When Alexander Wiseman takes a walk, some people stare.
The 24-year-old seminarian doesn’t mind. It’s all in the name of faith. Besides, it’s not every day a man is spotted wearing a “black dress” as some call it – or in reality, a cassock.
Wiseman is a third-year seminarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona.
He gave up his life in California, family in Idaho and college degree to take on a world of celibacy and silence – or not talking when you don’t need to.
“Life is about more than just yourself,” Wiseman said. “I found that out early on.”
St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary is hidden behind a cluster of trees on Stockton Hill about a mile outside of Winona, Minn. It is there that about 80 young men are studying to become priests. The men will end up teaching in seminaries and churches in more than 60 countries across the globe.
The Society of St. Pius X rejects the teachings of the Catholic Church as expressed in the Second Vatican Council, an international gathering of Catholic bishops from 1962-65 that modernized church practices and teachings. They believe they are the true remnant and that the rest of the Catholics in the world are being led astray.
The number of seminarians at St. Thomas Aquinas have greatly increased since Fr. Thomas Asher, vice rector, came to the school in 1999. Then, the average number of seminarians was 35. Now it’s about 100.
Tracking the reason behind the spike in enrolled seminarians is impossible, Asher said.
“There’s no rhyme or reason for it,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s a call from God. We don’t choose to be priests.”
Wiseman didn’t want to be a priest growing up. In fact, he wasn’t even Catholic until the age of 11, when his dad decided to get more involved in church life. Wiseman never had that “ah-ha!” moment when he knew priesthood was for him.
“It was more gradual,” he said. “In very few cases is it like a flash.”
Wiseman, born in New York City, went to St. Thomas Aquinas College in California, where he eventually got his liberal arts degree. In his sophomore year at the college, the idea of joining the priesthood began. The thought would linger in Wiseman's mind off and on. Soon, it started coming more frequent and strong. He knew he had to answer God’s call.
So he went to a priest at the college, who said he should listen to his heart and join the seminary. So after college, he did.
It wasn’t a long process of searching for the right seminary. He knew he wanted to be in the Society of St. Pius, and this cold Minnesota seminary is the only one in the United States.
“It kind of picks you,” he said, grasping the wooden rosary he keeps in his pocket.
Wiseman’s parents were thrilled with his choice. He wasn’t the first family member to go into this life. His sister had been in a French convent for more than a year.
Prayer is the key factor in Wiseman’s everyday practices, just like the others. Everyone wakes up at 6 a.m., and have “prime” prayer at 6:30. “Mental” prayer is next until 7:10 a.m. Then, Mass, which is done by 8 a.m. Afterward, seminarians go to three 50 minute classes. At 12:15 p.m., it is time for “sext,” or the mid-day prayer. There is study time, coffee break and recreation time before the rosary at 6 p.m. and night prayer called “compline” at 8:45 p.m. Everyone must then be in bed by 10 p.m.
For the average person, the seminary life may seem like a lot of prayer – and it is. But that’s what the future priests are there for.
“These men are called to be ministers of God,” Asher said. “If we love God, naturally we are going to want to speak to him. It’s no different than a young man calling his girlfriend. It’s like falling in love.”
That type of relationship with God takes time and silence. That is why the grounds of the seminary are silent unless there is a specified time to talk or an emergency. When not in class, the men spend their time in the chapel praying, reading the scripture or in a deacon’s case, practicing the mass.
There is a spirit there – one that enters into every willing visitor and fills every seminarian. It is a spirit of peace, of certainty. The seminarians have found their calling in life and need nothing else. Outsiders can feel it; some even want it, too.
It’s why Deacon Todd Anderson, 42, picked this seminary. The other seminaries of the Catholic Church are heading in the wrong path with their traditions and teachings – they’ve committed suicide that way, he said.
Anderson, a sixth year seminarian, didn’t always believe as he does now. He wasn’t even Catholic until his late 30s. He was studying the traditional Catholic religion for his PhD, joined the religion, and soon after, realized his calling into the priesthood. In June, Anderson will be ordained a priest.
“Priesthood is the greatest dynasty on Earth,” he said. “It’s greater than kings.”
Even if a man thinks God is calling him to the life of priesthood, he may not be right, Wiseman said. That’s why seminarians listen to their priest adviser at the seminary. The adviser can decide if they don’t have a vocation to be there, and can ask them to leave.
“This vocation has two sides,” Wiseman said. “You bring to it your good intentions, and the church has to decide if they want you for this.”
That decision is made within the first couple of years, so Wiseman was already told he is meant to be there.
The seminary is a seven year program. With each year comes a new achievement. The first year, seminarians must wear a suit until after the first semester, and then he receives a cassock.
The second year, you receive a “tonsure,” or a small cross cut into the hair on top of the head. Tonsures vary in each seminary. Some can be round.
The third year – Wiseman’s year – students start receiving “Orders of the Church,” giving them more power in the mass. Here, they can read out loud at ceremonies.
For the fourth year, a few more Orders of the Church give them power to cast out demons and carry candles in ceremonies.
The next year is a very big year, Wiseman said. Seminarians become subdeacons and implement a vow of chastity.
In the final year, they are initiated into the priesthood.
Some outsiders will never understand why someone would give up their life and freedom to live one of service. Anderson disagrees that it is a sacrifice.
“You’re not so much giving everything up,” he said with a slight Texan accent. “You gain more than you give up.”
Besides, life on the seminary isn’t that different than the outside world. If it weren’t for the cross-shaped building, Gregorian chant and men in cassocks, newcomers wouldn’t know they were on holy land.
The long gravel road leads to basketball, tennis and soccer courts. For about two hours a day, men toss a football in the driveway and play with Gypsy, the German Shepherd who is all too spoiled.
But when it isn’t recreation time, it’s quiet. No one talks unless they must. The daily and weekly chores are required. Each seminarian reads the scripture at least 30 minutes a day.
“It aids the soul,” Wiseman said, his light white skin reflecting the sun as he peacefully walked the grounds.
Most of the seminarians walk during recreation. The gravel path loops around the building and in front of two guest houses that families can stay in when visiting. Gypsy usually runs between the seminarians, often not stopping long enough to be petted. Other seminarians play spades or board games in the Recreation Room – a dark maroon-painted room filled with antique chairs.
Most of the furniture is donated by community members or past seminarians. Some even donate their artistic hand. The small chapel on the second floor of the building holds several statues and ceiling fixtures carved and painted by past seminarians. Some of the current seminarians go there to pray during the day. The humble room holds just a few at a time. Small windows let in a few rays of sun onto the dark brown pews.
Downstairs is the large chapel. That’s where community members can attend mass every Sunday. A giant crucifix towers over the silent alter over seminarians who take a break in their day to pray in the pews.
Several stained glass windows garnish the walls. Each has a saint on it. Wiseman knows most saints by what they are holding or their body language. It’s just something you pick up, he said.
Every aspect of a seminarian’s life can be torn apart by someone not in that lifestyle – and often is. Their complete submission to a higher power; their silence and spirit; even their religion can be affected. But that doesn’t bother Wiseman. His eyes are set on the end: An eternal life with God.
“Some people don’t have that one thing in life they work for,” he said. “I do.”