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History of The Athenaeum of Ohio / Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West

Founded in the early 1800's, the seminary division of the Athenaeum of Ohio -- Mount St. Mary's of the West -- ranks as the third oldest Catholic seminary in the United States and the oldest Catholic seminary west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The school was created by Bishop Edward D. Fenwick, the first bishop of Cincinnati, when he established St. Francis Xavier Seminary and the Athenaeum College on May 18, 1829.

1851 St, Mary's

In 1851, the seminary was renamed Mount St. Mary's of the West to avoid confusion with the original school name of St. Francis Xavier Seminary which grew also to encompass a growing Cincinnati-based Jesuit college. The college was destined to become Xavier University.

The founding of the seminary also served to establish an early library in 1833 that today houses an outstanding theological and historical collection. The collection includes one-of-a-kind manuscripts from as early as the 13th century as well as rare Ohio historic works some of which were used as part of the Ohio Memory Project, a State of Ohio Bicentennial effort to preserve Ohio history on-line.

The present-day campus of The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary Seminary includes 76 acres of manicured grounds surrounding an impressive granite stone building constructed in 1929 in the Mount Washington area east of Cincinnati.

Inside, the building contains several rare works of art including six mosaics produced by the Vatican Studios in Rome, circa 1910. The collection of mosaics and other original art, including significant paintings by Juan de Roelas (1558-1625) and Benjamin Joseph Haydon (1786-1846), brings many visitors to the building.

Today the Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West continues its mission to prepare men for the Catholic priesthood and diaconate as well as to educate lay graduate students in two other divisions of the institution - the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program (LPMP) and Special Studies.

The Athenaeum of Ohio is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. It is authorized by the State of Ohio to grant the following degrees: Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theology, Master of Arts in Biblical Studies, Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling, and Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.

Early History

Early Church leaders discovered it was practical to establish both a seminary to train and ordain Catholic priests along with a college to provide higher education to a community. A few priests were required for the seminary as well as a few well-educated professors for the college.

The seminarians had two or three daily theology classes, but could use much of the rest of their day teaching college students whose tuition supported the needs of the seminarians.

In the year Bishop Fenwick founded the seminary, Cincinnati was a boom town. Its population was about 30,000 with more and more settlers arriving daily. Commerce flourished along the Ohio River and Cincinnati was at the center of the economic pulse. Schools, banks, hospitals, theaters and industries sprung up. The public landing was crowded with steamboats.

Understandably, the Diocese of Cincinnati also was experiencing rapid growth and the frame church which housed the bishop's residence and the fledgling seminary in the center city became inadequate to serve the droves of newcomers. Alphaeus White, an early Cincinnati architect, designed new seminary and college buildings which were completed in 1832 on Sycamore Street.

John Baptist Purcell, Fenwick's successor as bishop of Cincinnati, recruited religious orders to provide a more professional teaching staff. In 1840, the Jesuits assumed control of the Athenaeum College and renamed it St. Francis Xavier College - strictly a lay college with no seminary dedicated to the formation of priests.

In 1841, to continue the seminary, the Vincentian priests agreed to operate it. The seminary, now separated from the college, was moved to St. Martin's in Brown County, Ohio some 42 miles east of the city. The agreement with the Vincentians was short-lived because Bishop Purcell insisted on complete control of the seminary.

The loss of the Vincentians resulted in instability for the seminary and its students. Seminarians moved from Brown County, returning to the Jesuit College and then to the attic of the bishop's residence at the newly built Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in downtown Cincinnati.

The Seminary on Price Hill

Bishop Purcell was committed to development of a permanent seminary of excellent reputation, with a new building, learned faculty, and financial support.

Two significant gifts - five acres of land on Price Hill west of downtown Cincinnati and more than $22,000 from two successful businessmen - enabled the bishop to fulfill his dream.

On October 2, 1851 a new seminary building was dedicated, one year after Cincinnati was made a Catholic province encompassing the dioceses of Cleveland, Louisville, Detroit and Vincennes and the states of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan. Creation of the Cincinnati province made its see an archdiocese and its bishop an archbishop.

