Alumni also populate monasteries, convents
A small Catholic college has produced 104 priests, in addition to other religious vocations, during its almost 50-year history.
These 104 priests come from Christendom College’s alumni pool of just 4,053 total graduates – and since only men can be ordained, the rate is much higher. About 47 percent of Christendom’s alumni are men, meaning the 104 priests came from a pool of about 2,000 men.
The Front Royal, Virginia school told The College Fix another “11 alumni [are] studying for the priesthood” and there are “53 sisters, 5 brothers, 3 transitional deacons, 1 permanent deacon, and 2 consecrated virgins.”
One of those religious sisters includes the daughter of Christendom President Timothy O’Donnell.
Director of Communications Zachary Smith attributed the high number of religious vocations among Christendom alumni to the vision of the college’s founder who focused on a “life-long commitment to the lay apostolate.”
“Christendom College was founded in 1977 by a layman, Dr. Warren H. Carroll, who was inspired by two documents from [Catholic Church council] Vatican II which promoted the teachings on the universal call to holiness and the important role of the laity in the mission of the Church,” Smith told The Fix via email.
However, the college’s “vibrant Catholic culture” contributed to the vocational success stories.
Smith told The Fix the school has forgiven “over a quarter million dollars in loans for alumni priests and religious” to date. This forgiveness is for religious, such as nuns, who take “final vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a religious order or secular institute that has canonical status with the Roman Catholic Church.”
Several priests told The Fix the college helped in their formation, even if that meant not graduating.
“I am a proud alumnus of Christendom College. In full honesty, I’ll admit I’m a proud drop-out; I didn’t finish my degree because I was discerning while I was there, and I was encouraged by one of my professors during that time to get me to the seminary and not waste any time,” Joseph Dalimata, a priest with the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, said in a phone interview with The Fix. He is an assistant pastor in El Paso, Texas.
He was ordained in 2021 by Archdiocese of Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry (both pictured).
“The main thing was my relationships with supportive professors and Catholic friends. I think that if my peers and my professors had not been so supportive I would have wavered a lot in my decision to join the priesthood,” Dalimata said. “My best friends were people I went to mass with regularly who had at least a real appreciation for the priesthood, if not a desire for it themselves. They told me it made sense.”
Dalimata thanked two professors in particular.
“I remember talking with, God rest his soul, Dr. Brendan McGuire, a well-beloved professor of history at Christendom; I liked him very much,” Dalimata said. “And I remember I was talking with him about it, and he was so simple about it. He was like, ‘Man, you want to go [to seminary]. You know it would be good for you. It’s a good place to be. Just go.’ And I remember asking, ‘Well, doctor, shouldn’t I finish my degree before I go?’
“And he was so supportive of my good desires and really just helped me to see that God wouldn’t have put a desire like that in my heart at the time to lead me astray,” Dalimata said. “That conversation really helped me to know that I was doing something that was not imprudent.”
“Also, [philosophy professor] Dr. John Cuddeback was very supportive, and verbally so many times,” he said. “Nobody was telling me that I was making a bad decision. And I believe that they would have if they thought I was.”
He thanked Christendom for the student debt forgiveness.
“One other thing I have to say is that Christendom’s religious loan forgiveness program is very helpful,” Dalimata said. “They forgave the about $10,000 in loans that I had just for my first year there once I became a priest.”
He is not the only religious to benefit from this program. In an email to The Fix, Christendom College reports having forgiven Another Christendom alumnus, John Paul Heisler (pictured, below), also recounts Christendom’s impact on both himself and his sister now a Carmelite Sister of the Divine Heart of Jesus.
“In kind of an amazing way, I guess I’ve always thought that being a priest would be a blessing. There are, of course, other things that I wanted to be when I grew up, but being a priest was something that always inspired me,” Heisler told The Fix via email. “The chaplain at Christendom College, Fr. Don Planty, gave me the book ‘To Save a Thousand Souls.’ He really helped me to take the next step of applying for the seminary.”
“My older sister, now a sister with the Carmelites, took a vow of poverty, so I am pretty sure that her loan was forgiven by Christendom,” Heisler said.
Heisler is a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, which includes Front Royal. Christendom alumni are approximately 10 percent of the roughly 200 diocesan priests.
Priests share advice for colleges to produce priests
Both priests shared suggestions for practices that universities can incorporate to encourage vocations.
“Invite alumni religious to visit,” Dalimata said during the interview. “My own choice to visit the seminary for the first time came from a discernment event the college hosted. An alumni priest came back and gave a talk, and at that talk were a number of other alumni religious, and one of them came up to me and he encouraged me to visit the seminary.”
“Visiting the seminary didn’t mean I was being ordained; it didn’t mean I was joining the seminary; it was just giving God a chance—not even that—it just meant that I was visiting the seminary,” he said. “I think that it really brings down the level of intimidation of discernment if you are familiar with alumni who have discerned and if you are familiar with their stories.”
“Also, religious funds. I think if more colleges forgave debt the way Christendom does, it would be very supportive of people following their religious vocations,” he said. “It is really hard for some people to work off debt to be able to join the seminary, and they might have to work for a few years just to be able to join.”
Heisler advocated for a strong university prayer life.
“In my opinion, the most important thing that a university can do to help foster vocations is fostering prayer in university life,” he said. “Prayer is fundamental to our relationship with God and our response to his call.”