California is one of those singular areas of the Church universal where the notion of a seminary system predated by ten years the actual establishment of a diocesan government.
As early as the 1830s, the Presidente of the California missions, Fray Narciso Duran, suggested a seminary for the education of young men who felt inclined toward the ecclesiastical state. Six years later, the Franciscan Comisario Prefecto proposed establishing a college "to which all the youth of the Californias may flock, as well as many of the Indians of the various idioms, in order to receive the education and knowledge peculiar to their state,"
In his initial pastoral letter, Bishop Francisco Garcia Diego y Moreno announced to the faithful of the diocese of both Californias that, in compliance with the decrees of the Council of Trent, he would direct his attention to the erection of a seminary as the object of his first episcopal endeavors.
Shortly after arriving in the newly created diocese, the Franciscan prelate opened California's first seminary at Mission Santa Barbara. Located in the rear apartments off the corridors facing the patio, the embryonic institution functioned for about two years until the number of students and lack of facilities necessitated more commodious quarters.
Early in 1844, for the purpose of expansion, the bishop petitioned Governor Manuel Micheltorena for a grant of land adjacent to Mission Santa Ines to be used for the building of a permanent seminary. Complying with this request the governor authorized transfer to the Church of Rancho Canada de los Pinos, a parcel of land eventually amounting to 35,499 acres.
On May 4, Bishop Garcia Diego formally inaugurated the partially completed edifice, placing the state's first college under the patronage of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Although the school was moved in later years to San Isidro, it remained in operation until 1882.
The extreme poverty of the Church, the absence of an educational tradition and the political and social unrest then prevalent, account for the unspectacular accomplishments of the area's pioneer seminary.
That the college functioned for as long as it did can be attributed to its acceptance of students other than those preparing for the priesthood. Despite its humble beginnings and the many hardships facing the seminary, those early years of growth and development were important ones for the history of the Church in California.
Zephyrin Engelhardt, the Franciscan chronicler, regarded the college as representative of "a transition period between the glorious days of old when saintly and industrious friars reaped a harvest of souls and the modem far-flung province that has passed its Second Spring."
In the 1850s, Archbishop Joseph Sadoc Alemany had the seminarians studying for San Francisco moved to Mission Dolores while clerical students from the Southland were either sent abroad or to one or the educational institutions in the eastern part of the nation.
When St. Vincent's College opened at Los Angeles in 1865, Bishop Thaddeus Amat reserved the right to educate seminarians for his diocese in the Vincentian-staffed institution, although there is no evidence that the college ever had a formal seminary program.
Subsequent Southern California prelates used the facilities of San Francisco's seminary system as well as those provided at St. Thomas (Denver), St. John's (Collegeville), Mount St. Mary's (Emmitsburg), St. Mary's (Baltimore), The Catholic University of America (Washington, D.C.) and numerous foreign seminaries.
In 1924, Bishop John J. Cantwell revealed plans for a minor seminary and urged the Southland's faithful to make the realization of such a proposal the object of their annual pre-Pentecost novena. Pointing out that such a preparatory school was an absolute necessity in the diocese, the bishop noted that only the generosity of the Catholic people could bring this dream to fruition.
In January of 1926, Bishop Cantwell issued a pastoral letter concerning the envisioned seminary. He stated that "the soil is adapted to foster the growth of the old Faith, and although the harvest is plentiful, the children of the soil are not forthcoming to meet the demand for laborers."
The prelate observed that the See of Los Angeles-San Diego was no longer an infant diocese dependent on external material assistance. And, since it was financially self-supporting, it should be also spiritually independent.
Studies showed that the dearth of vocations was due, in large measure, to the absence of a local program for clerical recruiting and training, both of which could be alleviated considerably by erection of a minor seminary. On the national level, experience had indicated that aspirants to the priesthood could be encouraged efficiently only in those areas where preparatory schools flourished. In California, as elsewhere, the future efficacy of the Church depended upon establishment of a local institution to train priests.
