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 | By Teresa Peterson

Preparing for Priesthood

While walking the grounds of St. Joseph Seminary, the sound of church bells and chainsaws can both be heard.

While the campus provides sacred and solemn spaces for prayer and faith formation, there are also plenty of wide-open spaces and rugged terrain. The campus is surrounded by a 1,200-acre pine tree forest that includes two lakes, a farm, a greenhouse, bee boxes, and vegetable gardens.

“I am able to connect with God and nature,” said Austin Smith, a seminarian from Nativity Parish in Brandon, about the idyllic campus, located 45 minutes north of New Orleans.

All that nature lends itself to a century-old tradition at the seminary known as Bonfire Day, celebrated each November. On this day, seminarians gather in an open field to light a 30-foot-tall bonfire. The bonfire is a community-building event that also encourages physical labor.

Seminarians spend months preparing for this day. They spend hours hiking the forests, cutting fallen trees, and transporting logs to the bonfire field. The bonfire is then constructed level by level with the help of forklifts and backhoes. A shed on the campus stores tools, such as machetes and chainsaws, as well as the appropriate safety gear that is required. 

Building God’s Kingdom and More

“When we build, we work together as a team, and this builds community and school spirit, which is really important,” said Father Matthew Clark, O.S.B., president and rector of St. Joseph Seminary.

“Recreation and fellowship are essential aspects in the life of a well-formed person. To foster growth in these areas in the life of seminarians, we provide a wealth of recreational facilities. We help them find a good balance in their life,” he added.

Father Matthew is a Benedictine monk, and he lives at the monastery on the grounds of the seminary. His religious order established the seminary over 100 years ago to train young men to become diocesan priests. In 2021, Bishop Gregory Parkes selected St. Joseph as our diocese’s undergraduate seminary.  Twelve young men from local parishes in the Diocese of St. Petersburg call it home for nine months out of the year. St. Joseph is the country’s largest undergraduate seminary with 98 men enrolled.

Hearing God’s Voice

Seminarians start and end school days with prayer. Morning Prayer starts at 7:15 a.m. followed by Holy Mass at the historic Abbey Church.  They also gather for Evening Prayer and Night Prayer. Outside of communal prayer, seminarians find plenty of time for personal prayer.

“Everything has to flow from a prayer life,” said Isaac Cruz, a seminarian from St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Clearwater.

He describes seminary to his parents, who are not Catholic, this way: 

“It’s like college, but it's different in that it's training men for the priesthood. It’s all-encompassing in that it covers the intellectual, as well as the pastoral, spiritual, and human formation of a person,” said Cruz, who grew up following the faith tradition of the Assemblies of God. He became Catholic in 2017.

Cruz says St. Joseph Seminary has provided him many opportunities for silent contemplation, prayer, and reflection. He sometimes prays a decade of the Rosary while walking to class. He also joins his fellow seminarians for silent retreats.

“In those quiet times, in those contemplative moments, it's when I've connected the most with my patron saints and Our Lady, who brought me into the faith. All of them are always pointing me towards Christ,” said Cruz.


There is even more time for quiet contemplation this year. St. Joseph Seminary now requires that new seminarians participate in a Technology Fast, Sunday-Friday, during their first year, known as the Propaedeutic Year. The Program for Priestly Formation (PPF), established with guidelines from the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, sets benchmarks for first-year seminarians, and in the spirit of the PPF, the seminarians participate in the Technology Fast.

For Ricardo Velasco, the adjustment was hard at first, but now he is seeing the benefits.

“I've been much more productive. I've gotten better at time management. I've developed healthier habits, like praying the Rosary every day and being more involved in my community, like making new friends and even brothers,” said Velasco, who is from Resurrection Parish in Riverview.

Ben Harris also speaks of brotherhood at the seminary.

“I love the community here, and I love studying philosophy. I really like the opportunities we have here for fraternity. What I mean by ‘fraternity’ is bonding with the brothers here,” said Harris, of St. Anthony the Abbot Parish in Brooksville.

Cruz also thinks of his seminary classmates as brothers.

“The term ‘brother’ has become easier and easier because I do see a lot of these young men as the younger brothers I've never had. And that's been a very rewarding experience,” said Cruz.


Propaedeutic Year: This is the initial stage focused on human and spiritual growth to prepare for the following stages.

Discipleship Year: This stage is focused on men becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ and thus confident to follow where he leads.

Configuration Year: This stage is focused on men allowing their hearts and lives to become fully configured to the life and heart of Jesus the High Priest.

Vocational Synthesis: This stage is the time after a seminarian is ordained a transitional deacon and serves at a parish before priestly ordination.


To view photos from the St. Joseph Seminary, click the arrows below.

St. Joseph Seminary 2023

Considering the Priesthood?

Visit the vocations website at or contact Father Chuck Dornquast Director of Vocations for the Diocese of St. Petersburg at 727-345-3452 or

Follow us on social media @dospvocations.