For half of his life, Daniel Pilarczyk, who turned 67 this summer, has served on the Board of Trustees of the Athenaeum of Ohio, the Roman Catholic seminary and lay theological school of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He joined, by virtue of office, when he became rector of its former college seminary in 1968. Since 1982, as Cincinnati’s archbishop, he has been the school’s owner, its chancellor, and its board chair. Its despot? Hardly.

For more than three decades, Daniel Pilarczyk has been concerned for the well-being of the Athenaeum.

Photograph by the Catholic Telegraph

As with all Catholic diocesan seminaries, the bishop governs and bears fiduciary responsibility as a “corporation sole.” In the words of the Athenaeum’s bylaws, “in order to meet the requirements of both the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church and the civil law of the State of Ohio, the title of ownership . . . is in his name and he operates the institution in the name of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.” Archbishop Pilarczyk “appoints the members of the Board, the officers of the administration, and the members of the faculty.” He alone among the twenty-one members of the board carries liability insurance.

In practice, governance at the Athenaeum proves that board ownership of an institution’s mission does not necessarily require ownership of its assets. The Athenaeum’s “traditional” Catholic form of governance may appear to violate many of the protocols for contemporary trusteeship. With the active participation of its advisory board, however, it has, in fact, succeeded in adapting the Athenaeum’s mission to meet the challenges of preparing priests, lay ministers, and permanent deacons for a changing church, all the while complying with the requirements of the Vatican and accrediting agencies.

Since 1981 the Athenaeum has included three divisions: Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West, the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program, and Special Studies. Before becoming archbishop, Pilarczyk served on the board that created this structure. For the past twenty years, he has led the board in overseeing its development. When he says that the Athenaeum’s Board of Trustees is no “charade,” board members, many of whom also serve on other corporate and nonprofit boards in Cincinnati, back him up. Membership on the Athenaeum’s board offers opportunities for genuine service and satisfaction that make it one of the favored boards in the region, say several area business leaders.

The effectiveness of this system of governance is largely based on its interdependence with other archdiocesan institutions in the “local church.” The Athenaeum stands prominently in the institutional landscape of the archdiocese, even as it shares fiscal and leadership resources with other institutions. It is the role of the archbishop to coordinate these resources, and for this Daniel Pilarczyk gets high marks.

The Work in Progress
The Athenaeum’s Board of Trustees reflects its location and history of governance. Nearly one-third of the board membership serves ex officio, that is, by virtue of their position, the oldest form of board membership. This group includes the archbishop, the chief financial officer of the archdiocese, the Athenaeum’s president and rector, the Reverend Gerald Haemmerle, and the three other top administrators of the Athenaeum. The remaining fifteen members are nominated by the board and appointed by the archbishop. Two other bishops also serve on the board, the Most Reverend Carl Moeddel, auxiliary bishop of Cincinnati, and the Most Reverend James Hoffman, bishop of Toledo. They are joined by two parish priests, a nun who is president of a nearby college, and ten lay people, most with corporate positions in law, finance, realty, and construction. Clerics number nine, lay people eleven; women five, men sixteen.

The board meets quarterly in a two-hour plenary session, and some committees convene almost every month. In addition the full board gathers annually for a day-long retreat that always includes a mass celebrated by the archbishop and a festive meal. Most of the work of the board is done in committee, and the most active committees oversee policy in the “temporalities,” including budget and finance, development and public relations, and long-range planning. Because the school is guided by the Program for Priestly Formation, drawn up since the Second Vatican Council by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and ratified by Rome, the archbishop says he is not looking for “academic creativity” from the committee on academic affairs.

Ten-year board member Mike Conaton, vice president of the Midland Company, a river transportation and insurance business, chairs the long-range planning committee. He reported that Pilarczyk makes the Athenaeum board of trustees one of his top priorities. Conaton described the archbishop as a “terrific leader who respects our [board] committees.” He added: “He generally executes what we propose.” Board attendance is close to 100 percent, and members are financially supportive. 

