The high school was founded in 1860 as the Convent Latin School. It was founded by Francis Haas and Bonaventure Frey, two Capuchin friars.The school's mission to prepare its male students for vocations in the Roman Catholic Church. It is boarding school, with approximately 225 students enrolled in grades 9 through 12.
Over the years it has been called the Convent Latin School, the Little Seminary of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, St. Lawrence College, St. Lawrence Seminary, and St. Lawrence Seminary High School. St. Francis Brothers' School merged with St. Lawrence Seminary.
St. Lawrence has existed, since its founding in 1860, as a school for the formation of Catholic high school and college youth interested in pursuing a vocation to ministry in the Catholic Church, primarily in the priesthood. As the understanding of ministry has grown within the Church, the school has historically adjusted its purpose to respond to the various ministerial needs of the Church and society. Underlying the school’s philosophy is the conviction that the primary obligation of all Christians is to witness to gospel values in that life vocation to which God calls them. Combined with this belief is the additional conviction that such values are not only the path to eternal salvation and union with God for each individual but also the only real remedy for the ills of the human community. Therefore, the staff of St. Lawrence wishes to promote and foster these values in themselves and in the adolescents who enter into and participate in the life of the community. The overriding purpose for St. Lawrence’s existence is to promote, foster, and live principles and values announced in the gospel of Jesus Christ and articulated in the Catholic Church.
The phrase Celsitudo ex humilitate is the motto of St. Lawrence Seminary that has been incorporated into the school seal. Used to describe St. Lawrence of Brindisi, Celsitudo ex humilitate can be literally translated as “To the heavens out of our humility” or more poetically as “To the heights, from the depths.” The seal depicts a cross on a hill with the motto and date of the school’s foundation.
The two priests had left their native Switzerland in July of that year. They arrived in Milwaukee, where Bishop John Martin Henni, a fellow countryman of theirs, welcomed them to work among the immigrants in the diocese. But the two priests had not come to work with immigrants. They came to establish the Capuchin Order in the United States, even though they themselves were not yet Capuchins.
The two priests bought the property on Mount Calvary. The twenty-nine year old Father Haas returned to Europe to beg funds and to bring back a Capuchin to serve as novice master for himself and Father Frey and any other candidates who joined them. The twenty-five year old Father Frey began building the friary for the first Capuchin foundation in the United States.
When Father Haas returned from Switzerland with two Capuchin friars and three candidates, he found the friary burdened by debts, but not ready for occupancy by the seven men who would begin the Capuchin foundation. For the first of several times, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who had a small convent and school on the neighboring hill, came to the rescue. They gave the Capuchins the use of their convent. On December 2, 1857 Father Anthony Maria Gachet, a Capuchin who had come with Father Francis Haas from Switzerland, invested him and Father Frey and the three other candidates with the Capuchin habit.
Even during their novitiate Father Francis and Father Bonaventure (as they were now known) had to make a begging trip to Canada, so great was the burden of debt on the new foundation. Their trip was successful, and the debts were paid. They made their first profession of vows on February 16, 1859.
Father Anthony Maria, the novice master, lost interest in the undertaking and began to work among the Menominee people in Keshena, Wisconsin.
In the fall of 1862 fifteen students enrolled, and twenty students began the following year.
In 1864 a college wing was added to the friary. (In the mid-nineteenth century any formal educational institution beyond elementary was called a college.) The Convent Latin School merged with the college, and the total enrollment was forty-nine students.
The first year of the new college was difficult. The founders’ dreams were modified by their recognition of the need for priests in the Midwest. The college served to educate young men, some of whom the founders hoped would be drawn to join the new Capuchin foundation.
Friars who taught in the college also served near-by parishes. Their parish ministry financially supported the college. They also went on preaching and begging tours in the Midwest.
In 1867 the friary was enlarged again to make more room for the college students. It was now a quadrangle with a courtyard in the center. The following year saw twenty-eight Capuchin friars and forty-two students at the newly completed college. A great deal had been accomplished in the first twelve years.
Disaster struck the friary and college on Christmas night, 1868. A fire started in the sacristy after everyone was asleep, and the entire building with the exception of part of the parish church burned to the ground.