In the same pastoral letter, the bishop observed: "The time has now arrived when, in obedience to the wishes of the Holy Father, and in duty to ourselves and posterity, it becomes necessary to raise funds for the immediate erection of a seminary." Be went on to state that such an undertaking would admittedly require the laying aside for a time of certain parochial activities but that a concentration of energy on the broader field of diocesan advancement was a worthwhile sacrifice.
The Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles was the focal point for a meeting of the lay and religious leaders of the diocese who gathered to inaugurate plans for a fund drive. Archbishop Edward J. Hanna came from San Francisco to address the largest meeting of Catholics ever held in the Southland.
Edward Laurence Doheny launched the campaign by a generous gift and, as General Chairman of the Junior Seminary Committee, directed letters and personal appeals to prominent Los Angeles civic leaders among whom, he stated, were many "ever ready to assist any cause which brings to our country and our fellow citizens a contribution for betterment."
During the intensive three-month drive, pastors exchanged pulpits and a speaker's bureau provided qualified laymen to address various groups throughout the diocese. The first door-to-door campaign ever conducted in the diocese was, by all standards, a tremendous success.
So enthusiastic was the bishop with the results that he acquired and remodeled temporary quarters on 21st Street, west of Grand Avenue, for students wishing to begin their seminary work in the fall of 1926. Seventy seminarians registered for the term beginning on September 7, in the new institution staffed by the Fathers of the Congregation of the Mission.
Since the new building on Detroit Street was ready for occupancy early in the next year, March 27 was chosen for the formal dedication and inauguration of Los Angeles College. On the occasion, a prominent attorney remarked that, "the opening of the seminary commences a new era of instruction and religious advancement, the importance of which can scarcely be overestimated...
“To start a seminary in vision only, and in less than two years thereafter to produce a site, a great seminary building, furnished and equipped, an ample endowment fund, a school faculty, and 65 students, with everything in perfect functioning order, is a feat probably unparalleled in the history of such enterprises."
At the time of the dedication, Bishop Cantwell, stating that the building of a major seminary could not long be delayed, publicly acknowledged the gift made by Juan Camarillo to the diocese of a hundred acres of land near the town bearing his family name, to be used specifically for a theologate.
It was the donor's intention that the new institution, to be known after his patron saint, would occupy the knoll formerly dividing the two historic Ranches of Calleguas and Las Posas.
Theoretical planning for the new institution, slowed by the economic stress of the depression years, stretched out over the next decade. On Sept. 29, 1936, the Right Reverend John J. Cawley reminded the pastors of the diocese that "one of the obligations of the archbishop is to provide a new senior seminary for the education of young men for the priesthood."
Not long afterward, Archbishop Cantwell explained the reasons why such an institution was necessary and what plans had been formulated for its construction. Noting that the preparatory seminary had occasioned a radical increase in the number of native vocations, the archbishop looked forward to the day when Los Angeles would be "practically self-sustaining in a spiritual and religious way as it is already in things material."
He called attention to the fact that the creation of a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Southern California was an "implied command" to erect those institutions found in the sister-provinces of the nation:
"What better monument to record the creation of the Archbishopric of Los Angeles than the erection of a major seminary — a School of Philosophy and Theology that would bring to completion the work begun when the Junior Seminary was founded?"
Archbishop Cantwell stated that he had proceeded along such lines only after long deliberation and prayer. His decision rested upon the solid principle that "the needs of the diocese as an organic unit cannot be ignored by those who have the spirit of the universal Christ within them." Later, in an address to the Knights of Columbus, the archbishop keynoted the campaign as the greatest work for the permanency of religious life yet attempted in California.
The drive, begun on Feb. 11, 1938, was the most significant work ever undertaken to consolidate the apostolic labors of more than a century and a half of work by the Church in California. Those who gave generously of their time and energy to make the drive successful overlooked no possible means of communication: one group scheduled a series of radio talks; another conducted oratorical contests; the 30,000 school children in parochial and high schools distributed circulars; a force of 800 workers canvassed the 185 parishes of the archdiocese.