Mike Conation

“These people are serious people and busy people who don’t have time to play games,” Pilarczyk said. “And I think the archbishop, whoever sits in my seat, has to be very much aware that the potential for game-playing is there.” Pilarczyk knows his board members well and counts on their service at the Athenaeum and elsewhere. “I need them for their wisdom and contacts around the city and in the archdiocese.” Many, while also sitting on other nonprofit boards, serve as board members and benefactors of other Catholic institutions, including schools, health, and social service agencies. The Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is slightly more than 500,000, and the Catholic Directory lists forty-one welfare institutions, including ten hospitals; fifteen secondary schools; four colleges and universities; and 113 elementary schools.

Mike Conaton exemplifies Catholic good citizenship. Along with his service at the Athenaeum, he has chaired capital campaigns for a recently dedicated retirement home for women religious and for an organization of Catholic inner city schools. He currently chairs the board of Xavier University, which he attended on a football scholarship in the late 1950s. That board legally owns the school. Conaton said without hesitation that all the boards he knows, even corporate boards, are “very similar,” describing them all as policy, not administrative, bodies in which much of the work is done in committee. The advisory status of the Athenaeum board does not make it feel much different in practice from any other board.

Conaton pointed to some of the other Catholic connections of his fellow board members such as Barbara Howard, an attorney who also serves on the Xavier board, and Susan Pichler, who volunteers with Catholic Inner City Schools, and is married to the president of Kroeger Company. Peter Gomsak, managing partner of an international public accounting firm, also serves on the boards of the College of Mount St. Joseph, Catholic Social Services of Southwest Ohio, and the St. Joseph Infant and Maternity Home.

The Athenaeum’s board is authorized to advise the archbishop on all relevant matters of institutional governance, including the institution’s mission and strategic planning. Committees are organized around chief administrative functions, and an executive committee made up of all committee heads is taking a greater leadership role in establishing the board’s agenda.

There were times in the past when the advisory status of the board rubbed some members the wrong way. Indeed, Archbishop Pilarczyk admits a few regrets about how he has exercised his leadership in past years. More than a decade ago he had to “transfer” a president/rector and appoint a new one. Board meetings were “tense,” he recalled, adding, “I’d probably do that differently today.” Nevertheless, he views his responsibility for appointing the president of the Athenaeum as “one of the most important features of my role.” But he has never forgotten the quip of the now deceased Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, a one-time president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, about the Athenaeum board’s limited power: “We don’t need to be reminded of that very often.”

Haemmerle, the fourth consecutive Athenaeum head appointed from a pastorate, values the archbishop’s abiding commitment to the school. “No one wants it to succeed more than he does, and yet he does not micromanage,” he said. Haemmerle singled out three marks of Pilarczyk’s engagement: his assignment of nine priests of the archdiocese to the Athenaeum faculty, despite the increasing shortage of priests; his annual provision for funding; and his singular focus on preparing seminarians to be excellent parish priests.

Metamorphosis of Governance

In his pastoral role, the archbishop says mass with deacon Charles Jenkins assisting.

Photograph by the Catholic Telegraph

Archbishop Pilarczyk inherited a governance structure that was always archdiocesan in scope. When The Athenaeum of Ohio was incorporated in 1928 as the archdiocese’s degree-granting body for the major and minor (college) seminary, a teachers’ college, a graduate school of science, and several affiliated colleges and high schools, the board was made up of the archbishop, the chief school administrators, and four priests. They met annually for an hour to certify the granting of all diplomas and degrees for a composite graduation. A desire for accreditation gave rise to change so that by 1955 in preparation for accreditation by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, a more formal board of trustees was proposed to conduct the business of the corporation.

Contemporary board governance became a reality in 1957 when the board was presented with its first budget and also set tuition rates. The 1957 board, by then made up of administrators and a larger number of priests, set policy for streamlining the administration of the two seminaries and oversaw the work of the self-study committees for accreditation.