For a second time, the School Sisters of Notre Dame rescued the friars by allowing them the use of their convent. The sisters moved into a recently vacated farmhouse next to their property. All but six students at the college were sent home. The six students who remained decided they wanted to join the Capuchins.
Rebuilding began and, remarkably, the friary and college were ready for occupancy in August 1869. The college was known as the Little Seminary of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi.
The college students needed separate quarters. In 1872 Saint Joseph Hall was erected for their use. The number students continued to increase, and the Laurentianum (the present Main Building) was built in 1880. All student activity was now separate from the friary, with the exception of their dining room.
In 1886, at the urging of bishops in the Midwest, a commercial course was introduced into the college curriculum so that Catholic young men going into the business world would have a strong foundation in their Catholic faith.
The Minister General of the Capuchin Order visited the college in 1891 and encouraged the friars to spare no efforts in making Saint Lawrence College a first-class educational institution.
A student chapel was added to the Laurentianum in 1893. Saint Thomas Hall was built in 1898 to serve as an auditorium and gymnasium. The grounds were beautified continually, and the course of studies was refined and broadened. The curriculum was now a six year course including philosophy. The college was accredited by the Association of Catholic Colleges.
In 1906 the Province elected Father Antonine Wilmer as the Provincial Minister. He had been the Rector of Saint Lawrence College prior to the decision that it serve exclusively Capuchin candidates. Immediately after his election as Provincial Minister, he held a conference with the faculty at Saint Lawrence. He outlined his idea for the college, which was to prepare the students, by a thorough high school and college course, either to enter any lay profession or to continue successfully their preparation for ministry.
Saint Francis Hall was built in 1917 as a residence for those students who intended to be Capuchins. These students took their classes with the rest of the student body, but the wore the Third Order habit and lived in Saint Francis Hall. They also followed a schedule of prayer which was different from the other students.
In 1923 the General Minister of the Order visited the college and said Capuchin candidates should not be educated with diocesan seminarians and others in the same institution. He wanted the college closed to all but Capuchin candidates.
The friars at the college and many others in the Province were chagrinned at the decision of the General. When the General met with the Provincial Superiors, he said that the dual purpose could not continue, but he left it to the Provincial Superiors to resolve the matter. They resolved the matter by abolishing the separate course for the Capuchin candidates! The college would continue and Saint Francis Hall became available to the whole college.
Higher education in the United States developed during the 1920’s, and the changes influenced Saint Lawrence College. The professors earned graduate degrees. The college was affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1930 the high school course was accredited by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
In 1933 Capuchin Father Alexis Gore was appointed the Rector. He realigned the curriculum and introduced the method of teaching required by the Regents of University of the State of New York. The transition was completed smoothly in one year.
Father Gerald Walker was appointed Rector in 1943. The previous year’s enrollment had been one hundred thirty students. Father Gerald dreamed of a greater Laurentianum. Through massive amounts of correspondence with prospective students and benefactors, he led the school to great growth. A new college catalogue was widely distributed, with the result that the 1943-44 school year began with an enrollment of one hundred seventy-three students.
By 1949 the school had reached its capacity of about two hundred students. Many applicants were put on the waiting list. In 1951 ground breaking took place for the erection of Saint Mary’s Hall, a multipurpose building which included a dormitory, a dining room, study halls, and recreation rooms. All the increased space was filled immediately. Enrollment jumped to two hundred seventy-three students. In 1953 the name of the school was officially changed from Saint Lawrence College to Saint Lawrence Seminary.
Father Gratian Zach succeeded Father Gerald as Rector in 1955. A new student chapel was built, as well as a new dormitory (St. Anthony Hall), and Saint Fidelis Activities Building. The serious work of academic growth took the form of preparing for accreditation of the two schools by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
1963 witnessed a record enrollment of three hundred sixty-one students. Saint Lawrence Seminary and Saint Francis Brothers’ School were accredited by North Central in 1966.
In that spirit the construction of a new friary and student chapel was undertaken. The former student chapel was converted into an auditorium. The complex was dedicated in July, 1971.
