Campus divided: Orchard Lake Regents split 16–13 on removing the Polish Seminary, Michigan’s oldest place of Catholic formation
By Joseph Serwach
On May 18, 2020, the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul the Great, Orchard Lake drew massive crowds. Photo by Joseph Serwach
In May 2020, Orchard Lake’s Archdiocesan Shrine of St. John Paul the Great brought Catholics back to church. Pandemic lockdowns halted public Masses worldwide, but John Paul’s 100th birthday reunited Catholics.
Polish-Americans will mark John Paul’s birthday by protesting the non-Polish school Regents on Sunday. The latter just canceled the Polish Country Fair (which has drawn crowds of more than 100,000 annually since the 1940s) while simultaneously trying to close Orchard Lake’s Polish Seminary.
“Sports coaches are closing the Polish Seminary,” the Polskie Lobby wrote in an alert to Poles, who make up about 10 percent of Michigan’s population. “Poles and Americans of Polish descent should not allow a group of random people to seize Polonia’s property that was bought and maintained by us for 137 years! We plan to gather in silent protest.”
The Orchard Lake Schools Regents leaders — opposed by bishops, priests, nuns, alumni, Polonia, and the entire Polish community — are trying to kill the Polish Seminary that became John Paul’s first “American home” in 1969 and 1976.
Orchard Lake Regent Andrew Harrington, who chairs the St. Mary’s Prep Board of Trustees, blamed security concerns in a letter to parents. In addition, he wrote, “we consulted with local authorities at the Orchard Lake Police Department, who also expressed serious safety and security concerns withholding the fair this year.”
However, Orchard Lake Police issued a statement saying, “Don’t blame us” for the cancellation from Orchard Lake Regents.
“I think it’s very simple,” Orchard Lake Police Chief William Nicholson told the Detroit Free Press. “The school made a decision to not go forward with the fair anymore, and I think people think there is more to it, and they are trying to make a story that is just not there.”
Besides canceling the Polish fair, Harrington, the Polski Lobby notes, was instrumental in securing extra proxy votes to close the Polish Seminary. The Catholic clergy and Poles lost that 16–13 vote, but Poles are still fighting. Many argue that the bishop’s and priests’ votes have more weight in influencing Michigan’s oldest Catholic seminary.
Orchard Lake’s founding documents require board members to be engaged Catholics, including priests, representatives of Polish organizations, and alumni. Every Regent meeting those criteria (13) voted to save the seminary. It remains the reason the schools began in 1885.
About a decade ago, the Regents of this Polish Catholic community believed Poles weren’t supporting their schools as much as they used to. So Orchard Lake began recruiting non-Polish regents primarily interested in OLS’s high school, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, and especially sports.
A former football coach and the current basketball coach hold key day-to-day leadership roles, sidelining embattled priests who founded the organization and are supposed to keep the daily chief executive functions.
Orchard Lake Seminary priests organized then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s first and second North American tours. Upon his arrival, they hailed him as “the Father of Orchard Lake” and made Wojtyla and the two priests who accompanied him (future cardinals) honorary Orchard Lake alumni.
Wojtyla repeatedly called Orchard Lake’s mission to form priests and Catholic leaders its essential mission. For years, the Orchard Lake high school fed the Orchard Lake college, which fed the seminary. As a result, two venerated alumni are now going through the canonization process leading to sainthood.
But many regents are more interested in high school and high school sports. Last year, board Chairman Stephen Gross, a bankruptcy attorney, told the Detroit Free Press the seminary’s mission was “accomplished” and argued Polish bishops didn’t want to send Orchard Lake any more seminarians.
The Polish bishops said that wasn’t true, and Gross and other regents voted to give the seminary a reprieve if they could devise a plan. The plan was rejected with Andy Harrington, an active high school advocate, bringing “proxies” from largely inactive regents.
But how do you close your primary parental organization when the board fractures with Catholic leadership united in support of keeping Catholic formation and education? St. John Paul, during his first trip to North America, organized by Orchard Lake priests in 1969, warned:
“ I plead with you to please bring your children up in the proper Christian spirit,” St. John Paul said. “The Polish Seminary is the most important task that we must serve and preserve. There is no greater anguish or absurdity for a person than not to have proper knowledge of why he lives and what his purpose is on earth.”