|Deacon Daniel Steiner, above, center, greets a supporter at the Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction, held May 24 at Holy Family Church in Brentwood. Deacon Steiner, along with Deacon Rodolfo Rivera, who was on retreat in San Antonio and unable to attend the dinner, were to be ordained priests June 3, 2016. Photos by Theresa Laurence
Once again, the annual Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction was “an over the top success,” according to Bob Rudman, the head of the organizing committee for the event, held May 24 at Holy Family Church in Brentwood.
Organizers had set an original goal of raising $125,000, but Bishop David Choby challenged donors to give a total of $200,000. A week after the dinner, the diocese’s stewardship office was still receiving donations, inching the total money raised closer to the $200,000 goal.
The success of the annual event, sponsored by the Serra Clubs of Nashville and Williamson County and the Knights of Columbus, mirrors the success of the Diocese of Nashville’s vocations program, which has flourished under Bishop Choby’s leadership.
Father Austin Gilstrap, assistant to the bishop for vocations, said Bishop Choby’s approach to vocations is “unlike any other in the country.” The bishop has seen the vocation program grow into one of the largest and most successful nationwide; over the past two years he has ordained 15 new priests. Two more are scheduled to be ordained on Friday, June 3.
|Bob Rudman, head of the organizing committee for the event, speaks to the sell-out crowd of 600 gathered in the Holy Family parish hall.
Father Gilstrap, who was ordained last summer, said that Bishop Choby’s hands-on approach to his seminarians, his “radical availability” to them, including giving out his personal cell phone number to each one, fosters strong relationships and positive morale among seminarians.
By taking an active role in his seminarians’ formation, Bishop Choby has a better sense of each seminarian’s strengths and weaknesses, and where to assign the men once they are ordained priests, Father Gilstrap said. The diocese’s vocation program “works because of his personality and willingness to do it,” he added.
A highlight of the annual Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction is the interaction between the laity of the diocese, the seminarians and newly ordained priests. “People like to see the young priests who they have supported for years,” said Father Gilstrap.
The novelty of hosting a dinner planned and prepared by some of the recently ordained priests proved to be the most popular live auction item of the night. Two people bid a total of $8,200 for Fathers Gilstrap, Dan Reehil and Ben Butler to prepare a traditional Italian dinner in each of their homes.
Other top auction items included a week-long stay at a Gulf Shores, Alabama, beach vacation home, high tea at the Dominican Motherhouse, and a guitar signed by country music superstar Keith Urban.
|Bishop David Choby speaks with Jim and Shella Galvin at the Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction. Bishop Choby has built one of the most successful vocation programs in the country during his 10 years as Bishop of the Diocese of Nashville.
All the money raised will go toward educating the Diocese of Nashville’s 27 seminarians. Bishop Choby has overseen a dramatic increase in the number of diocesan seminarians during his 10 years as Bishop of Nashville. With an average cost of $35,000 a year to educate the seminarians, the diocese spends more than $1 million a year on tuition. The path to priesthood requires six to eight years of undergraduate and specialized graduate education and formation.
“All the seminarians are grateful for the support from the diocese that lets us go to school and serve here,” said seminarian Deacon Joe Fessenden. “The diocese invests a lot in us, and we’re all humbled by that. We have a big responsibility to live up to that and make the investment worthwhile.”
Like many other Nashville seminarians and recently ordained priests, Deacon Fessenden grew up outside the diocese, in central Florida. His parents retired to Tennessee, which prompted him to consider serving here.
|Fathers Dan Reehil, Austin Gilstrap, and Ben Butler wear chef’s hats while live auctioneer Dave Allen speaks to them about the Italian dinner they planned to prepare for the highest bidders.
“It’s really as simple as Bishop Choby,” Deacon Fessenden said of his decision to commit to the Diocese of Nashville. The bishop’s direct involvement made the difference, he said. “There’s no layers of insulation between him and the seminarians.”
Deacon Fessenden is currently serving at St. Edward Church in Nashville, where he will remain until October when he returns to Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans to complete his studies. He is on track to be ordained a priest for the Diocese of Nashville in 2017.
Most of the Diocese of Nashville’s seminarians study at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, which educates men from around the country and the world, who come from a diocese without a seminary. In addition to Notre Dame and the Josephinum, Nashville seminarians also study at Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Wherever they study, the Diocese of Nashville’s seminarians try to make it back to Nashville for the annual Seminarian Education Dinner and Auction, an important night of fellowship and faith between seminarians, laity and new and old priests alike.
When Father Gilstrap asked the current seminarians to come stand behind him as he spoke at the dinner, he introduced them to the crowd by simply saying, “These are your men.” The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
“It’s a big deal to be up there,” Deacon Fessenden said. “It’s humbling.”
Donations are still being accepted for the Seminarian Education Fund. A copy of the form to make a donation is available on the diocesan website: www.dioceseofnashville.com. Checks should be mailed to: Diocese of Nashville, Seminarian Education Fund, Catholic Pastoral Center, 2800 McGavock Pike, Nashville, TN 37214.
For more information, contact Sandra Jordan at 615-783-0267 or