Academic requirements in the United States in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s dictated the discontinuance of the junior college department at Saint Lawrence Seminary. A merger in 1971 between Saint Francis Brothers’ School and Saint Lawrence Seminary brought the Bothers’ School students to the Hill, leaving the former Brothers’ School campus to serve as a residence for the college students who took their courses at Marian College of Fond du Lac or at other colleges in the area.
Father Joseph O’Connor was appointed Rector in 1971. Enrollment was two hundred ninety-five students. That number stabilized at about two hundred eighty for the next few years. In 1975 opening day enrollment was three hundred twenty.
With many minor seminaries closing, some people questioned the reason for the continued high enrollment of Saint Lawrence. Did the young men intend to be priests and brothers or not? The Board of Directors of the seminary discussed whether in ten or fifteen years the philosophy and mission of the seminary would be specifically to prepare candidates for the priesthood and brotherhood, or ministry in any form.
Enrollment began to decline in the 1980’s. In 1980 there were two hundred seventy-six students and by 1984 there were two hundred three.
In 1985 a study of the seminary was commissioned asking: What can Saint Lawrence Seminary do? What can’t it do? What, if anything, can it do with excellence? Is there anyone interested in what Saint Lawrence can do? If so, how might it reach those people?
The results of the study showed that one thing Saint Lawrence Seminary could do with excellence was to provide a foundation for a life of ministry in the Church. Priests, brothers, deacons, and lay alumni indicated that the personal relationship with God which they developed during their days at Saint Lawrence inspired the lives they lived as adults.
The Roman Catholic Church had rearticulated its understanding of ministry and who was called to ministry. It said that ministry was the prerogative of all baptized Catholics. Saint Lawrence Seminary modified its philosophy and mission to include young men who wanted to lay a foundation for a life of ministry in the Church.
The study indicated that for an increase in enrollment the school needed to be more selective in the students it accepted. The school became more selective; but the enrollment continued to decline. However a turn-around began to take place in 1989. The enrollment rose from one hundred forty-nine on opening day in 1989 to two hundred thirty four in 1994.
Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century Saint Lawrence Seminary has become and increasingly multicultural institution dedicated to preparing young men for a life of ministry within the Catholic Church. St. Lawrence continues to function as a college preparatory school, partnering with parents and providing for ministry and leadership in the Roman Catholic Church.
At present, the school enrolls between 200 and 220 students each year. While all of the students must be Roman Catholic and male, the student body is culturally, economically and geographically diverse. Athletically, the school participates in a variety of co-curricular sports and belongs to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association and the Wisconsin Flyway Conference. In addition, the school participates in forensics as a member of the Wisconsin High School Forensic Association and the Wisconsin Forensic Coaches’ Association. The students publish a yearbook, The Laurentian annually and a school newspaper Hilltopics. Each spring the students present either a musical or dramatic play. In addition to performing a Christmas concert and a spring concert, students in the choir and band participate in the solo and ensemble competitions sponsored by the Wisconsin School Music Association. The St. Lawrence Seminary Alumni Association provides opportunities for alumni of the school to come together to reinforce their ties with the school and each other. The Provincial Minister and Provincial Councilors of the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph serve as the trustees of the school. A Ministry Council, appointed by the Provincial Council, advises the administration and trustees on the seminary’s policies and procedures. Members of this council include lay and ordained alumni, educators, Capuchins and the wife and mother of alumni.
In 1972, the Student Council began choosing a word for the theme of the day. The custom is to choose a word that begins with the letter "E". Students use the theme to hold a contest for the best T-shirt design.
Students compete in the fraternity that they chosen into at the beginning of the school year. Students compete in a variety of events, especially track events. The morning traditionally ends with a "Don't be late for Chapel" event, a relay race from the bottom of the hill to the top. The 2007 event revived the longstanding "greased pole" event which ended in the late 1970s. The winner made it to the top and retrieved a $20 bill. A highlight of the afternoon is the customary faculty/student softball game. The afternoon ends with the traditional "Tower Shower" where seniors toss water balloons (some containing money) off the top of the four story tower.
First student whose name is recorded
Earliest student to become a Capuchin
Served as Rector of St. Lawrence, Provincial Minister, Definitor General, and Rector of the College in Rome
Noted author and philosopher, military chaplain, and first principal of Messmer High School in Milwaukee
Noted author, professor at Notre Dame, president of Hunter College