The establishment of a diocesan seminary in lower Louisiana was a keen concern of Bishop Louis Dubourg (1815–1826). It also proved a point of honest disagreement between himself and Bishop Joseph Rosati, C.M., the first rector of St. Mary’s Seminary of the Barrens in upper Louisiana (1818), and his coadjutor since 1824. Bishop Rosati reasoned that, although property was available for a seminary on a thousand-acre site donated for that purpose by Father Bernardo de Deva in Platteville on Bayou Lafourche, priests were too scarce in both upper and lower Louisiana to assure staffing adequately a second seminary.
Bishop Dubourg’s plan was finally realized by Bishop Antoine Blanc (1835-1860) who, in 1838, negotiated an agreement with Father John Timon, C.M., Superior of the Congregation of the Mission or Lazarist Fathers, to open a seminary in Platteville next to Assumption Church on Bayou Lafourche.
The official name of the institution was “The Ecclesiastical Diocesan Seminary of St. Vincent de Paul,” but it was popularly known as Assumption Seminary. The first rector was Father Bonaventure Armengol, C.M. In describing the building, the editor of the 1839 issue of the Catholic Almanac noted, “The house … is 75 feet long, 50 feet deep and two stories high, with a basement.”
This brick building housed seminarians until 1855 when fire completely destroyed it. The students moved to Faubourg Bouligny, a New Orleans suburb, and lodged in the rectory of St. Stephen’s Church on Napoleon Avenue.
Three years later a building was erected next to St. Stephen Church and served as a seminary staffed by Lazarists until 1867 when it was suppressed due to the financial distress of the diocese following the Civil War. Despite the shortage of funds, another effort was made little more than a decade later to establish a diocesan seminary. At the end of his life, and just before he sailed to Rome for the First Vatican Council, Archbishop Jean Odin, C.M., had plans drawn up for a building to be constructed next to the Old Ursuline Convent (then his residence) on the site of the former Ursuline chapel which had been known as St. Mary of Consolation. This building was functioning by the end of 1870, at which time Napoleon Joseph Perche was appointed the new archbishop. Although by 1873 this seminary, which was much later remodeled to become St. Mary’s Italian School, had forty students and was staffed by priests of the Archdiocese, it too succumbed to financial pressure and was closed in 1881.
Nearly another twenty years passed before it was decided to reopen the seminary that had been built in the Faubourg Bouligny district next to St. Stephen Church. However, Archbishop James H. Blenk, S.M., rescinded that decision after only seven years.
Two years after his arrival as Archbishop Blenk’s successor, Archbishop John W. Shaw (1918-1934) called a meeting of laymen at his Esplanade Avenue residence for the purpose of discussing with them the ways and means of erecting a substantial building on a site acquired in 1910 through the efforts of Father Francis Prim, a pastor of Mater Dolorosa Church in the Carrollton section of New Orleans.
An outcome of the August 20, 1920, meeting was the launching of a capital campaign. By the following January the campaign netted close to $1 million from some 50,000 subscribers. Encouraged by this broad-based display of interest and generosity towards a permanent major seminary, the archbishop commissioned the architect, General Allison Owen, to draw plans for Notre Dame Seminary.
The corner stone was laid for the handsome chateau-like building on May 7, 1922. The seminary began functioning on September 18, 1923, with 25 students from the three Louisiana dioceses registering for philosophical and theological courses. In 1925, the current archbishop’s residence was built next to the seminary.
From the beginning of the seminary until 1967, the Marist Fathers of the Washington Province administered the seminary. The first rector was Father Charles Dubray, S.M. The number of students remained small through the formative years, not exceeding 60 until September 1932.
In the early 1950’s, as enrollment proved too large for the 90 students’ rooms, Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel (1935-1964) raised nearly $1 million to construct St. Joseph Hall. The archbishop raised the funds to coincide with his 25th anniversary of episcopal consecration and his 50th in the priesthood. The architect for this building was Jack J. H. Kessels.
St. Joseph Hall, which has some student and faculty rooms, houses the seminary library with a capacity of 200,000 volumes and has an auditorium attached. Previously, Archbishop Rummel had provided a permanent brick residence on the campus for the Sisters of the Holy Family, which later was occupied by the Order of Discalced Carmelites under whom the house was known as the John of the Cross House of Studies. The house then served as a House of Discernment for men who are discerning the possibility of entering the seminary, and came to be known as the Lourdes House.
During his relatively short tenure as apostolic administrator and archbishop, the Most Reverend John P. Cody (1962-1965) laid the groundwork for the emergence of Notre Dame Seminary into a provincial seminary exclusively for theological students. Prior to the establishment in 1964 of the St. John Vianney Preparatory School, also located in the Carrollton section, diocesan seminarians normally spent six years at St. Joseph Preparatory Seminary (established by the Benedictines at Gessen, Louisiana in 1891) and then six more years at Notre Dame Seminary. St. Joseph Seminary College (in Covington, Louisiana since 1902) became a four-year college seminary in 1968, serving principally the province of New Orleans.
In addition to the Marist Fathers, diocesan priests and others of specialized competence have been professors and lecturers at Notre Dame Seminary since the arrival of Archbishop Philip M. Hannan in 1965.
In 1984 a special evaluation team created by the Vatican for the purpose of studying and advising American seminaries visited Notre Dame Seminary. In 1993, Notre Dame Seminary completed its 70th year of service to the Archdiocese of New Orleans and to the Gulf South Region. In 1995 a self-study was conducted and was followed by visits from the accrediting agencies.
A few noteworthy events have occurred which have become a part of the seminary’s history. Outstanding among these has to be the visit of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1987. Not only was this the first visit of any Roman Pontiff to New Orleans, but for the two nights of his sojourn here, the Pope slept in the adjoining residence of the Archbishop. The first enthusiastic group to greet the Pope was the Notre Dame seminarians.
In 1993, the archdiocese celebrated its bicentennial. Many different events marked the year-long festivities: special liturgical services, an exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the publication of a nearly 700 page volume of collected essays, gatherings for the young and events for the faithful. The faculty and seminarians were active participants at many of the events. A substantial benefit for the seminary was designated from the Capital Campaign which was launched by Archbishop Francis B. Schulte.
In 1997, the first history of Notre Dame Seminary was published entitled, The History of Notre Dame Seminary. It was written by Reverend Mark S. Raphael, who was a student at the time. This history was produced for the 75th anniversary of the seminary’s opening, a jubilee celebrated throughout the academic year of 1998 – 1999 with an Open House in September, a special Eucharistic Celebration in October, and a special Alumni Day celebration in February 1999.
Notre Dame Seminary observed its 90th anniversary during the 2013 – 2014 academic year. In preparation for this historic anniversary, Archbishop Gregory Aymond, the first native-born priest to be appointed Archbishop of New Orleans, received a $7 million gift from Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Benson, owners of the New Orleans Saints NFL football franchise, for the renovation of the Shaw Hall residential rooms. Renovations included the installation of an air temperature control system in each room, the installation of new restrooms, and a complete redesign of the dining room.
An $18 million joint campaign was launched in Fall 2012 between Saint Joseph Seminary, Covington, Louisiana, and Notre Dame Seminary. The campaign was chaired by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas and Gayle Benson. Notre Dame Seminary used these funds to renovate Saint Joseph Hall. In 2017, Mrs. Gayle Benson gave another $2 million to renovate the old convent. It was dedicated in October 2018 to house 24 seminarians.
As a graduate school and a seminary, Notre Dame Seminary continues to be an apostolic community of faith forming future priests for the Church as well as a center of theological studies preparing the laity for ministry and leadership positions in the Church.