St Charles Borromeo, Symbol of Catholicism in Philadelphia, Host to the Holy Father in Philadelphia this September 2015

By Zabeth Teelucksingh

This article was originally written eight years ago, but it's relevance to Philadelphia global citizens and history buffs remains strong. Far from the Madding Crowd, the Seminary lies mysteriously within the confines of Lower Merion. Our hope is that this article will allow you to discover more about what lies beyond the iron gates of this institution.

Thanks to the wonderful initiatives of the Lower Merion Conservancy, I was treated to a comprehensive tour of the facilities at the St Charles Borromeo Seminary on Lancaster Ave in Wynnewood on a wet and dark Thursday in March 2011. Prior to my visit, as a newcomer to the Main Line, I had frequently driven by, wondering when, if ever, I should be privileged to visit this venerable institution. Six months later, here I was and as a closet historian, I knew that I was in for a treat.

The evening started with a reception and music in the Eakins Room, appropriately named for the series of eponymous portraits, painted when Eakins used to visit the erudite professors of the seminary following a walk out from his studio in Central Philadelphia. The room is also endowed with several notable treasures: the first piece of Platinum to be bought form the New World to Rome and subsequently made in to a Chalice; a Velvet Pair of slippers worn by the Pope in Chair in 1955 and the Throne upon which the Canonized Pope John Paul II sat on one of his three visits to the Seminary. Perhaps the room will be further adorned with a new memento from the visit of Pope Francis.

We heard a fabulously informative lecture by local architect and historian Jeff Cohen who compared the architecture of the Seminary to the Monastery of El Escurial outside of Madrid as well as to the Church of St Susannah in Rome. He explained that he current seminary was built in 1932, by the same builders who built the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The architects were Addison Hutton and Samuel Sloan. At the time that the Seminary was built, Philadelphia did not exist much beyond Independence Hall and the land the Seminary occupied was Remington Farm. The Seminary houses a fantastic 30 yards tunnel connecting the theological building to the College Division. The tunnel came to our rescue on this rainy night, enabling us to visit the entire compound without getting wet

Reverend Monsignor Joseph Pryor regaled us with his stories of the Seminary's Theatre and Shows, daily life for the inhabitants and some of the historical changes that have taken place within its walls. Most notably, after Vatican 2 in the 1960's the altars in both of the chapels had to be turned around so that the Priests could face the audience and deliver the Eucharist in front of their communicants. Currently the Seminarians number 154, in its heyday, the institution counted 534 members, some of whom had to be housed on temporary cots in the basement for lack of space. Nowadays the institution also houses some Religious Studies students and a Deacon’s Program, bringing the total number of students to around 500, many non-residents. More recently it has become a consolidated site for Seminarians to study from much of the Atlantic and East Coast region.

Finally we were treated to a tour of the amazing Theological Library at the seminary. The Ryan Memorial Library- housed in an Italian Renaissance-style building - serves the Seminary College and Religious Studies Divisions. It contains over 134,000 volumes and 500 current periodicals. Historical materials are found in the Library's 20,000 volume Rare Book Collection, along with special collections of Catholic devotional literature, liturgical books and catechisms. Anyone can visit the library and become a member for $25 per year.

Now, whenever I pass the Seminary, I know what it contains and I no longer wonder about the acres of land that it covers. Visits and open houses are announced on the Seminary web site:

Go, take a look, you will come back the wiser!