St. John’s women: ‘They are very much part of our seminary’
Angelus News Sept. 11, 2014
More than a few good women have influenced life at St. John’s Seminary over its 75 years. From women’s initial roles as housekeepers and office staff, to their inclusion as faculty in the late ’60s, to admittance of laywomen (and laymen) in the 2000s as graduate students alongside seminarians, women have made a difference both on and off the campus.
“Women — not just as students, staff and faculty — but in leadership positions here really mirror in some ways what is going on in the parish churches,” said Msgr. Marc Trudeau, new rector and 19991 ordinand from St. John’s. “Our mission here is to produce parish priests, and if we do that without the input of women, then we’re really lacking.
“What we miss seeing here in the seminary is that we have, literally, hundreds of women leaders in the parish who have a very profound effect on these men in their home parishes and especially in their internship parishes. Though the presence of women here at the seminary may be small, when the seminarians go out in the parish, the majority of the leadership that they’re involved in is with women. They are very much part of our seminary because they are the formators of these guys in their parishes.”
Walking them through their path
Jackie Rotter, director of finance and the longest continuously serving staff member since she started working part-time in the accounting office at St. John’s in 1982, remembers back to her early days at the seminary when students were mostly Caucasian or Hispanic and the majority of the staff were either priests or laymen.
“Over the years, I grew with the place,” said Rotter. “It was actually quite different when I first came here because the students very rarely came in (to the business office).” The rector at the time told her it was because the students didn’t want to bother the staff, but Rotter replied that intermingling between staff and seminarians would be good as “we’re the kind of people they’re going to deal with in the parishes.”
“After a while, it was more interactive with the students,” recounted Rotter. “I think that made a big difference for me, because as much as I love my job doing the finances, the biggest part for me was the interacting with the seminarians and feeling like I was part of walking them through their path to the ministry of being a priest. Over the years, they would come to me for all kinds of things, so it was really nice.”
The thing that’s interesting now, she added, is that many of the seminarians she knew are back in teaching positions as priests. “Surprisingly enough,” she said, “most of them are pretty much the same as they were as seminarians. They’re older, they are more mature, but they’re basically the same people I knew many years ago. It’s been a big part of my life; I enjoy being here and working with the rest of the people.”
Dr. Aurora Mordey, former director of the language and cultural studies program who retired in July after 30 years at St. John’s, saw the seminary grow from being pre-dominantly “Anglo/Hispanic” to the “globalized, multicultural” place it is today, with seminarians from diverse ethnic backgrounds and nationalities.
Mordey laughs remembering the difficulties “in the days before email” when setting up the Spanish-language immersion program for seminarians to study in Spanish-speaking countries, such as Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Guatemala. A legend among the many priests who took her morning Spanish classes at the seminary over the decades, the Argentine native said she always felt welcomed at St. John’s.
‘A good role model’
“The mere presence of a happily married woman with children, and now grandchildren, was a good role model for the seminarians to know that there was not a conflict — women can work with a family,” said Mordey.
She, herself, was impressed with the example of the late Sister of St. Louis Bernadette Murphy, who was the director of pastoral field education at St. John’s and also organized the seminary for its WASC Evaluations. “She got us to the top,” commented Mordey.
Dr. Ronda Chervin, professor of philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut, juggled teaching one course a week at St. John’s in 1986 while a full professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University. She left her LMU position a year later to teach full-time at the seminary because she “loved so much teaching the seminarians.”
“I sometimes joked that decades earlier no one would have conceived of a woman professor at a seminary, said Chervin, who taught philosophy at St. John’s until 1994. “I loved the spiritually motherly role of being a professor at the seminary, affirming the students, cheering them on, and going to their ordinations.”
A year before Chervin left, Dominican Sister of San Jose Cecilia Canales, currently archdiocesan vicar for women religious, was hired to be part of the spiritual formation team in 1993, the first female ever to minister on the team that planned all the spiritual formation activities for St. John’s. She also taught a course with Sister of Notre Dame Regina Robbins, then-director of pastoral field education.
