The end of May marked 50 years since St. Thomas Seminary in Louisville closed. The minor seminary, which included a high school and junior college, prepared boys for major seminary, where formation for the priesthood would be completed.
Father Joseph Graffis, a senior priest in the Archdiocese of Louisville, graduated from St. Thomas in 1965. Fifty years later, he recalls how the seminary influenced him.
Father Graffis described St. Thomas as a “military” school because of the stern discipline carried out under the guidance of Sulpician priests. Students were up at 6 a.m. every morning and had to be ready in 20 minutes and in the chapel for prayer, he said.
“The discipline was extremely difficult at that time. You had rules and regulations and if you didn’t follow them you got kicked out pretty quick, which all of that seems strange today, but I think most of us realized we got a great education,” said Father Graffis in a recent interview.
St. Thomas opened in 1952 on 300 acres of farmland off Brownsboro Road, where The Woods of St. Thomas subdivision now sits. St. Thomas educated hundreds of young men in its 18-year history. According to historical information from the archdiocese, at its peak in 1961, the seminary had 240 students in high school and 52 students in junior college.
Father Graffis remembers entering the seminary in 1959 with a large class. He noted that he was one of 16 seminarians from Our Lady of Lourdes Church to enter the seminary.
Over the years, however, enrollment fell as the cost of educating students soared, causing St. Thomas to close in May of 1970, The Record reported at the time. Its 15th high school class graduated on May 23 of that year.
St. Thomas drew many “bright” students from all over the city and rural areas, said Father Graffis. Among its graduates is Bishop William Medley of the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky.
The discipline — though he wouldn’t encourage it today — helped to form him, said Father Graffis.
“I learned a lot of life skills on how to discipline yourself and be a good student. There were many bright students and they pushed us very hard. You had a real drive for education and knowing as much as possible,” said Father Graffis.
Classwork included the study of Latin, French and Greek. Spiritual formation was also part of the discipline. The Sulpician fathers, he said, helped the students focus on their prayer life.
“We learned a lot of good habits in prayer. They helped us focus as young adolescents on prayer,” he said.
Other than their studies and the occasional walk to Lyndon, the students also competed in sports, he said. His closest friendships were made on the field. Some of those friendships endured to adulthood and he even had the opportunity to celebrate the funeral Masses of two such friends, Father Graffis said.
It was considered an honor to be chosen as a sacristan or a “master of ceremony,” a student who coordinated and trained altar servers. Father Graffis’ duties as master of ceremonies helped him to learn about the liturgy and understand the Eucharist, he said.
From the isolation of the seminary, the young men at St. Thomas also witnessed “world-shaking events” — such as the Cuban missile Crisis in October of 1962 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November of 1963.
“I remember going to the chapel and praying during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Father Graffis. The day President Kennedy was shot, one of the students had gone to the recreation room and saw the news on television. He returned to the classroom and told his classmates.
“When our teacher came in he was upset that we were so rowdy. He gave us a Latin quiz to calm us down,” Father Graffis recalled.
A short time after, they were all called into the chapel where the whole school was informed of the president’s death. “Our teacher said to us, ‘tear up the exam.’ ”
Father Graffis also remembers St. Thomas enrolling the first two African American students in the 1960s. The students were outgoing and seemed to fit in well with their white peers, but looking back he said, “We had no idea how scared to death they were being in an all-white school and we were so naïve in terms of what they experienced in their lives,” said Father Graffis.
After graduating from St. Thomas in 1965, Father Graffis attended St. Mary Seminary in Baltimore, Md. He was ordained in 1971.
Some of the graduates of St. Thomas who didn’t go on to major seminaries went on to become leaders in the community, Father Graffis added.
Some of the graduates have stayed in contact over the years. Twelve years ago some started a Yahoo group called the Lost Boys of St. Thomas Seminary, said Joe Griffey, who graduated from the seminary in 1962.
Griffey said the group has 122 members who use the platform as a way of sharing humor, reminiscing about their seminary days and even having some theological discussions.