Bensons spearhead renovated space

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

On Nov. 7, the faculty, staff and seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary joined the community in thanksgiving for the newly blessed and dedicated Gayle and Tom Benson House of Priestly Formation on the seminary grounds on South Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans.

“We come together in gratitude for all those who made it possible,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said at a prayer service in the seminary chapel held before the house blessing. 

He thanked God for the staff, the diocese and everyone who supports the seminary, with special recognition and a bouquet of roses given to Gayle Benson, who with her late husband Tom, have been long-time supporters of the seminary and solely responsible for the renovation of the three-story brick dormitory.

“Tom was always deeply grateful and impressed with this seminary and the seminarians,” Archbishop Aymond said. 

“From this day forward, this house will always be called the Gayle and Tom Benson House of Priestly Formation,” he said. 

After the service, Archbishop Aymond, Father James Wehner, Gayle Benson and others walked to the renovated house where Archbishop Aymond blessed the new sign and house in the rain and toured the first floor. 

History of the house

The renovation commemorates the 80th anniversary of the house, said Father James Wehner, seminary president-rector. Built in 1937, it has had many usages – first as the convent for Sisters of the Holy Family. The religious order, founded by Venerable  Henriette Delille, tended to the community’s needs and supported the archbishop and seminary while living there. The house originally had 12 bedrooms for the nuns on the second floor, and a kitchen, chapel and dining room on the first floor. The attic was used for storage.

After the sisters left, the house became the St. John XXIII House of Discernment and then the Carmelite House – a residence for religious novices. It morphed into the St. John Vianney House of Discernment for Men and finally was called the Lourdes House (named after the grotto outside the house) used to house seminarians during the renovation of St. Joseph Hall. 

During the recent renovation – which began in May 2017 and lasted until October 2018 – the first floor was gutted, eliminating the kitchen, dining room and chapel to make space for additional dormitory rooms. The third-floor attic also was converted into living quarters, increasing the number of bedrooms from 12 to 24. Seventeen fourth-year seminarians who are deacons currently live there.

“The thought was, since the seminary has taken control of house and has all the other facilities in the main building, what I needed was a residence and support services,” Father Wehner said.

The seminarians are thrilled to live in the renovated house.

Deacon David Frank, a fourth-year seminarian who is a deacon for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, lives on the first floor. He had lived in the unrenovated Lourdes House during Shaw Hall renovations.

“It’s very nice,” Frank said. “You have your own bathroom, and everything is brand new. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Deacon Braxton, a fourth-year seminarian from the Diocese of Biloxi, lives in the attic (jokingly called the penthouse). 

“It also gives us the opportunity as the senior class with the most seniority to really bond in fraternity,” he said.

Top-tier seminary

Over the past decade, the seminary has been bolstered and upgraded in staff and physical presence. Archbishop Alfred Hughes rebuilt the seminary’s foundation immediately following Katrina.

When Archbishop Aymond took helm of the archdiocese in 2009, several capital campaigns have contributed to making the buildings on the South Carrollton Avenue campus into crown jewels of learning, said Father Wehner.

Phase I included the $2 million Priestly Formation campaign for recruitment and retainment of the faculty, chaired by local businessman Joseph Canizaro.

Phase II was a $7 million renovation and updating of the Shaw Hall residence for seminarians, sponsored by the Bensons. In preserving the original structure and integrity of the building, the seminary received tax cuts that allowed main floor updates of offices, the chapel and dining room, Father Wehner said.

During Phase III, called the “I Give Shepherds” campaign chaired by Gayle and Tom Benson, $18 million was raised to totally upgrade Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and St. Joseph Seminary College in St. Benedict (near Covington).  Notre Dame Seminary received $12 million from that fund.

The Gayle and Tom Benson Foundation donated the money for the renovation of the house in the fourth phase. 

Father Wehner said the renovations have coincided with an enrollment from 80 seminarians in 2012 to 145 in 2017, making Notre Dame Seminary the second-largest seminary in the United States. St. Joseph Seminary College now has 150 enrolled, making it the largest seminary college in the U.S.

The upgraded seminary now stands as a beacon to spread the word of Jesus in the community with a three-fold purpose.

“We now have 21st-century facilities that are still modest but provide the technology and facilities required,” Father Wehner said. “We now have the best theological and philosophical faculty; and thirdly is formational vision … forming missionary disciples for the New Evangelization,” asking “what does it mean” to be a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century, and how do we preach and disseminate the Gospel to make it accessible to people of today.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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