To visit his family, first-year theology student Zack Mazurek drives nearly 600 miles from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit to his home in Bessemer, located in the western corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Mazurek grew up in the town of 1,800 people and spent his undergraduate years on the small campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior before entering the Sacred Heart Major Seminary pre-theology program in 2019.
“When you go into town in the U.P., you know everyone. Here, there are no familiar faces when you venture out,” said Mazurek. “But Sacred Heart is my home for now and I’m happy here. I look for places to be in nature and to go for a run. Being here gives me perspective and makes me appreciate where I’m from.”
Mazurek and five other seminarians from the Diocese of Marquette are studying at Sacred Heart. Two others are at Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Winona, Minnesota. The Marquette diocese has sent men to Detroit for decades, long before Bishop John Doerfler was installed in 2014, and before Fr. Ben Hasse became the vocations director for the diocese in 2015.
“Even though Mundelein Seminary (Illinois) and Saint Paul Seminary (Minnesota) are closer to us, we like to support the seminary within our state,” Fr. Hasse said. “The challenges in doing that as a small, rural diocese are the distance and the very different cultural setting. But Sacred Heart has a strong commitment to doctrinal orthodoxy which is really important to us in Marquette. There’s also a vibrant presence of the authentic fruits of the charismatic renewal, with consistent attention to the question of evangelization.”
The Diocese of Marquette serves the whole of the Upper Peninsula, covering 15 counties and over 16,000 square miles, in contrast to 3,901 square miles in the Archdiocese of Detroit. 300,000 people live in the entire U.P., while more than twice that number live in the city of Detroit alone.
Despite being out of his comfort zone at first, Mazurek came to appreciate the area and he values his priestly formation at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.
“They do a great job here integrating the course work so that it all complements each other,” said Mazurek. “We’ll discuss Church fathers in one class, and then in a Scripture class, we’ll discuss what the Church fathers said about that Scripture. It shows how all these aspects of the faith are interwoven and it unifies my knowledge of philosophy.”
Now in his fourth year of the theology program at Sacred Heart, Deacon Brandon Yanni grew up in Sault Ste. Marie. He sees the practical application of his studies to the rural parishes where he’ll someday serve.
“The actual skills needed to be a good priest aren’t all that different whether you’re in an urban parish or a rural one – having a good spiritual life, proper academic formation, knowing the faith, being able to counsel people and help with spiritual direction.”
In fact, Deacon Yanni believes that the strong foundation of evangelization gained at the seminary in Detroit will help him all the more at the rural parishes where he’ll likely be assigned.
“At a smaller parish, it’s easier to get to know a larger percentage of the parish. You can have a greater relationship with more people and because of that, I think you can have more influence on their lives and in helping them with their spiritual journey. In a large parish you don’t have that luxury,” said Deacon Yanni. “It seems to me that evangelization has to be as one-on-one and as personal as possible.”
Bishop Doerfler agrees that even though attending seminary in an urban center such as Detroit contrasts starkly with the U.P., there are fundamentals that pertain to the life of a priest across the board.
“Sacred Heart does a good job of teaching those [fundamentals],” Bishop Doerfler said. “I think that teaching is complemented by how much we engage the seminarians in the life of parishes here in the Upper Peninsula when they’re home for the summer so that they remain rooted in and connected to the diocese.”
Since going home for the weekend isn’t an option, Marquette seminarians explore the Detroit area and spend time with other seminarians and faculty.
“Our guys who are at the seminary go away from their home diocese, away from what’s familiar, away from relationships with priests and friends. Our Yoopers have adopted (theology professor) Fr. Peter Ryan and made quick friends with the Chaldean seminarians and some going into religious orders,” said Fr. Hasse. “Faculty members become mentors in a special way to our men who can’t go home on the weekend.”
In his time at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Mazurek has enjoyed hosting visitors from out of town, be it family, friends, priests from the Diocese of Marquette, or even strangers.
“Anyone in the U.P. is like family, so if someone reaches out to us when they’re in Detroit, we like to meet them and give them a tour of the seminary,” said Mazurek.
Most parishes in the U.P. are served by just one priest with no associate pastor, making fraternity with brother priests especially important. The six Marquette seminarians spend time together weekly to build their relationships now before they live hours apart from each other. They gather for game nights or dinner, to pray, and to pen Christmas cards thanking people back home for their support.
The “Yooper seminarians” also enjoy taking seminarian friends from other dioceses home with them on school breaks to introduce them to the beauty of the Upper Peninsula.
As Deacon Yanni sets his sights on ordination next spring, he reflects on his time at the seminary.
“I’m very grateful to the philosophy department here at Sacred Heart for what I’ve received from them,” said Deacon Yanni. “I think the foundation made in my college years in philosophy will continue to bear fruit in my own ongoing studies in reading and understanding theology, and then passing that on to the people I serve. It will allow me to teach the faith, to preach it accurately and faithfully, and to build them up in that.”
Photos by: Dcn. Brandon Yanni