The Pontifical College Josephinum owes its existence to the vision of a zealous priest, Msgr. John Joseph Jessing (1836-1899), and to the generosity of many Catholics throughout the United States who helped him carry out his dream of preparing priests to serve immigrant Catholics in America.
One Man’s Vision
Joseph Jessing came to Ohio from Germany in 1867 at the age of 30 with a special interest in the needs of German-speaking immigrants. Three years later, he was ordained a priest for the newly-established Diocese of Columbus.
While at his first assignment in Pomeroy, Ohio, Father Jessing witnessed the hardships of the orphaned boys in his parish. In 1873, he began publishing the Ohio Waisenfreund (Ohio Orphan’s Friend), a German newspaper that gained a national circulation of 38,000. The paper provided much-needed religious instruction and world news for his German-speaking readers. It also brought in financial support for his work with the orphans, and enabled Fr. Jessing to establish an orphanage at Sacred Heart Parish (Pomeroy, OH) in 1875.
In August 1877, the growing orphanage was moved to Columbus, a location closer to the railroad, in order to increase circulation of the Ohio Waisenfreund. A trade school was set up for the older orphan boys, providing training in printing, church furniture construction, tailoring, shoe repair, baking, and farming.
A Leap of Faith
In 1888, when four of the older boys expressed a desire to study for the priesthood, Father Jessing extended an invitation in his July 4th issue of the Ohio Waisenfreund for seminary training for two additional boys. More than 40 applications were received – far more than expected – and 23 young men from 11 states were accepted. Trusting in God’s plan, Fr. Jessing, on September 2, 1888, started his own seminary, the Collegium Josephinum, so named by him in honor of his patron, St. Joseph.
A Pontifical Seminary
Four years later, to ensure that his seminary would have a stable future and a national purpose in ministering to the German-speaking immigrants in the United States, Fr. Jessing asked the Holy See to accept it as a pontifical institution. At that time, Pope Leo XIII was preparing the Church to enter the new century and recognized the growing importance the American continent held for the continuing spread of the Gospel. He accepted the Josephinum through the Society for the Propagation of the Faith on December 12, 1892, thus making the Collegium Josephinum the Pontifical College Josephinum, linking it directly to the Vatican.
Although it has direct ties with the Holy See, the Josephinum is self-supporting and receives no financial support from Rome, nor is it dependent on any one diocese or religious community.
Change and Growth
On June 5, 1894, the Josephinum was incorporated under the laws of the State of Ohio, and on June 14, 1894, it was chartered as a degree-issuing institution.
From its original campus at East Main and 17th Streets, the seminary was relocated to its present site in 1931. The cornerstone was installed for the new main building complex only one week before the 1929 stock market crash that heralded the Great Depression. Undaunted by the threat of economic disaster and true to Msgr. Jessing’s motto, If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:13), the seminary’s leaders proceeded, confident that their brave undertaking would succeed. The institution stands today as a monument to that trust, as well as to the generosity of those who support the Josephinum’s mission.
Until 1970, the Pontifical College Josephinum comprised a minor and major seminary, with the minor seminary consisting of four years of high school and two years of college, and the major seminary comprising two years of philosophy and four years for theology. Currently, the Josephinum has undergraduate and graduate programs of four years each, as well as a two-year pre-theology program.
In response to continued growth in size and service, new college and recreational buildings were completed in 1958. The former high school building became the Pope Saint John Paul II Education Center in 1982, and incorporated the greatly expanded A.T. Wehrle Memorial Library.
Continuing the Mission
For several decades, the Josephinum focused on preparing students to minister to German-speaking Catholics across the country. As the need for German-speaking priests declined, the Josephinum adopted a wider mission. Keeping in mind the founder’s original purpose of educating students in financial need, the seminary turned its attention to preparing candidates to minister in rural and missionary dioceses. Special emphasis is now placed on preparing seminarians to serve Hispanic Catholics.
The Josephinum has welcomed lay students in both its college and theology programs since the mid-1970s. In addition, the Josephinum now provides educational resources through distance-learning and other technology-based media, delivering continuing education programs to priests and deacons throughout North America.
Because the Josephinum is a pontifical institution, it serves dioceses and religious communities in the United States and the Church abroad, including students from countries as far as Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Since its founding in 1888, more than 1,900 priests have received their training at the Pontifical College Josephinum. Ordained alumni are active today in nearly all of the 50 states in the United States and in more than 20 foreign countries. Lay alumni are just as widespread, and make invaluable contributions to the life of the Church.