Madison Leitch, then a seventh-grader, writes that she is praying for the men in seminary and thanks them for choosing this vocation.
Madison Leitch, then a seventh-grader, writes that she is praying for the men in seminary and thanks them for choosing this vocation.

Annabelle Clemen’s favorite part of the school day is going to religion class. 

A seventh-grader at Mater Christi School in Albany, Annabelle looks forward to when she can write to her “adopted” class pen-pal: Kyle Gorenski, a seminarian studying at Our Lady of Providence Seminary in Rhode Island.

“I love it so much,” said Annabelle. “Everyone gets to write to a seminarian, and it’s always so much fun to do.”

Like Annabelle, other seventh-grade students look forward to the day they get to write to Mr. Gorenski. Each letter is decorated with colorful art and stickers, and filled with encouraging words of support to help their seminarian in his studies.

The project is all a part of Mater Christi’s Adopt-a-Seminarian program, which allows students in fifth-to eighth-grade to “adopt” a seminarian as pen-pal, whom they can write letters to and offer words of encouragement or thanks for pursuing God’s call to the priesthood.

“They’re just normal guys, [and] it gives them that perspective,” said Janice Jackson, creator and coordinator for the Adopt-a-Seminarian program.

One seminarian is assigned to each of the participating grades, explained Mrs. Jackson. This year, the Mater Christi’s fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes have “adopted” seminarians Peter Seungtae Kim, Thomas Yakodia, Kyle Gorenski, Matthew Duclos and Stephen Yusko. 

“As with any letter from home, I’m always appreciative of the time people devote to keeping in touch, especially across an ocean,” said Mr. Duclos, who is currently in seminary at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. “The cards from these students are particularly special because I’m starting to develop a pen-pal connection even without having met them yet.

Getting “adopted”

In 2016, Mrs. Jackson got the idea to create the Adopt-a-Seminarian project from her home parish, St. Jude in Wynantskill. Very Rev. Anthony Ligato, pastor and vicar for vocations at the Albany Diocese, had been updating the parish on the growing number of men entering the seminary.

Approximately 35 men are either discerning the path or on their way to the priesthood in the Albany Diocese. Of those men, around 22 are currently in seminary. 

Mrs. Jackson thought there could be a way to incorporate her work as a religion teacher with the growing number of men going off to study for the priesthood. She thought about sending letters: “The kids will grow up, and the [seminarians] will become priests, and they can say, ‘Hey, I remember them!” said Mrs. Jackson. “They’ll be more connected to the Church.”

Mrs. Jackson contacted Father Ligato, who connected her with four seminarians who would be interested in receiving letters. Now, the program is into its second year — with a new set of “adopted” seminarians — and still going strong. 

“The life of a seminarian could be a bit mysterious for someone who hasn’t experienced it,” said Mr. Duclos. “So I think these letters are helping the students to learn about the process of formation for the priesthood.”

Terry Ewell, principal of Mater Christi School, said the program fits well with the school’s mission: “Learning about vocations, the process for becoming a priest and how each seminarian came to their calling gives our student’s insight to one of the ways God may guide them to use their gifts.” 

Prayers and letters

Mrs. Jackson hangs a poster in the back of her classroom with the current list of men in seminary, and a binder filled with bios on each of the men. Each day, Mrs. Jackson’s classes picks a seminarian from the list to pray for, and looks up their name in the binder to read about who are they are and where they are studying. 

“It’s just part of the classroom ritual, praying for seminarians,” said Mrs. Jackson. “It’s really neat.” 

Every couple of weeks, the class will get to write a letter to their “adopted” pen-pal. Mrs. Jackson tries to align the day with an upcoming holiday, like vocations awareness week, thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter. 

Students are encouraged to customize the cards with their own art and message, and each time Mrs. Jackson is blown away by their work: “They get so creative,” she said. “They’re very good, it’s pretty amazing.”

While she doesn’t expect for the seminarians to reply — the letters are just for encouragement and support — Mrs. Jackson said when the class does get a letter back, the small gesture doesn’t go unnoticed: “It’s nice when they respond because I know [the students] appreciate it.”

Last year, Annabelle’s sixth-grade class “adopted” seminarian Samuel Bellafiore. In a reply letter, he mentioned his love for terrible puns and jokes. For the rest of the year, her whole class made sure to include at least one corny pun in each of their letters to him. 

Mr. Duclos, who was “adopted” by the eighth-grade class, told the students that he and fellow seminarians love to watch “The Office” in their lounge every Wednesday night: “I think developing these connections by talking about things we enjoy in common, as well as praying for each other, helps them to realize that we (seminarians, priests, religious, etc.) are simply following our own unique path that God has planned for us.”

Last year, a couple of seminarians were able to come in and visit the school. Annabelle said it was great to meet the men they had been writing to all year. 

“In general, I just love to get in contact with the seminarians,” said Annabelle. “You could just walk past a seminarian and not know it; it’s so cool to learn about them.”