A local newspaper in Virginia, The Farmville Herald, ran a story about the new seminary project in May of this year.
By JORDAN MILES
BUCKINGHAM — The new Saint Thomas Aquinas Seminary, being constructed on Ranson Road, just 11 miles outside the Town of Dillwyn, is progressing very well and according to plans.
When entering the large construction site, one can see the massive cinderblock walls towering over the red soil, almost engulfing the westward view towards the mountains.
The seminary, established in 1973 in Winona, Minnesota for the formation of Roman Catholic priests, is planning to move into their new digs around 2015, when the first phase of the project is complete.
“We started looking very closely at moving here…Then we started building in 2011 and in 2012,” Father Steven Reuter, one of the project managers, told The Herald in a recent site interview, explaining that the decision to move was made in 2009.
Father Reuter, a priest who teaches at the seminary, says he’s involved to give a priestly presence, and to make sure construction corresponds to the vision of the new church.
Reuter works directly with Kevin Monsey, a construction consultant who works for the seminary.
According to Reuter, the project is situated on 1,100 acres of property the seminary purchased. The first phase of the project, which excludes the church, will include several buildings with a sum of about 140,000 square feet.
“The church is not under design right now. We have some preliminary designs. We’re still working on that design,” the priest said of phase two, which will exclusively pertain to the building of the church.
Because of the outstanding design details of the church, Reuter was unable to offer an estimated completion date of the entire project, which overlooks the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west.
“Once we finish the seminary proper, which is the cloister, the administration building, when we finish all that and see the final situation, we’ll decide when and how to proceed with the church. Our goal is to move in before the church is complete, and we’re going to use one of the large classrooms as the church.”
R.F. Howerton, of Warfield, serves as the project’s general contractor, says Reuter.
“Certainly, it was a long process of looking for property. We wanted a property that was very quiet, remote, which helps the seminarians, of course, be formed in the religious spirit, not affected by all the noise of the world,” he offered after being asked why the seminary leaders chose Buckingham. “And when this property came up at a reasonable price, we had some benefactors helping us, and it was also close to an airport, which is Charlottesville, and is close to Richmond, and the priests have to travel a lot, so it gave us an opportunity to have somewhere very quiet and secluded, yet you know, 45 minutes away from a decent town where we could travel in and out of.”
He noted the project’s proximity to Appomattox Court House.
Reuter estimates the total cost of phase one of the project to be well over $30 million dollars. Numerous construction factors are part of the estimate he says. According to the priest, it will cost about $23 million to get the building “dried in,” with the façade of the buildings, whether it be stone or stucco, could range from $10 to $15 million. Because the design drawings are still out on phase two, there’s no word on how much money the church could cost.
“It’s been going very well,” he said of the first phase. “As you see, it’s a slow process because we’re using masonry walls, which takes more time than just steel frames or studs.”
There were a few reasons the leaders chose masonry walls to build their buildings.
“A sense of permanence, that was a big thing. We want this building to be a reflection of what the church is…It’s the reason that’s motivated many past constructions in the past thousands of years. They wanted to build something that was a symbol…It’s something which we have no intention of leaving, and so we thought we’d make it that…And it helps as for the sound factors as well. It receives the stone easier.”
Parts of phase one include the religious cloister, which includes the mechanical system, a music classroom, and storage in the basement level. Planned are academic classrooms for the first floor, and bedrooms and offices in the second and third floors.
The third floor is visibly not intact yet, as pallets and pallets of cinderblock scatter the job site. He told The Herald he hopes to have the top floor on by the end of spring.
Reuter, who most of the time manages the project remotely from his office in Minnesota, visits the project twice a month, and handles many questions and construction matters via email.
“It’s certainly challenging because it’s a very unique building. Something like this hasn’t been built, I would say, in 200 years. In the 18th Century, you’ll see something similar in the United States. There’s a certain look we’re going after that hasn’t been built in 200 years. So, getting everyone up to speed with that, trying to understand what that is, while using modern technology, while using all the things we can to keep the costs down…So how to keep the spirit that we want without just wasting money. So it’s been a challenge,” he commented, wearing his black and white robe.
The seminary is a non-profit group, Reuter explains, and all of the money they’re using to build the new facility comes from donations of benefactors. “It’s all donation driven. And that’s another challenge. Keeping donations up with construction. That’s the reason we’re always trying to keep the construction as low as we can…It’s a very difficult thing to keep the balances between prices and budget and beauty. I think we’ve found that balance…”
During the tour of the construction site, Reuter showed The Herald where the church would stand, next to the cloister. “Right here, where we’re standing, is where the altar of the church will be…And that cloister will come into the church. You’ll have religious processions, the priests and the bishops coming around…” he said while walking on top of the red clay earth.
