Old St. Mary’s Seminary, A. A. Bodine photograph.

The year 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the closing of St. Mary’s Seminary on Paca Street. The Sulpician Province recognized this anniversary with a special prayer service of remembrance on October 16, 2019, during the alumni celebrations at St. Mary’s Seminary & University. Fr. Martin Burnham, PSS, as chaplain of the Paca Street chapel, presided; Fr. Daniel Moore, PSS, as First Consultor, welcomed everyone in the name of the Provincial, Fr. John Kemper, PSS, who was visiting the Sulpician African Mission; Sr.  Suzanne Delaney, IHM, and Sr. Marcia Hall, OSP, representing the two communities of religious women who had their beginnings at Paca Street, shared in leading prayers. Reflections of their experience of Paca Street were given by Mr. Fritz Gollery (1959), Fr. Richard Gula, PSS, (1969), and Fr. Robert Leavitt, PSS (1964).

I was just nineteen when I left home in Hartford, Connecticut, on a Trailways bus bound for Baltimore, Maryland. It was September 12, 1962. What I first remember seeing in the city was the big sign on Gordon’s Seafood House — “The crabs you eat today slept last night in the Chesapeake Bay.” I had never seen a hard crab in my life, much less tasted “Old Bay.” So, what would Paca Street be like?

Our rector in the early 1960s was J. Carroll McHugh. Beloved, respected, and wise like a grandfather, McHugh was affectionately nicknamed “Smiley McHugh.” Funny as he could be, rarely did Smiley ever laugh or crack a smile! Taking my assigned seat in the Prayer Hall that first day, Smiley McHugh was presiding from a small lectern on a raised dais. My attention focused first on the oil portraits hanging on the wall of deceased Sulpician superiors of Paca Street. There were the solemn faces of Francois Nagot, Jean-Marie Tessier, Louis Deluol, and the severe gaze of Francois Lhomme. Who were these men, I wondered, these “Gentlemen of St. Sulpice,” as they referred to themselves, these “Gents,” as we called them? Before being assigned to Paca Street by my archbishop in Hartford, I had never heard of the Society of St. Sulpice or the Sulpicians.

In those days, the spiritual wheelhouse of Old St. Mary’s was the Prayer Hall at the end of the main corridor. That was where the Sulpician Rule of Life was read and interpreted to form our minds and hearts as future priests. The community mustered in the Prayer Hall four times every day.

The five-story brick building with the mansard roof where I lived for two years in the early 1960s is gone. Its doors closed for the last time in 1969. The Paca Street Chapel of Old St. Mary’s Seminary, its face as always turned away from the street which gives it its name, alongside the Mother Seton House, is all that remains of the world I once knew.

The tiny Gothic chapel, after all these years and despite the renovations, still retains the scent of times past. It seemed so small to me when I  opened its doors in 1962 to visit and say a prayer. The main aisle seemed irreverently tiled in a black and white checkerboard pattern. The pews faced each other, choir style. The high marble altar was raised up three steps in the sanctuary. Behind it, in an elevated niche, was a painted Baroque Madonna and Child (itself long gone), as different from the Sedes Sapientiae which stands in the atrium at Roland Park as the two seminary worlds were from each other.

What precisely did our experience at Paca Street plant in us so many years ago? Thinking back on it now, for me at least, it was a deep respect for our Catholic faith and for the arts and sciences and philosophical reflection of a high order. The vocation of a diocesan priest, as the Sulpicians saw it, had to grow in a soil nourished by a daily spiritual rhythm of prayer and study and strong community life and public service. It was at Paca Street that I got my first taste of modern philosophy. At Paca Street, I first encountered Sulpicians who modelled for me those priestly qualities of mind I came to admire later at Roland Park and have never forgotten.

Most of the Faculty Gents at Paca Street who taught me almost sixty years ago were deeply religious and very well-educated men. There was William “Lugger” Lee, Eugene “Gino” Walsh, Thomas “Butch” Leigh, and Daniel “Danny” Fives. Who can forget James “Jimmy” Linehan and “the Old Dad,” Aloysius Bernhardt?

This chapel where we gather today is our American Sulpician birthplace. It is a crypt, a monument, a memory, a dream. When I was president-rector at Roland Park in the early 1980s, I instituted an annual visit of new seminarians to this chapel and these grounds to sense for themselves what that memory and dream are all about.

As for me, from the day I first arrived at North Paca Street in September 1962 until the day I left in June 1964, and for all the intervening years, whenever I have visited and closed my eyes after driving up and imagined again my younger self getting from the cab and hauling a suitcase up the front steps which are no more into an interior world lost in time, the memory and dream are as fresh as ever. 

Robert F. Leavitt, PSS
Paca Street Alumnus