Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary was a major undertaking of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah

Originally Appeared in : 9719-9/14/17

On September 11, 1959, when it officially opened with a Mass of the Holy Spirit, Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary located at Grimball’s Point on the Isle of Hope in Savannah, was termed by Most Father Thomas J. McDonough, the Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah, “the answer to prayers” for vocations to the priesthood. Few seminarians studying elsewhere to be priests of the Savannah Diocese were native Georgians. What Bishop McDonough wanted was a number of homegrown seminarians preparing to serve in the Diocese of Savannah. Establishing a diocesan minor seminary seemed to be a practical answer to this need.


So it was on that September day in 1959, when Bishop McDonough offered a dedicatory Mass for the fledgling Saint John Marie Vianney Minor Seminary, his prayers concerning the need for more priests for his diocese seemed at last to be on the way to being answered. “You are the ‘Spes Ecclesiae,’” he told the seminarians attending the Mass, “the hope of the Church.”


The locale of the new seminary consisted of a large tract of land where summer Camp Villa Marie welcomed children from around the diocese to receive needed instruction in their Catholic faith in a healthful environment. Now, Catholic boys in the ninth grade throughout the diocese would be given the opportunity to discern vocations and to study for the priesthood in a fostering environment.


By the time Saint John Marie Vianney Minor Seminary opened, 14 boys from various locations — Savannah, Augusta, Macon, Warner Robins and Albany — enrolled to answer this early call to be priests. Not long before that, many of them had been addressed at their schools by Father William V. Coleman, who would serve as rector of the new seminary. Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara was to head the seminary’s executive board. 


Faculty appointed by Bishop McDonough and the subjects they would teach included: Father William Coleman (Rector and instructor in Latin, English and Math); Monsignor Andrew J. McDonald, who would serve as spiritual director; Father Robert J. Teoli, assistant spiritual director; Father John J. Cuddy, acting as dean of studies and instructor in history; and Father Felix Donnelly, would teach sacred chant and art appreciation. Father J. Perot Fiero was appointed librarian and instructor in religion and Father Herbert J. Wellmeier would act as the director of physical education.


All seminarians were to be ninth grade students and one additional grade would be added each year to the seminary, with a full four-year high school course projected to start in 1962.  The 30 acres of land available at what previously had been Camp Villa Marie would give the future priests ample room in which to play sports. An outdoor swimming pool would be available for them to relax in during the summer.


Boarding students from outside Savannah had their own schedule: dinner at 5:15 p.m., recreation at 6:30 and Study Hall from 7 till 8 o’clock. Spiritual reading at 9:15 would mark the official end of their day. 


Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary held its last graduation in 1968. Auxiliary Bishop (later Bishop) of Savannah Thomas J. McDonough was subsequently promoted by Pope Pius VI to be the archbishop of Louisville. Meanwhile, after Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary closed in 1968, the former seminary grounds reverted to being the site of a summer camp for children as well as a gathering place for various organizations and religious orders throughout the Savannah Diocese.  


Father John Cuddy, who taught for seven years at Saint John Vianney Minor Seminary on Isle of Hope, died on January 20 2017.


Columnist Rita H. DeLorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.

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