It’s fall in Minnesota, and the trees that line Lake Minnetonka are starting to show shades of red, yellow and orange.
In nearby Deephaven, a group of 100 seminarians walks into St. Thérèse Parish and kneels down before first-class relics of the famous patroness of missionaries and her parents, Saints Louis and Zelie Martin.
“The Little Flower” was so unknown during her life as a Carmelite nun that fellow sisters weren’t even sure what her obituary would say. But Thérèse’s writings, example of doing small things with great love and subsequent miracles attributed to her intercession mean she deserves “a place among the great spiritual masters,” according to fellow saint, St. John Paul II.
“Many guys in the seminary, including myself, have a large devotion and consider her a large part of our priestly vocation,” said Deacon Ryan Sustacek, who’s slated for priestly ordination in spring 2024. “I remember turning to her when I was feeling unsure with self-doubts about moving forward [in seminary].”
Indeed, many seminarians and priests point to St. Thérèse of Lisieux as one of their great comrades in the spiritual battle of life on earth. She and her parents’ relics were also present at this year’s October Cor Jesu praise and worship and adoration event hosted by The Saint Paul Seminary and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis office for vocations at the Cathedral of St. Paul. Over 2,000 Catholics from around Minnesota attended.
St. Thérèse is one of many saints who walk with seminarians as they discern the priesthood and prepare to accompany the faithful on their own paths to sanctification.
St. Joseph, whom Catholics revere as the model father, is an obvious one.
“One of his titles is the ‘Terror of demons,’” said Fr. Donald Calloway, popular speaker and author of “Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father.” “That is the money title; what man doesn’t want people to say about him ‘that man is a terror of demons’? That’s the heavyweight champion title.”
The seminary also cultivates a distinct devotion to the Blessed Mother. Through frequent prayer of the Rosary and Marian devotion, seminarians come to know her as their own spiritual mother.
It was devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe at The Saint Paul Seminary that led alumnus and now- Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Williams of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to learn Spanish and become a key leader in the Twin Cities’ Latino Catholic community.
When United States papal nuncio Archbishop Christophe Pierre called Williams to share the news of his episcopal appointment, Williams was standing in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The announcement came on the feast day of Our Lady of Loreto.
“[Mary is] to blame for this, I’ll put it that way,” Williams jokes, “but [she] also gives me great confidence.”
On All Saints Day this year, seminarians celebrated Mass with relics of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Vianney, St. Teresa of Calcutta and others out for exposition. When you enter the seminary building, you’re greeted by the words “Pastores Dabo Vobis” (“I Will Give You Shepherds”) above the front door. These famous words comprise the title of St. John Paul II’s 1992 apostolic exhortation that set the stage for many of the norms used in Catholic seminary formation today.
There’s a statue of “JP2” next to the front door, as well. In his office, Rector Fr. Joseph Taphorn has a photo of the deceased pontiff from when they met in the Jubilee Year 2000 and refers to him often as an inspiration for his work at the seminary.
A sampling of seminarians turns up a variety of favorite saints, but also a common theme: a calling “on to more.”
“[Two of my top saints] are St. Agnes and St. Mary Magdalene,” seminarian Dominic Wolters said. “Both of them were martyrs for the faith, but just a really beautiful way of seeing the witness of their love. I mean, these are women who left behind everything to follow Christ. In the midst of the world telling them not to, in the midst of the cross and the challenges that that might bring, their love just shines out as kind of a beacon calling us all on to more.”
Fellow seminarian Jacob Robbins says he’s gotten to know the patron of The Saint Paul Seminary in a new way during formation – and not just because of the giant statue of him in the courtyard.
“He’s my confirmation saint and at the time, when I was confirmed, I didn’t know a ton about him,” Robbins said, “but now being here at The Saint Paul Seminary I’ve grown to really love St. Paul quite a bit through his writings in the New Testament.”
Each priest and seminarian’s residential room also has a patron saint; drawings of them by local artist Christopher Santer are framed outside each door.
Saintly devotion isn’t just reserved for seminarians, of course. Lay students and deacon candidates have a variety of opportunities to dive deep into the lives of the saints, from studying the theology of Mary to Dr. John Froula’s course on Women Doctors of the Church. Additionally, the seminary Catechetical Institute picks a different patron saint for each cohort that goes through the Catechism of the Catholic Church together.
This year’s patron? St. Thérèse.
Alumnus Fr. Mike Selenski, who was ordained a priest in 2022, visited Lisieux during a mission trip several years ago.
“I never really got the whole craze about St. Thérèse before,” Selenski said. “She was hard for me to relate to. She’s this little girl who’s like ‘I just want to be God’s princess.’ … That’s not how I relate to the Lord. But then I went to Lisieux, and I was told that almost a million people come to Lisieux every year, and she had one of the most read books (“The Story of a Soul,” her autobiography) in the world. … She’s just this little girl who joined the convent early and just loved Jesus, and look at the impact that had – just in her own relationship with Jesus. I kind of felt like she’s been praying for me along the way.”
Sustacek, who plans to join Selenski as a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis next year, can relate.
Early in seminary, self-doubt kept Sustacek awake at night.
“I would think to myself, ‘Can I actually do this? I feel the call, but I just don’t know if I am up to the challenge,’” Sustacek said. “In my need, I began praying a novena to Thérèse and her oblation to merciful love. It was through her that the Lord instilled a great confidence in entering the open door before me.”
“Being able to see her relics four years later … was amazing. I thanked her for all her help, and asked her to continue to help me on my path.”