With the opening of the new Price Hill building, the name of the seminary was changed from St. Francis Xavier Seminary to Mount St. Mary's of the West. The new name was selected in honor of Mount St. Mary's of the East in Emmitsburg, Md., where Bishop Purcell had been rector. Mount St. Mary's of the East, founded in 1808, and St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, Md., founded in 1791, predate The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary's Seminary of the West.

By 1870, the seminary had reached a pinnacle of success with an enrollment of 126 men. The curriculum included a wide range of theological studies with texts in Latin, English and German.

The building was an architectural gem in the center of impressive, landscaped grounds. A catalogue of the library published in 1873 listed 14,168 volumes.

Financial difficulties arose in the 1870s. In 1879, the seminary closed for eight years. When it reopened, the new academic program lacked the vitality of the earlier seminary and change was foreseen. By 1900 Cincinnati was rapidly changing, too.

Inclines lifted streetcars to hills surrounding the Cincinnati basin --Mount Adams to the east and Price Hill to the west. The inclines gave the populace easy access to the surrounding high ground resulting in rapid new development. The Price Hill seminary building became surrounded by new housing and the once serene area hummed with activity.

New Seminary Homes: Mount Washington and Norwood

When the financial crunch ended and the seminary reopened on Price Hill in 1878, there were 17 students, but the institution was poised for growth as Cincinnati's population continued to climb and its economy prospered.

In 1891, enrollment reached 68, and a year later 98. The length of study for the priesthood was lengthened from four to five years and it was the opinion of the archbishop not to reestablish a preparatory college seminary with the graduate school. Instead, in 1890, a separate college seminary - St. Gregory's Seminary - was opened in Mount Washington, east of the center city.

In 1904, the two seminaries moved again.

St. Gregory's Seminary 1890

Archbishop Henry Moeller, over the objections of many priests, decided to transfer the seminary from Price Hill to the Mount Washington site of St. Gregory's preparatory school. In turn, he ordered the preparatory students to move into the city near the cathedral. The archbishop sold the Price Hill building to the Sisters of Good Shepherd for use as a training school for girls, which it remained until 1959. The building was razed in 1962.

Archbishop Moeller had a grand mission as early as 1906 to build a new cathedral, archbishops' residence and seminary. The next year, the archbishop accepted a donation of 16 acres in Norwood, some eight miles north of the center city, for development of his vision.

Construction of the archbishops' residence started in 1908; but construction of the seminary was delayed with groundbreaking not occurring until 1921 with dedication in 1923.

St. Mary's 1923

When the doors first opened in Norwood that year, there were 180 students at the Norwood seminary while the St. Gregory's preparatory seminary was reestablished in Mount Washington. St. Gregory's quickly grew to include a four-year college and a new four-year preparatory high school.

The Athenaeum Of Ohio

With the death of Archbishop Moeller in 1925, Archbishop John Timothy McNicholas was appointed to lead the archdiocese.

The new archbishop saw a need to develop a unified agency to coordinate all educational work in the diocese. This new organization was incorporated under the laws of Ohio as The Athenaeum of Ohio in March, 1928. The incorporation restored the name of the early college and seminary, founded by Bishop Fenwick in 1829.

The Athenaeum of Ohio was chartered to grant degrees for Mount St. Mary's of the West and St. Gregory seminaries, a teachers' college and a graduate school of science.


Within three years of the death of Archbishop McNicholas in 1950, the teachers' college disbanded and the graduate school of science severed ties with The Athenaeum of Ohio. These moves were overseen during a reorganization of The Athenaeum of Ohio under Archbishop Karl J. Alter, successor to Archbishop McNicholas. At the end of reorganization, only the two seminaries remained - Mount St. Mary's of the West and St. Gregory's.

Archbishop Alter's reorganization, however, included formal accreditation for the seminaries. In 1953, The Athenaeum of Ohio was admitted as an associate member of the Ohio College Association and granted full membership in 1957. Also in 1953, application was made for accreditation with the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools which voted in 1959 to accredit The Athenaeum of Ohio as a graduate school granting masters degrees.

