PHILADELPHIA – Everybody needs a hobby, as the saying goes, including seminarians.
For Rob Bollinger, who is studying for the priesthood at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, his hobby – his way of seeking some respite from his studies – starts with a piece of wood.
“There’s definitely a sense of accomplishment to go from a piece of wood on the ground to something that’s a totally new purpose,” he said. “To see the process from start to finish is very gratifying.”
From an initial piece of wood, large or small, Bollinger enjoys carefully crafting various works – such as a Murphy bed for a family member or a hand-carved chessboard.
Bollinger can now add a 7-foot-tall white cross of poplar wood to the list.
His creation is not just any cross. The final product will stand over the construction site of a new archdiocesan seminary on land purchased from Gwynedd Mercy University outside Philadelphia.
Made from an old pew found in the basement of a chapel at the current seminary, the cross will pay homage to the school’s illustrious past, while looking to the future under the care of Christ.
“There is undeniably a sense of sadness about leaving our Overbrook campus,” which the seminary has called home since 1871, said Auxiliary Bishop Timothy C. Senior, seminary chancellor.
“But continuity is very important, and this cross is an expression of that. As Catholics, we center our lives on dying and rising,” he told CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocesan news outlet. “There is a dying, but there is a resurrection, too. This cross then is really about the future.”
The cross debuted Dec. 8 at the groundbreaking and blessing at the new seminary site. Bollinger carried it at the head of a procession that included Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez and several other bishops.
Seminarians, members of the seminary’s board and other supporters also attended the event.
“The work we are beginning today should enliven our faith and make us grateful,” Archbishop Pérez said in his blessing. “We know the familiar words of the psalm, ‘The Lord does not build a house in vain to its builder’s labor.’ Whenever we look to the interest of our neighbor for the community and serve them, we are in a sense God’s own co-worker.”
Father Keith Chylinski, seminary rector, said in his opening remarks that the cross and its location overseeing the construction site “serves as a reminder of why we’re here and why this seminary is being built. It’s being built to proclaim the hopeful good news to the world that God is with us; that he is alive and he’s here.”
The new seminary is scheduled to be ready for the 2024-2025 academic year. Planning has been underway for several years.
In 2016, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, now retired, accepted a recommendation from the seminary board of trustees to sell the seminary property in Wynnewood, another suburb of Philadelphia, and explore options to partner with a local Catholic college.
Eventually, the current seminary property was sold to Main Line Health, a health care system, after reaching an agreement to move to the new location in Lower Gwynedd Township, north of Philadelphia. Founded in 1832, the seminary currently has 133 seminarians, including 68 studying for the archdiocese.
The idea of installing a cross at the construction site had its roots years ago when Father Chylinski was the music director at Corpus Christi Church in Lansdale, and the parish did something similar before building a new church.
“I see my role as rector as twofold – helping people to grieve the loss of moving from this beloved campus but also to look forward as we move to the new,” he said.
“The very fact we are using wood from a pew for the cross is meant to be a sign that we are not leaving everything behind as we move to the new place, that we are taking many things with us, not the least of which is our greatest treasure, our seminarians, themselves.
As planning progressed, seminary officials approached Bollinger, who Father Chylinski described “as a great craftsman.”
Bollinger is in the seventh year of a nine-year program. He started woodworking early in his studies at the seminary, beginning with online videos and working his way to bigger projects. Fellow seminarian Greg Miller joined the effort.
“People don’t usually picture someone studying for the priesthood to have such normal hobbies,” Bollinger said. “But I’ve found this to be extremely recreational in the sense that whenever I feel burnt out or need a break, I do woodworking for an hour and I feel rejuvenated.”
Bishop Senior said healthy leisure activities and outlets such as woodworking are an important part of formation for seminarians.
“There is a spiritual dimension for seminarians being able to express themselves creatively,” he said.
Will Bollinger be able to continue with his hobby when he’s ordained? He hopes so. He’s heard of parishes with abandoned wood shops in their basements that were once used by priests with a similar inclination.
“That would be cool to be placed in one of those,” he said.