Bensons fund $7M seminary renovation
As Tom Benson and his wife Gayle stood at the top steps of Notre Dame Seminary March 11, dozens of seminarians walked up single file and shook hands with the owner of the New Orleans Saints and the New Orleans Hornets, thankful for his gift of $7 million to restore Archbishop Shaw Hall, the massive, main residence on South Carrollton Avenue that was built in 1923.
That was before air conditioning, of course, and even before electricity.
“The archbishop and I were walking in the building, and he asked me, ‘I wonder why they made the corridors so wide and the rooms so small?’” said Chris Domingue, director of facilities at Notre Dame Seminary. “We figured out it was all about air flow. Before air conditioning, they opened up the windows on both sides of these wide halls and allowed air to blow through. You can get an appreciation of the architecture of the time.”
After the extensive renovation project, air flow no longer will be a concern.
The concrete and steel building, three stories tall, now has central air throughout, courtesy of a new chilled-water system, which pumps fresh air into the building. The fresh air pressurizes the building, allowing it to be kept at a constant temperature, even though individual seminarians have control over how cool or warm to set the thermostat in their bedrooms, which have been beautifully restored down the original hardwood floors and have new sinks and vanities.
What does all this new comfort mean? As the seminarians filed past the Bensons, the Saints’ owner shook their hands and said: “Be a good priest! That’s what counts!”
And then, he added, “Remember us in your prayers.”
In thanking the Bensons for their gift, Archbishop Gregory Aymond said he had not even asked them to come forward. Tom Benson said he and his wife attended a function at the seminary two years ago when he was remarking to a group of seminarians about how nice the first floor of the seminary looked.
“They got me in the middle of the hallway and they said, ‘Mr. Benson, have you ever been upstairs to see how we live?’” Benson said, laughing. “I never did go upstairs. That was enough. It’s really our privilege to be able to do this.”
Archbishop Aymond said the Bensons came to him with the offer to fund the renovations under one condition – that they chair a fund-raising committee to invite others to donate to future projects at the seminary.
“This happens very rarely,” Archbishop Aymond said. “Usually, when you have projects, you’re trying to find people to be generous. The Bensons believe very much in the Catholic Church and very much in the priesthood. They are examples of good stewardship. The real meaning of stewardship is that we realize that everything we have and everything we are comes from God.”
The renovation is more than just a cosmetic upgrade of facilities, said Father James Wehner, rector-president of Notre Dame Seminary. It is another sign that the archdiocese is serious about doing its best to train and form good priests.
“The faithful expect, as they should, competent, effective and holy priests,” Father Wehner said. “We need to be able to provide the proper environment by which that formation can take place.
“Thankfully, especially throughout the U.S. because of a significant increase in priestly vocations, we need to be able to provide the technology, the proper facilities and a campus that prepares seminarians to engage a modern culture. The seminary is not a retreat center nor is it a hotel. We still promote the virtue of simplicity and humility in the way we use the facilities. These renovations were necessary because of the condition of the buildings.”
The 48 window units in seminarians’ bedrooms were donated to Catholic Charities. The renovation also included a complete remodeling of the kitchen facility and expanded bathroom, shower and laundry facilities on the second and third floors.
“It’s very, very nice to have this,” said Deacon Daniel Green, who will be ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New Orleans in June. “Especially since most of the schools I’ve been to, the renovations are done after I’m gone. A lot of guys with allergies love the hardwood floors because it’s easier to sweep up the dust. The building looks sleek. We’re not worried about paint chipping off.”
Seminarian Matt Graham of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, president of the seminarians’ association, said everything was “much brighter and cleaner.”
“There’s less concern about health, because the carpets had been there for so long,” Graham said. “You don’t have to worry about mold coming from the AC units. You don’t have to worry about your equipment being damaged because now there are electrical sockets that are grounded and three-pronged. Guys have settled in and developed more of a sense of community life. Before hand, it was ‘Let’s go find somewhere else to sit and study or just enjoy ourselves.’ Sometimes the rooms weren’t conducive to that.”
Benson said he was impressed by the “sincerity” of the men preparing for the priesthood.
“Any little bit we can do to help them become better priests, boy, let’s do it,” he said.
This time, he did make it up to the third floor.
“Everything was so nice and in order and clean,” Benson said. “I was very impressed. For a bunch of young men, even the beds were made up good.”
“The faithful should appreciate that their resources have primarily been directed in assembling a competent and renowned teaching faculty and formation team to prepare our seminarians,” Father Wehner said. “I believe we now have a (physical) place that may be the best of any seminary in the country.”