St. Gregory's Seminary

With the reestablishment of St. Gregory's Seminary in 1923 and the addition of a four year high school to the established college, a larger building was required. It was needed to replace the existing structure on a large tract of archdiocesan land in Mount Washington, once called Cedar Point.

1928 Construction

A new high school building, which today houses The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St., Mary's Seminary, was built in 1929 at a cost exceeding $1 million. The new three-story, granite stone building was built in the Lombard style Romanesque architecture and included classrooms, laboratories, student dormitories and faculty apartments. By 1931, 263 students were enrolled at St. Gregory's Seminary.

1929 Seminarians

From 1955 to 1963 more than $5 million was funneled into seminary building expansion and reconstruction required after a 1956 fire that gutted the south wing of the existing building.

1956 Fire

Declining Enrollment; Norwood Closes

By the mid-1960s, the seminaries were experiencing declining enrollments.

In 1961 and 1962, the first two years of high school were discontinued and by the time Archbishop Alter retired in 1969, the high school was a year from closing.

1960 Seminarians

Archbishop Alter saw the decline begin and continue. In 1965-66, there were 566 students at the Norwood and Mount Washington seminaries. The number fell to 426 in 1968-69, partly because the junior year of high school was dropped. One year later, when Archbishop Paul F. Leibold succeeded Archbishop Alter, the number tumbled to 356 partly because the senior high school year was discontinued.

The trend continued through the 1970s until, in 1980, St. Gregory's college seminary was closed. Mount St. Mary's of the West in Norwood was returned to Mount Washington with 70 seminarians in 1981. By 1998, only 27 seminarians were enrolled at Mount St. Mary's of the West.

The Present

In the second decade of the 21st Century, The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary's of the West is rekindling a vibrant past as it reflects a changing Church in a new millennium.

Athenaeum in Summer

There are clear indications the seminary's enrollment is rebounding. The number of seminarian suites was expended in 2011 from 46 to 70 and newly appointed Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, building on the work of Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, his predecessor of 26 years, has made it his goal to fill the seminary.

In 2010 the most recent capital campaign for The Athenaeum of Ohio -- Investing in Our Future, Preserving Our Legacy -- succeeded with more than $19 million generated. In 2011, there were 36 seminarians studying for the priesthood including men from other dioceses without seminaries who have found an outstanding priest formation program at Mount St. Mary's of the West.

The decline in seminary enrollment, however, pushed the seminary to broaden its scope. Today it is the theological center of the archdiocese. Many lay men and women are enrolled in the institution's Lay Pastoral Ministry Program (LPMP), created in 1975 as one of the country's first lay ministry programs. It is designed to train lay Catholics in the various ministries of the present-day Catholic Church.

Additionally, The Athenaeum of Ohio/Mount St. Mary's Seminary includes the Catholic deacon formation program and a pastoral counseling program.

Ohio's oldest Catholic seminary stands on the threshold of a new and exciting era. In 2004, The Athenaeum of Ohio-Mount St. Mary's Seminary celebrated its 175th anniversary, just one year after the State of Ohio celebrated its bicentennial year.

At the dawn of 2011, plans are being made to replace the building's aging terra cotta tile roof and 780 windows. "Smart Classrooms" are advancing the institution's technological ability to meet the demands of education in a highly technological world. The Athenaeum Annual Fund which provides restricted money for operating needs has increased steadily and significantly over the past decade.

  1. A History of the Seminaries of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati 1829-1979 by Rev. M. Edmund Hussey.
  2. A History of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati by Rev. M. Edmund Hussey, 1998
  3. Chapel of St. Gregory the Great by Joe Shadle, 1995
  4. Archives of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, file: Papers Concerning Vatican Mosaics, 1955-63
  5. The Eugene H. Maly Memorial Library files. Assembled by Sr. Deborah Harmeling, OSB, head librarian, 2002
  6. Mount St. Mary's of the West: A Gateway to the Priesthood, 1829-1929.
  7. History of Mount St, Mary's of the West by Michael J. Kelly and James M. Kirwin, 1894.
  8. The Catholic Encyclopedia, 2001, Page 1265
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