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Requiem for Saints Cyril and Methodius
America’s ‘Polish Seminary’

By on August 16, 2021

COMMENTARY: Barring an unexpected turn of events, Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary will end its 137 years of serving Polish-American Catholics next June.

The board of regents of the Orchard Lake Schools in Michigan has decided to close Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary at the end of the academic year 2021-22.

Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary is part of a group that once comprised three academic institutions in Orchard Lake, Michigan. The other two institutions were St. Mary’s Preparatory, a Catholic high school, and my now-defunct alma mater, St. Mary’s College, which has been theoretically absorbed into Madonna University as its “Orchard Lake campus,” but from what I hear offers limited programming. The Orchard Lake Schools also included a number of other institutions associated with the College and Seminary that, together, supported what is now known as Orchard Lake’s “Polish Mission.”

The seminary was founded in 1885 in Detroit and had always been known as “the Polish Seminary.” Father Joseph Dąbrowski (who was also responsible for bringing the Felician Sisters to the United States) founded Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary to care for the pastoral needs of the growing Polish diaspora in the United States. Some say there is a document with Pope Leo XIII’s signature somewhere approving the seminary’s establishment that might arguably make it “pontifical” in its founding.

Between 1880 and 1920, estimates of up to 2 million Poles came from the lands of partitioned Poland — then split between the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires — for work in the United States. While Poles had come to America earlier — Poles organized the first strikes in Jamestown in 1619, Tadeusz Kościuszko designed West Point, and Casimir Pulaski was the only foreign senior officer to die for the American Revolution — the emigracja za chlebem (the “emigration for bread”) laid the foundation for the first of two massive emigrations that became the 10 million-strong Polish-American community. (The other was the emigracja polityczna, the “political emigration” of Poles who had served with the Western Allies during World War II and who refused to return to a homeland under communist slavery.)

The “Polish Seminary” was founded in Detroit because it was centrally located for American Polonia (the Polish-American diaspora) — Poles had settled in New England and the Middle Atlantic to the east and Chicago, Wisconsin and Minnesota to the west. They found jobs in the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest.

Detroit became a growing center of Polish-American life: Just 60 years ago, Polish Americans made up more than one-fifth of the Motor City’s 1.6 million people.

The seminary relocated from Detroit to Orchard Lake, six miles southwest of Pontiac, in 1909. A private school, the Michigan Military Academy, was closing, and Father Witold Buhaczkowski seized the opportunity to acquire spacious grounds and buildings in a more pastoral setting.

As time went by, Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary recognized the need for an undergraduate program that not only would feed future clerics to the seminary but prepare an educated class for American Polonia. St. Mary’s College (an all-male school that would become co-ed in the 1970s) and then St. Mary’s High School Preparatory became part of the academic landscape.

Orchard Lake was the center of pastoral care. Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary trained future priests to minister culturally and linguistically in America’s dense network of Polish-American parishes which, at its height, exceeded 1,000 and today — after episcopal consolidation and “renewal” — about 100.

Orchard Lake published Pan z Wami (“The Lord Be With You”), a missalette/hymnal for Polish-American parishes that still continues as an annual publication. Orchard Lake was a center for Polish Catholic culture, especially when Poland’s communist rulers were hostile to that culture. The cultural resources of its Maida Alumni Memorial Library and archives hold books and artifacts of Polish and Polish-American history inaccessible anywhere else.

In the 1970s, the seminary’s enrollment began to decline, in part due to the general fall in vocations numbers throughout the United States, in part arguably due to the downplaying of three schools’ Polish identity and certain theological trends (e.g., the presence of revisionist Father Anthony Kosnik teaching moral theology), and in part due to bishops’ policies about where to send seminarians. As a seminary in but not of the Archdiocese of Detroit, recruiting seminarians was a challenge.

Big dioceses with large Polish-American populations (Chicago, Brooklyn, Newark) had their own seminaries and would not send men to “the Lake.” Under Cardinal John Dearden, students from any Michigan diocese who did not attend his St. John’s Seminary could not be ordained in the Great Lakes State. While one would think there might have been new opportunities under the “Polish Pope,” St. John Paul II, those running Orchard Lake somehow never figured out how to exploit them.

With limited Polish-American students, Orchard Lake came upon a new model in the 1980s to try to stay afloat: it became something of a “priest import” business, bringing seminarians from vocation-rich Poland to the United States to train in the hope of placing them in U.S. dioceses. While this mechanism extended the seminary’s viability, Polish-born seminarians gradually became channeled less to dioceses with Polonian centers and more to priest-starved dioceses looking for any vocations.

But this model is no longer viable, according to the school, which cited “declining enrollment caused by the changing demographics in the United States, more vocational opportunities in Poland, and recent policy changes that do not allow Polish seminarians to transfer between seminaries” in its statement announcing the closure.

Recent sex-abuse allegations made against rector-chancellor Father Mirosław Król — charges he denies — have further served to erode Orchard Lake’s leadership.

St. Mary’s College went out of business in the 1990s due to low enrollments. St. Mary’s Prep has made various adaptations over time to stay afloat.

Barring an unexpected turn of events, Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary will end its 137 years of serving Polish-American Catholics next June. No announcement has yet been made as to use of the facilities, although prime property in Michigan’s Lakes District will no doubt attract speculators.

The loss of the seminary, alongside the decimation of the Polish-American parish network across the United States, is a major blow to an ethnic community that has been a loyal staple of the Catholic Church in the United States — even if that presence was not always appreciated by the bishops. The paradox is that, in an era professing commitment to diversity and inclusivity, an important force for that ethnic pluralism in the Catholic Church in the United States is vanishing.