Campus divided: Orchard Lake Regents split 16–13 on removing the Polish Seminary, Michigan’s oldest place of Catholic formation
In May 2020, Orchard Lake’s Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul the Great brought Catholics back to church for Michigan's first public Mass in two months. The pandemic halted public Masses worldwide, but John Paul’s 100th birthday reunited Catholics at Orchard Lake.
Many of the same metro Detroit Polish-Americans marked John Paul’s 102nd birthday Sunday by protesting 16 Orchard Lake Regents trying to close Michigan's oldest Catholic Seminary after canceling the Polish Country Fair (which has drawn crowds of more than 100,000 annually since the 1940s).
The Orchard Lake Regents also face lawsuits involving the OLS administration, Polish Mission, and St. Mary's Prep.
“Sports coaches are closing the Polish Seminary,” the Polskie Lobby wrote in an alert to Poles, who make up about 10 percent of Michigan’s population. “Poles and Americans of Polish descent should not allow a group of random people to seize Polonia’s property that was bought and maintained by us for 137 years!”
A former assistant football coach and the current basketball coach hold key day-to-day leadership roles while embattled priests are sidelined.
The 16 Orchard Lake Schools Regents are opposed by 13 Regents with significant roles in the Church and Polish community, including Bishop Robert Fisher, priests, a nun, alumni, and Polonia leaders supporting the Polish Seminary that became John Paul’s first “American home” in 1969 and 1976.
Orchard Lake Regent Andrew Harrington, who chairs the St. Mary’s Prep Board of Trustees and is leading efforts to close the Seminary, blamed security concerns for ending the fair in a letter to parents. In addition, he wrote, “we consulted with local authorities at the Orchard Lake Police Department, who also expressed serious safety and security concerns.”
However, Orchard Lake Police issued a statement saying, “Don’t blame us” for the cancellation from Orchard Lake Regents.
“I think it’s very simple,” Orchard Lake Police Chief William Nicholson told the Detroit Free Press. “The school made a decision to not go forward with the fair anymore, and I think people think there is more to it, and they are trying to make a story that is just not there.”
Poles are still fighting, arguing that “this decision was not approved by the archbishop, who has a deciding voice. We have also reached out to the Pope, as the seminary ultimately falls under his jurisdiction.”
Orchard Lake Seminary priests organized then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s first and second North American tours. Upon his arrival, they hailed him as “the Father of Orchard Lake” and made Wojtyla and the two priests who accompanied him (future cardinals) honorary Orchard Lake alumni.
Wojtyla repeatedly called Orchard Lake’s mission to form priests and Catholic leaders its essential mission. For years, the Orchard Lake high school fed the Orchard Lake college, which fed the seminary. As a result, two venerated alumni are now going through the canonization process leading to sainthood.
Last year, Regents Chairman Stephen Gross, a bankruptcy attorney, told the Detroit Free Press the Seminary’s mission was “accomplished” and argued Polish bishops didn’t want to send Orchard Lake any more seminarians. The Polish bishops said the seminary should remain open, and Gross and other Regents voted to give the seminary a reprieve if they could devise a plan.
St. John Paul, during his first trip to North America, organized by Orchard Lake priests in 1969, warned:
“ I plead with you to please bring your children up in the proper Christian spirit,” St. John Paul said. “The Polish Seminary is the most important task that we must serve and preserve. There is no greater anguish or absurdity for a person than not to have a proper knowledge of why he lives and what his purpose is on earth.”
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