He hopes to have stone cladding on the phase one buildings.
The project is having a sizable impact on the local economy in Buckingham. “Everyone we use is as local as we can,” Reuter said, explaining that the site contractor is Joe Steinruck, a local contractor. The priest also explains that the seminary is aided by Joe N. Chambers Jr., a member of the Buckingham Board of Supervisors and minister.
Site contractors use a tremendous amount of fuel, and frequently patronize the local restaurants in Dillwyn, says Reuter. “Hotels are being used by the crews. We’re renting houses for the crews.”
“We certainly want to be as involved as possible with the County. And, I’ve met a number of times with the chamber of commerce, for example. We’re looking for ways to be involved with the County. Everyone here is very polite. There’s certainly a southern charm, a southern politeness which you don’t see in many places…” he added.
Reuter, who began his job with the site last fall, calls the job both challenging and noble. “And a very worthwhile cause, and it’s worth all the challenges involved.”
The priest hopes that the first phase will be completed by 2015. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he chuckled. “It all kind of depends. We hope to keep it going slowly but truly.”
In terms of how many seminarians and priests will be on site once they move in, Reuter estimates about 100 people—about 80 students nine months out of the year, December through June, and about 10 priests.
The cold, long winter Buckingham experienced this year didn’t deter the builders and contractors. He says the site was only shut down for about four days despite the massive snowfalls.
“This will be more of where the business of the seminary happens. The secretary, (and) the accountant for example, will work in this building. We’ll also have a bookstore so when people come and want to know who we are, what we do, they can buy books and DVD’s…” Reuter said of a separate, much smaller building situated to the south of the larger one, which will serve as the administration building.
The seminary plans to have a cattle farm on their property, once they move in come 2015. “We certainly hope to have a cattle farm. We already have a few cows out there.”
Other than raising cattle on the land, the seminary also hopes to be sustainable with the property, planting a few crops, like grapes, for example.
They also plan to possibly manage the vast amount of once-owned Westvaco timber that’s on the land.
“We certainly will need…a cook, that’s a full time position. One hundred mouths (will be fed) every day. Also an accountant, a bookkeeper…” he said of the local employment impact on Buckingham once the seminary moves. “We take care of that on an internal basis,” he said of the housekeeping needs of the buildings.
Seminary leaders want the buildings to be green, or sustainable, as well. “We certainly want to be as energy efficient as we can. For that reason, we’re having a geothermal system put in. Which is very expensive up front…We’re certainly conscious about that,” Reuter stated, adding that 100 geothermal wells have already been drilled.
“The focus of the building is the religious cloister…That will lead you to the church where holy mass is offered. So everything kind of serves the church, even though the church is going to be last.”
As Reuter and The Herald walked around the massive, hundred-and-something-feet-tall cinderblock walls, two small, makeshift exterior walls with roofs came into view.
“We got a decent price on it. It’s a clay roof, which will match the stone…” he said of one of the sampling structures. “There are different stone samples from all over the country. We haven’t found much local stone yet, but we are looking…”
When it comes to the larger construction questions and decisions, those usually are directed to Bishop Bernard Fellay, based in Switzerland, who serves as the head of their society, Saint Pius X (SSPX), and the rector of the seminary, Father Yves Le Roux, who’s based in Minnesota. “I’ll give them the numbers and the samples, and they’ll choose.”
Other construction decisions are made by Reuter and Monsey.
About 60 members of construction crews and contractor teams are on site daily, says Reuter, whether it be masons, electricians, plumbers, or staff of the general contractor.
“I would certainly encourage them to stay tuned,” Father Reuter commented regarding the new seminary’s website, www.newseminaryproject.org, where construction progress can be followed.
Once completed, phase one will contain about 110 seminarian rooms, 10 priest rooms, and about six guest rooms, according to the priest.
Once the project is complete, seminarians will have a rigorous daily schedule to follow while living in Buckingham. Reuter explains that generally, the seminarians will rise at 6 a.m., which will be followed by prayer, private meditation, then mass. Breakfast is next, followed by chores, classes, lunch and recreation, and study time in the afternoon.
“The schedule has a certain regiment. But we always make time for guests who want to visit. The rule of Saint Benedict is to receive every guest as you receive Christ, so we try to live that.”
“I’m certainly impressed by the people so far and I’m looking forward to meeting more of them,” Reuter concluded.