WITH ITS IMPOSING neo-Baroque limestone facade and elaborate cornice, St. Mary's Seminary has been compared to a Baltimore Versailles or a palace straight out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But the size of the building and the distance it sits back from the corner of Roland Avenue and Northern Parkway exaggerates the size and gravity of this university for priests.
It will be from the steps of this 1929 building that Pope John Paul II will greet the men in training for the priesthood of this archdiocese, perhaps say a word or two, then board a helicopter for his ride to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, ending his daylong Baltimore visit Sunday and returning to the Vatican. The ceremony, expected to last about 10 minutes, is not open to the public.
Many Baltimoreans know little about St. Mary's Seminary and University, its students and faculty or its history.
"Perhaps because we are set back in Roland Park there is an air of mystery here," said Rudi Ruckmann, the school's communication director.
Most of its graduates staff parish churches throughout the country. Many parish priests in Baltimore received their theological training here or return here at some point in their careers for further study.
The school was once the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the country. One in 10 U.S. priests was once educated here.
Now, enrollment is less than a quarter what it was at its peak. The Archdiocese of Baltimore still educates 10 percent of the American Catholic priests, however. They are taught at St. Mary's and at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg. Students from Mount St. Mary's will also be in the Roland Park papal audience Sunday, along with seminarians from Theological College in Washington and from St. Pius X Seminary in Dalton, Pa.
"When this building was built the number of seminarians was at an all-time high. There were a large number of vocations to the priesthood coming from the Catholic immigrant community. It was a natural sociological phenomenon. It has changed. That is what history is all about," said the Rev. Robert F. Leavitt, S.S. president-rector of St. Mary's Seminary and University.
"I believe that vocations to the priesthood could come back. The dioceses that have worked on this are having success," he said.
There is also a flourishing Ecumenical Institute here. As its name implies, it is open to all faiths and genders; last year's Ecumenical Institute enrollment was 128 women and 68 men.
Father Leavitt sees the role of his institution "to move beyond mere tolerance of religious differences into encouraging religious literacy a crossroads for the exchange of religious ideas in this city."
The school has a proud and distinguished history in Baltimore. Baltimore's first bishop, John Carroll, called the Sulpicians, a religious brotherhood founded in France, here to open a school in 1791. It was established on the then-outskirts of Baltimore at Paca Street north of Franklin. The site is known today for the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton House and the lovely old St. Mary's Chapel. The school once had divisions in Ellicott City and near Catonsville.
In the first half of the 19th century, the priests also ran a substantial college open to students of all faiths who wanted to receive a liberal arts education.
One of the institution's academic treasures is its Knott Library, whose nucleus began when the Sulpician fathers brought a collection of books from Paris. The library now has 100,000 volumes on theology, philosophy, church history, sacraments, liturgy, canon law, pastoral theology and the scriptures.
The architectural glory of the campus remains the limestone academic buildings and its chapel. Visitors cannot miss its elaborate facade, which faces Roland Avenue and contains the Biblical quotation: "Go teach all nations." Those who open its massive oak doors discover light-filled corridors so gracefully laid out that film director Barry Levinson shot a portion of his "Avalon" here.
St. Mary's has 77 full-time registered, live-in students, men mostly in their 20s and 30s; 11 are from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Others are from other parts of the United States, mainly the eastern third of the country. Another 13 non-resident students take classes part time.
Baltimore's seminarians are: Andrew Aaron, Anthony Bianca, Kevin Brooksbank, Timothy Fell, Paul Gallagher, David Helweick, Charles Rice, Thomas Rydzewski, Lyle Weiss, Leric Wood and Attillio Zarrella.
"I like the whole flow of the day here. The way it is ordered gives the hours a solid thread," said Mr. Fell, a 27-year-old former Parkville resident who had worked as a purchasing agent at the Turf Valley Hotel.
"We have Morning Prayer at 8, Mass at 11:45, Evening Prayer at 5 and Night Prayer at 9. The classes are generally in the morning," he said.
Tuition, room and board for the School of Theology is $14,260. Most full-time students are graduates of a four-year college. They earn master's degrees in theology at St. Mary's. Some, who have not completed their undergraduate degrees, earn a bachelor of arts degree.