Seminarians from the Diocese of Superior currently studying at St. Francis de Sales are (front) Deacon Joe Stefancin; (back, from left) Deacon Richard Rhinehart; and Dan Tracy. (Submitted photo)

Madeline Zukowski
Milwaukee Catholic Herald

Deacon Joe Stefancin has always had a place in the Church — he’s worked in parishes and has been a permanent deacon for the past 22 years. Now, he’s on track to ordination to the priesthood (set for June 2020), and he’s one of three seminarians from the Diocese of Superior who study at St. Francis de Sales Seminary in Milwaukee.

But his decision to enter the seminary a year ago came after quite a journey. After his wife passed away from cancer in 2009 and left him to take care of their two adopted children, he took some time off from diocesan events to be at home for his children. But acquaintances he saw at church occasionally asked him about priesthood and “restarted a fire [he] never thought [he’d] have again.” With the support of his kids, he applied and was accepted by Bishop James P. Powers followed by acceptance to St. Francis de Sales Seminary.

“I went from running a four-bedroom household to being a student, one who has to answer to somebody,” he said.

He’s still adjusting to life in the seminary in Milwaukee, more than 300 miles from where he’ll eventually serve as a priest.

St. Francis de Sales Seminary is a provincial seminary, meaning seminarians from all five dioceses in Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Madison, Superior, Green Bay and La Crosse) attend the seminary. A seminarian from the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, is also studying at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, although Joliet is not part of the province.

Fr. John Hemsing, the rector at St. Francis de Sales Seminary, said forming men from all over Wisconsin has been a part of the seminary from the very beginning. The first bishop of the then-Diocese of Milwaukee founded St. Francis de Sales Seminary in 1845 and it served the Wisconsin territory until individual dioceses started to form, many of which had their own seminary. For a time, St. Francis de Sales educated men just from the Milwaukee archdiocese, but in the past six or seven years, there has been a push to make St. Francis a provincial seminary.

Each seminarian is sponsored by a bishop, the bishop of his diocese, and that bishop can choose to send the seminarian where he sees fit, whether it is to St. Francis de Sales or another seminary. Once the seminarian has completed formation, he will return to his diocese of origin to start his priestly ministry.

“Seminarians for Superior have never had the luxury of going to seminary in their home diocese,” said Superior seminarian Dan Tracy, whose discernment of the priesthood sprung from reading the Bible his senior year in college and getting involved in the Catholic Church and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students during graduate school. “We’ve never had a seminary and recent priests have studied in St. Paul (Minnesota), but also at Mundelein (Illinois) as well. Those (along with St. Francis) have been the three main seminaries. The last priest to be ordained here was 35 years ago, so being here is kind of new in that sense.”

Fr. Hemsing named several benefits of attending a provincial seminary. First and foremost, it’s nice for the men to study together and get to know one another. As the men become priests and start to serve in their own diocese, they may have to work with other priests in other dioceses. If they studied together, they already have that connection.

Deacon Joe said he’s heard of priests from the Superior diocese getting together with their classmates from other dioceses to reminisce and catch up. “That brotherhood never goes away,” he said. “I just think it’s a wonderful gift.”

Tracy described how 20 seminarians traveled to Eagle River during their holiday break to attend the ordination of Deacon Rich Rhinehart, another seminarian from Superior who studies at St. Francis.

“I always come back to the word ‘unity,’” Tracy said. “There is a deep unity that is still being fostered — it’s not perfect by any means — but once every diocese had a bishop, and then once they all decided to send a portion, or in our case, all of the seminarians, here I get this sense that there’s a great sense of unity within the state, among the Catholic clerics and having us here is a strong witness to that unity that we hope will continue for generations of priests.”

The bishops who choose to send seminarians to St. Francis are on the board of trustees and have a say in how the seminary is run and the ability to direct the formation of their men.

“We try very hard to make sure we don’t just talk and teach about Milwaukee,” he said. “We touch on what’s happening throughout the state.”

Despite the unity and inclusion at St. Francis, in the last six months Tracy and Deacon Joe have had to adjust to the urban setting after coming from a rural area. The seminary is tucked away in a wooded area and is right across the street from Lake Michigan, which helps a little, they said.

“If you would ask me if my heart is here, no, it’s up there,” Deacon Joe said. “It’s up in our rural diocese.”

Just like a college student has breaks, so do seminarians, and both Tracy and Deacon Joe travel back to Superior for most breaks. But they spend their breaks in the diocese, whether it is visiting diocesan schools or different parishes and priests.

“In order to acclimate ourselves to the diocese, breaks are really important,” Tracy said. “It’s the time to start making those connections and having the opportunity to be with people.”

“It’s not a burden to take time out of your time off (to be in the diocese); it’s almost like what you’re called to do,” Deacon Joe said. “It’s a gift. One thing I learned in the Superior diocese when I first got there was to be as visible as you can so people get to know you.”

Tracy and Deacon Joe both hope their diocese can grow in vocations, whether that be to the priesthood or religious life or to the diaconate, and hopes the connections and support they receive from St. Francis de Sales Seminary will help. It’s important for those who feel a tug from God to try the seminary, they said.

“The hard part about seminary is that it doesn’t guarantee priesthood,” Deacon Joe said. “It’s a process; it’s a discernment process. It’s a time of prayer, discernment and education as well as formation in all areas of our life to be the best person we can be to serve God and others.”