly widows and orphans. In 1882 he founded the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal society to provide aid for those in need. Today, the Knights of Columbus is a worldwide organization, renowned for its service and devotion. Fr. McGivney was beatified by Pope Francis in October 2020.
St. Mary’s Relocates to the Roland Park Neighborhood
In 1929, St. Mary’s Seminary moved to its present location at the corner of Northern Parkway and Roland Avenue in the Roland Park neighborhood in Baltimore. Designed by Maginnis and Walsh of Boston, the seminary’s classic entrance and massive facade are a recognized landmark in the city. The 40 acre campus provides a park-like setting with groves of trees and winding roadways. The building is set back to the west behind a great front lawn.
Inside the main doors stands the marble statue of Mary known as the Sedes Sapientiae, Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, patroness of the Sulpician order. Further on is the Main Chapel, designed in marble and oak, with its Casavant pipe organ and stained glass windows from Paris. It is a majestic, elegant, and quiet place at the very heart and center of St. Mary’s.
Because of the Great Depression, construction of the chapel did not begin until 1941—but it was again delayed after America’s entrance to World War II. Work again resumed in January 1953. The chapel was finally completed a few days before its formal dedication on Alumni Day, November 23, 1954.
Distinguished Alumni and Long-time Professor Fr. Raymond E. Brown, PSS
Sulpician Fr. Raymond E. Brown, renowned biblical scholar, was both a graduate and long-time faculty member.
He joined the Sulpicians in 1955, following the reception of the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) from St. Mary’s. He earned a second doctorate, in Semitic Languages, from Johns Hopkins University in 1958. Following these studies he taught at St. Mary’s until 1971.
Brown became acknowledged as the foremost Catholic scholar of Sacred Scripture. He was appointed to the Pontifical Biblical Commission in 1972 and again in 1996. The Knott Library at St. Mary’s houses the collected papers of Fr. Brown and features an elegant reading room named in his honor.
St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute (EI) Opens in 1968
St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute (EI) was founded in 1968 as part of St. Mary’s Seminary & University, in cooperation with ecumenical leaders. Encouraged by the more ecumenical spirit of Vatican II, St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute invites people of all denominations into the journey of theological study. Its ethos is one of seeking wisdom, nourishing faith, and engaging community.
St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute offers accredited graduate theological education that is intellectually rigorous, personally enriching, and professionally empowering. Students in the diverse learning community pursue two master’s degrees, several graduate certificates, introductory explorations, and a post-master’s Certificate of Advanced Studies (CAS). St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute also offers master’s level coursework leading to a Master of Divinity through Lancaster Theological Seminary.
Pope John Paul II Visits St. Mary’s
In 1995, St. Pope John Paul II visited the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Before departing the United States, he made a short stop at St. Mary’s. At the seminary, he prayed in St. Mary’s chapel (now marked with a small plaque in the pew where he knelt) and blessed the cornerstone for the new Center for Continuing Formation then being built.
The great lawn in front of the seminary served as a landing pad for the helicopter which carried the Holy Father to his plane at the airport.
The Center for Continuing Formation Opens
In 1996, St. Mary’s Center for Continuing Formation opens to serve bishops, priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers in ongoing human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral formation.
St. Mary’s Center for Continuing Formation is a full-service conference/retreat center capable of hosting a variety of functions. It contains meeting rooms of various sizes as well as 30 spacious guest rooms.
Renovation of Living Spaces Is Completed
In 2018, St. Mary’s took up a unique challenge: to bring a 1929 dormitory-style seminary into the 21st-Century with comfortable (but not luxurious) adult living spaces. The solution was a multi-million dollar, 3-year renovation of the community’s living spaces completed in 2021.
Hundreds of tiny bedrooms, communal bathrooms and showers, and limited space for small gatherings, meals, and exercise were transformed into 100 small suites, lounges, and a modern fitness center. Each small suite contained a private bathroom and shower along with enough space for a bed and dresser, a study area, and a comfortable chair.