Working diligently to increase the number of native California clergy, these volunteers responded to the archbishop's appeal on behalf of the proposed educational institution. Considerable support was also evidenced by Archbishop Cantwell's friends in the non-Catholic community.
By the time the campaign had drawn to a close in March, 70 percent of the goal had been subscribed. On the following May 10, Monsignor John J. Cawley officiated at ground breaking ceremonies at Camarillo, and from that time onwards, weekly reports of the building progress were featured in the archdiocesan newspaper.
When construction was practically finished in the early part of the following year, the archbishop issued an invitation to the people of the archdiocese to participate in cornerstone-laying ceremonies scheduled for the feast of Saint Joseph.
The first scholastic term began on Sept. 12, 1939, when 67 students presented themselves at the practically completed seminary. The formal dedication took place on Oct. 14, 1940, exactly a century after California's first bishop received the fullness of the priesthood in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Fifty members of the hierarchy attended the event presided over by the Most Reverend Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, Apostolic Delegate. The Archbishop of Mexico City, Luis Maria Martinez, celebrated the Pontifical Mass for the occasion.
No major additions were made to the physical plant at Saint John's Seminary during the first 16 years of its existence. Early in 1955, plans were completed for enlarging the enrollment potential by erecting a third wing, together with an adjoining utility building at the eastern terminus of the then existing campus, a program made possible by the Archdiocesan Education Fund.
On Sept. 19, 1956, 39 students occupied Aedes Sancti Thomae for the first time. His Eminence, James Francis Cardinal Mclntyre, dedicated the new structures on Oct. 2. Principal speaker for that occasion was the Very Reverend William P. Barr, the seminary's first rector. With great eloquence he thanked the Catholic populace of Southern California for their "farsighted benevolence."
The new buildings, described by the Ventura County Building mission as "the finest in the district," consisted of a two-story residence wing and a single story unit containing classrooms, a science laboratory, a radio station, a student canteen and recreational facilities.
In order to attain more fully the "highest standard of general education and learning" envisioned by Pope Pius XI and his successors, Archdiocese of Los Angeles was among the first ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the United States to establish the three-unit system of seminary education. The purpose of the overall program was to bring high school, college and postgraduate study together.
Prior to 1961, Saint John's College, a fully accredited institution incorporated under the laws of the State of California, had been operated as two divisions, the lower branch attached to the preparatory seminary at San Fernando, the upper section to the theologate at Camarillo.
In the latter year, plans were announced to amalgamate the two units into a seminary-college occupying a single physical plant on property contiguous with the already existing major seminary.
Offering courses in the liberal arts and empowered to grant academic degrees, Saint John's College began operation as a self-contained school in the fall of 1961.
Francis Cardinal Spellman dedicated the new institution on June 25, 1966, as part of celebrations honoring the Archbishop of Los Angeles on his eightieth birthday. Assisting at the ceremonies were the Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara and numerous prelates from the western part of the nation.
While the first 25 years at Saint John's can be described as brick-and-mortar years, the second quarter century was devoted primarily to internal development. With the seminary's monumental structures firmly in place, the major thrust shifted towards maximizing the spiritual and academic programs that followed in the wake of Vatican Council II.
That this ambitious endeavor was eminently successful is attested to by the commendatory report issued when a team of papal visitors minutely scrutinized the seminary's curriculum and interviewed its faculty and students in 1984.
In its 75 years of service to the Church of Southern California and elsewhere, Saint John's Seminary, with its religious, diocesan and lay-staffed faculty, has sent forth a host of well-trained and pastorally-orientated bishops and priests to jurisdictions all over the western United States.
Msgr. Francis J. Weber was ordained from St. John’s Seminary in 1959. He served for many years as archivist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and now serves as archivist emeritus.