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Beleaguered Mo. Seminary Closes

May 18, 2002

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ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Teen-ager Thomas Rehagen told his dad last year that he was exploring becoming a priest and thought he found the perfect place to be groomed for the job.

It was a northeast Missouri seminary for high school-aged boys that his father attended 25 years ago. Thomas ``surely had plans to graduate from that school,″ Mark Rehagen said. ``He had every intention of going back.″

But the 15-year-old’s plans weren’t to be.

On Saturday, a final Mass and graduation ceremony were planned at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Hannibal as it ends its 45-year run, buckling to financial troubles, enrollment declines and recruiting hamstrung by sexual-abuse allegations against former rector Anthony O’Connell.

``As a graduate, I always hoped it would be maintained and be made available for other students,″ said Mark Rehagen, a 1977 graduate of the seminary that has been one of just three seminary boarding schools in the United States for teen-age boys.

Now, Rehagen says, ``my son’s feeling is one of disappointment as well. He doesn’t understand why it has to close; I guess it’s how a teen-ager might react.″

Bishop John Gaydos, head of the Jefferson City Diocese that runs the seminary about 100 miles north of St. Louis, announced the closure last month, blaming ``insurmountable″ financial difficulties and low enrollment. The sexual misconduct allegations against O’Connell, long gone from St. Thomas, played a role, Gaydos said.

``With these allegations, it’s impossible in the short-term to do any recruiting for the place,″ Gaydos said.

For decades, the seminary quietly went about its business from a hilltop overlooking the Missouri River town where Mark Twain grew up.

But it was stung in March by fallout over published revelations that O’Connell _ the rector for nearly two decades before leaving in 1988 for a bishop’s job in Knoxville, Tenn. _ sexually abused a student at the seminary in the 1970s.

In resigning March 8 as bishop in Palm Beach, Fla., O’Connell admitted wrongdoing. He became the highest-ranking clergyman brought down in a wave of allegations touched off by the sex scandal that started in Boston.

Since then, three lawsuits have been filed by other men alleging abuse by O’Connell at the seminary from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. One suit names the Vatican among defendants and accuses the Roman Catholic Church of racketeering in a conspiracy to keep abuse allegations secret.

Even before the abuse allegations became public, the seminary was struggling. When Gaydos arrived in 1997, the seminary had 33 students, nearly one-third of the 94 students who went there at its peak in 1963.

Of the 115 current priests in the Jefferson City Diocese, about half attended St. Thomas, Gaydos said. But in the past two years, only one graduate has gone on to a college seminary, and one of the 27 graduates this year plans to do so.

But given years of enrollment slides, the seminary was on borrowed time well before the revelations about O’Connell, Jefferson City Diocese spokesman Mark Saucier said. The fallout over O’Connell, he said, ``moved the inevitable up closer and made it now instead of later.″

``There was little hope of recruitment to extend what was needed to maintain the place,″ Saucier said. ``We would have needed to increase enrollment by 100 percent in the best of circumstances. When you look at the continual enrollment decline, that wasn’t likely to happen.″

``It’s certainly sad that the closure came under the shadow of everything that took place in recent months,″ he said.

After the closing was announced, several parents called to urge the diocese to reconsider. When the reasons were explained, Saucier said, ``they weren’t happy about it, but they accepted the decision.″

Twenty-one people will lose their jobs, including nine faculty members, six of them priests.

St. Thomas’ campus includes a main building with an attached chapel, a gymnasium and a ballfield. The property’s future remains unclear.

``The primary focus has been on completing the school year, and helping parents and students accept the closing and make plans for the future,″ Saucier said.

For Thomas Rehagen, the future includes being brought back to Jefferson City, where he will join his twin brother at a Catholic high school this fall, his father said.

Mark Rehagen planned on attending Saturday’s Mass at St. Thomas _ and say his own farewell.

``I think about my experience there quite often,″ he said, ``and how I definitely would do it again.″


On the Net:

St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, http://members.sockets.net/(tilde)stasem

Diocese of Jefferson City, http://www.diojeffcity.org

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