Parishes in the Archdiocese of Chicago and students at Mundelein Seminary are coming together to form relationships and to learn from one another as part of the Father Augustus Tolton Teaching Parish Program. This year, for the first time, seminarians in the first year of their four-year theology studies will receive academic credit for it; they will continue to receive credit each year until they graduate, said Debbie Armenta, associate coordinator of the Tolton Teaching Parish Program, associate professor of pastoral formation and associate dean of formation at Mundelein. The program places seminarians in parishes at least once a month starting from the second year of pre-theology. The seminarians continue working with the same parish until ordination, which means most are with the same parish for five years. After they are ordained deacons in their last year of seminary studies, they can baptize, preach at Mass and help with weddings and funerals. While seminarians have been matched with parishes for the past four years, this is the first year they will get credit for the work, she said. In addition to visiting the parishes, seminarians will have time to reflect on and write about what they have learned and what they have done. Of the 81 active teaching parishes, 65 are in the Archdiocese of Chicago. There are also teaching parishes in the Dioceses of Joliet and Rockford in Illinois and Gary in Indiana. With roughly 175 seminarians at Mundelein, most of the parishes involved host more than one. “It really has to be a strong parish with a solid pastor who really wants to work with seminarians,” Armenta said. “There’s a lot that’s involved.” Father Matthew Foley, pastor of St. James in Arlington Heights, said the added work isn’t much compared to the benefits both to the seminarians and to the parish. “It’s a force multiplier,” said Foley, who will be working this year with four seminarians. “We get these wonderful young men who are studying for the priesthood and are on fire for Jesus. They help us with so many things, from catechesis to RCIA.” The seminarians, he said, get more than pastoral experience. They also have an opportunity to develop relationships with parishioners and to be affirmed in their vocation to the priesthood. For Dan Korenchan, who is in his first year of theology and second year at St. James, that’s important. Korenchan, from St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs, was nervous before arriving at St. James in the fall of 2018. That summer, there had been lots of news about clerical sexual abuse, and Korenchan wasn’t sure how people would react to him as a seminarian. What he found were parishioners who wanted to do whatever they could to support him. “People’s desire to invest in me, to invest in my formation, impressed me,” Korenchan said. “They were like, we want you to be a good priest, and we’re willing to invest in that.” Korenchan said he enjoyed getting to know the parish and seeing how much ownership parishioners and staff take in its operations. “I thought the pastor did more of the work, honestly,” he said. His favorite responsibility was visiting religion classes in the school every other Wednesday afternoon with Foley. They might be reading a picture book about Jesus to kindergartners or answering questions about the priesthood from middle school students. “I wanted to make the faith and the priesthood be something that inspires them,” Korenchan said. Foley said it’s essential to have the seminarians return to the same parish throughout their formation. “That’s what allows them to develop relationships with people who are growing in faith as the seminarians are progressing in their formation,” he said. Each teaching parish has a committee of six to 10 parishioners, ideally a diverse mix of people, who meet with the seminarians on a regular basis. “The committee is really like a segue into parish life,” Armenta said. “These are people who love their parishes and love their faith, and they can offer that mentorship.” Bishop Joseph Perry, archdiocesan postulator for the sainthood cause of Venerable Augustus Tolton, said Tolton is a worthy model for aspiring parish priests. “He is a model for encouragement and inclusion,” said Bishop Perry, noting that Tolton, the first recognized African-American priest in the United States, displeased other priests in Quincy, Illinois, because their white parishioners were attending his parish to hear him preach. He kept his church doors open to all, Bishop Perry said. “That caused visual and emotional upset at the time,” Bishop Perry said. Tolton came to Chicago at the invitation of the archbishop and soon developed a loyal following. “People gravitated to him because of his pastoral style and his innate goodness,” Bishop Perry said. Most of the seminarians at Mundelein are going to serve as parish priests after ordination, said Father Michael Foley, pastor of Our Lady of the Woods Parish in Orland Park. Spending time in the same parish over a period of years helps the men learn what to expect. “It gives them the sense of the flavor and the rhythm of a parish,” he said. As they build relationships and become involved in parish life, they also must learn to manage their time, he said. “It’s a rare day when a pastor can focus on just one thing,” Father Michael Foley said. “They’re having to balance their studies with their prayer life and with their pastoral experience. And it allows them to see the theory they are learning in classes applied to the way people really live.” The parish benefits from their energy and their example of discerning a vocation to priesthood, he said. “I think on balance, it’s wonderful for the parish,” he said.