In Your Midst

From the Archives

Lent 2010

Sedes Sapientiae, Seat of Wisdom

The beautiful statue of the Virgin and Child in our Cathedral Courtyard has a rich history.  For more than forty years, she stood on a grassy knoll overlooking Lake Washington, on the grounds of St. Edward’s Seminary in Kenmore.

The Seminary was the dream of Bishop Edward John O’Dea.  In fact, he bought the land on which to build the seminary with his own inheritance!  On October 13, 1930, the feast of St. Edward the Confessor, the cornerstone was laid, and the magnificent building was dedicated precisely one year later, on October 13, 1931 (during the Great Depression, skilled labor was cheap and abundant).  An awestruck Seattle Times described the scene:  “The chapel of the splendid seminary, in its restful setting in the green firs and cedars overlooking Lake Washington, rang and echoed today to the sonorous Latin chants and antiphons of choristers and priests at the opening dedication rites.  There was a wealth of color, impressive, almost dazzling—mitres, glinting with gold and red, flowing robes of many colors, the white of surplice against the black of cassocks, gleaming crosiers, candles, and silver incense burners.”

For Bishop O'Dea, the dedication of a seminary for Seattle was the crowning achievement of a career full of notable achievements. He died just over a year after dedicating the new seminary, on Christmas Day, 1932.

St. Edward’s Seminary was given into the care of the Sulpician Fathers, who already ran flourishing seminaries in Baltimore, Bardstown, Brighton, Emmitsburg, Dunwoodie, Menlo Park—and Montreal, where Bishop O’Dea had studied.  Founded by Father Jean-Jacques Olier in the 17th century at the parish church of St. Sulpice in Paris, the Society of St. Sulpice is a unique community in that it is the only priestly fraternity dedicated exclusively to the education of priests.  The Sulpicians have a devotion to Our Lady under the title Sedes Sapientiae or “Seat of Wisdom,” and they brought this devotion with them to the United States.

The statue that now stands in the Cathedral’s Archbishop Murphy Courtyard was a gift to St. Edward’s Seminary from Rosemary McDougall of Orillia, in memory of her father Malcolm McDougall. It was placed in front of the great seminary building, looking out over Lake Washington.  On May 29, 1936 the statue was unveiled in a grand ceremony.
For forty years, St. Edward’s Seminary was a thriving institution where young men from all over the Northwest who were considering priesthood got a first-rate education.  Seminary life was quite strict: rising early for Mass each day, with lights out and “Great Silence” beginning at 9:00pm (strictly enforced).  And the food wasn’t wonderful!  But there were fun times, too—athletics, school plays, and pranks.  And it would be hard to find a more beautiful campus anywhere.

The image of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, figured largely in the seminarians’ devotions, and Father Ryan (who entered the seminary at the age of 14)  remembers the seminarians crowding on the front steps of the seminary and singing the traditional evening antiphon to the Blessed Mother before this statue.

Due to declining enrollment, the seminary was forced to close its doors in 1976.  The following year, the State of Washington bought the 316-acre property and it became St. Edward’s State Park. 
The historic seminary building, still stunning externally, has suffered serious decay over time. “Magnificent desolation” is how the building was described in an article in the Seattle Times last May.  The long corridors are empty, and the dusty rooms, some still crowded with old school furniture, are damaged by water, earthquake, and time.  The old dormitories are unused now, and only come to life (rather ominously) when they are used by the local police and fire fighters as a training ground.

The building is not entirely desolate, however. Park ranger Mohammad Mostafavinassab lives in the building with his wife and three children.  They (along with three dogs, some hamsters, and a tank of tropical fish) occupy the old convent, where French Canadian nuns used to sew vestments.  Mostafavinassab is an eager student of the seminary’s history.  And there are many tokens of that history left behind.  In the old chemistry lab, the names of former seminarians are scratched into the countertops, along with an occasional “I slept here.”  Mostafavinassab dreams of the day when the building (placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2006) will be fully restored.  But with repairs needed to the roof as well as earthquake refitting, that dream is still $58 million away!

Meanwhile, Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, was moved to the grounds of St. James Cathedral in 1977 and has become the centerpiece of the Archbishop Murphy Courtyard.  Throughout the day and into the evening, passersby stop to say a prayer before the beautiful image of the Virgin and Child—just as the young seminarians did in days gone by.

Two moments:  Sedes Sapientiae, Seat of Wisdom, is placed on a pedestal on the wide lawn in front of St. Edward's Seminary, 1936.  Almost seventy years later, in December, 2005, the statue is placed in the Cathedral's new Archbishop Thomas J. Murphy Courtyard.  Special thanks to Park Ranger Mohammad Mostafavinassab and the Archives of St. Edward's State Park for the historic photo.

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