One of the things she, Sister Robbins and Vincentian Father Richard Benson (who started the same year) realized was that “the seminarian evaluation process (which dealt with the “external forum”) needed some strengthening,” said Sister Canales.
Up to that time, any recommendations given to seminarians, including psychological tests they took when entering the seminary, were handled within the spiritual director relationship, which was “internal forum” and confidential. To improve the process, the faculty approved changes suggested by Sisters Canales and Robbins and Father Benson to move recommendations into the external forum and train formators to follow up on these recommendations and track them.
“My responsibility was to help provide that training or to find people who could do the training and the tracking,” said Sister Canales. “We formalized and professionalized the evaluation process quite a bit.”
It was, she added, a “challenging” time creating that change of culture at the seminary.
“All of the faculty really worked very hard on that. It required a lot more time on their part than they had ever had to give to it before, but I think people started seeing the results of it, and that just increased their commitment to the change. It helped to have clear criteria and to be able to help the seminarians in the external forum.”
Importance of a feminine presence
According to Sister Canales, seminary officials saw the importance of having a feminine presence and recognized the need to have more women there in positions of influence. “I think they were always open to women — the challenge was to attract them,” said Sister Canales.
During her first two years at St. John’s, she was the only woman in residence. “That was a very interesting experience — me and 150 men,” said Sister Canales. She would stay there during the weekdays — at first in an office building suite and later in the “Sisters’ House” on the property — and return home to the convent on the weekend.
When Holy Child of Jesus Sister Sheila McNiff was hired as director of psychological services a couple of years after Sister Canales’ arrival, the two lived together at the Sisters’ House until they left St. John’s in 1999 when they were assigned to other ministries by their communities.
“It was really a transformative experience for me to be there and to be given that kind of responsibility and to be able to impact seminary formation along with the faculty,” said Sister Canales. “We did it together. It was a real privilege to be able to minister that way. I’m very grateful for the experience.”
Sister Robbins spent 18 years in seminary ministry, including formation work and teaching in Gardena at Juan Diego House for college-aged seminarians from 2009-2013.
"Sometimes,” she said, “I felt like the seminarians just liked to talk to a woman; I could say hard things to them and they wouldn't be offended. The best part of my job was helping these wonderful seminarians come to understand the beauty and power of their priestly vocation, and, at the same time, help them to discern honestly whether this call was for them."
‘Mary in the upper room’
Holy Faith Sister Mary Glennon, assistant director of the spiritual formation program at St. John's since 2001, told The Tidings she cherishes "the privilege of walking the seven-year journey of transformation with each man."
"We have many, many good women here, but to actually be a woman religious here brings a different element, because I can be with them in prayer," said Sister Glennon, who prays the Office of Readings at 6:40 a.m. along with a small group that gathers in her office before all head out together to the 7 a.m. morning prayer followed by breakfast, with classes starting at 8 a.m.
"To come up here and work with people like Father Jim Clarke (director of spiritual formation) and all the wonderful professors we have here, it's just such a luxury, a spiritual haven," said Sister Glennon, who lives in the Sisters’ House. "This is a very holy place — 75 years of people praying."
"Feminine energy brings compassion," she notes. "We are here to support these men. There's a lot of compassion in the work we do."
She treasures the image of “Mary in the Upper Room,” a nickname given to her by grateful seminarians.
"I was so thrilled with that. I just thought 'Mary in the Upper Room' says it all, because they are like the apostles waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit in ordination, and I feel very, very privileged to be in that place with them."
Sister of Notre Dame Mary Leanne Hubbard, director of pastoral formation and field education who earned her master's in theology at St. John's, said that, “as a woman, I feel very validated by the men here, by my colleagues and by the students. I feel as though my voice is important, that I have an important contribution to make."
"It's surprising how comfortable I feel at St. John's," said Katie Tassinari, a St. John's student in the pastoral ministry master's program and San Gabriel Regional coordinator for the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education. Even though she is often the only woman in most of her classes, Tassinari said the seminarians and faculty "work hard" to make her feel comfortable.
"I feel privileged to have the opportunity to journey with these men of faith," said Tassinari. "Being up there has renewed my hope for the church for the seminarians being trained to be our priests."