EWARD (SNR) - Just like any other school reconvening for the fall semester, there’s an air of newness and fresh expectations at St. Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward.
Not only are there 18 men coming to seminary for the first time — nine of whom are studying for the Diocese of Lincoln — there’s a new rector to greet them and some new plans to start expanding the seminary in the near future.
Bishop James D. Conley appointed Father Jeffrey Eickhoff to the helm of the seminary after now-Bishop John Folda was made bishop of the Diocese of Fargo, N.D.
Meanwhile, Father Lawrence Stoley has been assigned academic dean. He has been teaching education classes since 2004 and now teaches Latin as well. He is also one of the seminary’s formation advisors.
Father Eickhoff has been involved with the seminary for about 11 years. Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz assigned him to teach philosophy at the seminary in 2002. As he has continued to teach philosophy, instructing the seminarians in logic, epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics and the history of philosophy.
In 2004, Father Eickhoff became the assistant academic dean, working with Dr. Ralph Thorpe to gain academic accreditation for the seminary. When Dr. Thorpe retired three years later, Father Eickhoff became the dean and finished the work they started together.
"In these last six years we revised the original curriculum, achieved full accreditation, and surpassed 100 graduates," Father Eickhoff said.
He also worked closely with his predecessor – good training for taking over the reins.
"I’ve always had a lot of suggestions about how things should be done, but now I’m the one who needs to get them done!" Father Eickhoff said.
Fortunately, he inherited a very positive situation.
"There is a great spirit and unity of purpose among the faculty and staff, as well as the students," Father Eickhoff said. "The vision of what this seminary is here for has been set clearly before all of us in the last decade and a half and a lot of this is due to the leadership of Bishop Folda."
It’s a good foundation to work with, especially because Father Eickhoff is charged with the task of expanding the facilities in the very near future.
"We broke the 40-student barrier back in 2009 and since then our facilities have been taxed in several ways," Father Eickhoff revealed.
St. Gregory the Great Seminary currently has 24 men studying for the Diocese of Lincoln and 24 men who have been sent there by other dioceses.
"We presently have eight dioceses other than Lincoln here, and four others have sent men to us in the past," Father Eickhoff said.
Increasing the seminary’s capacity is crucial to allow sufficient room for Lincoln seminarians while still being able to serve these other dioceses. This includes a new sponsoring diocese – Fargo – which is sending a first-year student this fall.
"Surprise!" Father Eickhoff said with a smile.
A year ago, Bishop Folda had a classroom converted into three bedrooms, bringing up the seminary’s student capacity to 54, but with 48 men enrolled this fall, Father Eickhoff is already concerned about being able to house every student who wishes to attend in the coming years. Converting more classrooms to bedrooms is certainly not an option.
The plan is to add a dormitory to campus that will have 15 double-occupancy rooms.
"We also need to build new classrooms since our current classrooms are not big enough to accommodate the larger number of students in each class," Father Eickhoff said.
One of the new classrooms will be a science lab. Currently, St. Gregory the Great Seminary has a cooperative relationship with Concordia University in Seward that allows the men to use a science lab there.
The seminarians have also had some input.
"It has been suggested that we build a ‘real’ gymnasium, since they have been packed into a half-size gym with way too many guys throwing balls at each other and running in circles during the cold months," Father Eickhoff said.
With academic, spiritual, pastoral and human formation for future priests, St. Gregory the Great Seminary serves an important role for the Church.
"Priests of the third millennium need to be intelligent, balanced, and courageous," Father Eickhoff said. "We see the importance of forming intelligent, well-spoken preachers and teachers of the Word of God."
New seminarians are moving into their rooms this Friday, and returning students arrive the next day. Classes resume Monday, Aug. 26.
Everyone in the diocese is invited to the seminary’s next Visitor Sunday. It will be held Sept. 22, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Father Eickhoff hopes to welcome many guests.
"It is a good time to come out and visit the seminarians and to meet the new ones," he said.