During the 1960s, when an increasing number of students were dropping out before completing either of the two seminary programs, the board reviewed student life issues. Father Daniel Pilarczyk, as he was then, became rector of the college seminary in 1968, “the hardest job of my life.” Newly assigned as secretary of the board, he recorded the debates over major revisions in the curriculum to comply with the changes required by Vatican II’s decree on priestly formation. As rules were eased to encourage individual responsibility and maturity, students at Mount St. Mary’s of the West had gone public with demands for even more changes, embarrassing Archbishop Karl Alter and bringing down the rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, the Reverend Joseph Schneider, who had almost single-handedly masterminded the strategy leading to accreditation.

In the early 1970s, after the American bishops supplied guidelines for seminary renewal, the board was restructured twice to meet the goal of constituency representation. Now clergy, religious, laity, archdiocesan sponsoring groups, and bishops all served on the board, and student representatives had voice, but not vote. Pilarczyk continued to record the minutes of painful meetings in which the decision to close the college seminary was made and deficit spending became a regretted practice. Archbishop Joseph Bernardin was at the helm for most of the decade and oversaw the consolidation of all educational services on one campus. Bishop Malone was one board member who regularly called for receiving board agendas and reports in advance, and for board involvement in the 1982 self-study prior to the reaccreditation visit by representatives of the North Central Association and the Association of Theological Schools.

After Pilarczyk became archbishop, he presided over yet another restructuring of the board in 1992. This time the goal was to provide the school with needed expertise rather than constituency representation. The instigator for these changes was then-president and rector, the Reverend Robert Mooney, along with key businessmen like Mike Conaton and Pete Gomsak, who were determined to build the institution’s ability to attract support and money and to set it on a stronger financial base. After Mooney resigned in 1996, when enrollment was already in the decline, the archbishop appointed Haemmerle as president and rector to assume the demanding task of fundraising and building confidence, including improving relations with bishops of the province. Haemmerle, known for his pastoral strengths, is also rebuilding the faculty, after a series of retirements and deaths.

Slicing the Pie
The greatest pressure Archbishop Pilarczyk experiences from the board is over the issue of tuition. Business leaders want to raise it to cover costs, and Pilarczyk wants to subsidize it to make certain that lay people can study for ministry and seminarians for priesthood. The archbishop delivers on the subsidy through an annual fund drive, which he likens to a quasi-endowment. 

The largest proportion—32 percent—of the Athenaeum’s $3 million operating budget comes from the Archbishop’s Annual Fund. Direct gifts and bequests constitute another 26 percent, while tuition and fees produce 12 percent and endowment revenues—with an annual draw of 5 percent—13 percent. The remaining 17 percent of revenues come equally from auxiliary enterprises and other sources.

The Archbishop commits 21 percent, or $936,000, of the proceeds of his annual fund to the seminary. This 25-year-old Lenten appeal includes individualized goals sent to all parishes. The Athenaeum is featured as the institution that supplies priests, permanent deacons, and lay ministers throughout the archdiocese. Only two other commitments—Archdiocesan Services and Mission, $1.3 million, and the Archdiocesan and Religious Retirement Fund, $1 million—receive more from the $4.4 million appeal.

The Ongoing Challenge
With Pilarczyk’s support, Haemmerle has been leading the faculty and board in improving student morale and increasing enrollment. This year the school includes thirty-nine seminarians—a significant increase in these times over the twenty-three enrolled five years ago—another 100 in the lay pastoral ministry graduate degree and certificate programs, and ninety-one in special studies as permanent deacons or graduate students in Bible, pastoral counseling, and theology. A low-key $5 million capital campaign to renovate the seminarians’ dorms by creating suites has been completed.

Pilarczyk does not guarantee that that the Athenaeum, especially its seminary division, will still be viable in twenty-five years. At the same time, he accepts the challenge with perhaps a bit more detachment than he once had. He muses about living in a post-modern world in which many, such as some of the more conservative seminarians, want to return to the pre-modern. He views the task ahead as restudying the tradition and pushing more deeply into its meaning. “Things never get all squared away; the world and the church are living entities,” he said.

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