Pandemic opens door to formation house experience

Then-seminarian Rafael Ghattas laughs with Deacons Will Frei and Michael Cellars recently. The three men were among seven seminarians that stayed at a house of formation near the Pastoral Center in Charleston.

CHARLESTON—Quarantine because of the coronavirus provided a unique opportunity for seven of the Diocese of Charleston’s seminarians. 

Forced to leave their seminaries in Texas and Rome, the men ended up back in Charleston, where they spent eight weeks living at the Our Lady of Joyful Hope House of Formation on Orange Grove Road. 

Deacon Michael Cellars and Deacon Will Frei, who will be ordained in July, spent the weeks with five other seminarians: Deacon Rafael Ghattas, ordained on May 22; his brother, Michael Ghattas; and Nicholas Shiver, Erik Roman and Justin Damask. Deacon Frei had been studying in Rome, while the others were attending St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston and Holy Trinity in Dallas. 

The seven got to know each other better while they spent time studying and praying, taking care of the house, and finding fun things to do during down-time, such as playing sports, watching movies, and having cookouts. 

“We had a little microcosm of the Church in the half block we lived in,” said Father Matthew Gray, vicar for vocations, who also lived at the house. “There were lay people, clergy, seminarians and women religious all living close together.” 

Sisters from the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, who share a house nearby, prayed for the seminarians regularly and cooked some meals for them. A family with children who live next door to the formation house baked them cookies. 

In turn, the seminarians regularly checked up on the sisters and the family to see if they needed anything. Father Gray was able to offer the family’s son his first Communion because he missed his own celebration due to the virus. 

The men said academics presented the biggest challenge, because, like millions of students around the world, they suddenly were learning remotely, juggling online classes, conferences and assignments while also dealing with time zone differences.

Shiver recalled how Roman and Michael Ghattas, who studied at Holy Trinity, were required to present a thesis at the end of the semester. 

“Typically that takes place at an auditorium, but this year they had to give it via video conference,” Shiver said. “Father Gray and the rest of us sat and listened in the same room while they gave their presentations using Zoom. I think it meant something to them to have something of an audience there, and I know that we were happy to show our support for their work.” 

Deacon Frei went through two quarantines before he even arrived in Charleston. He isolated for a month in Rome and then spent another two weeks in quarantine in North Carolina before making it to Charleston on Holy Thursday. 

Once here, he joined the daily routine of prayer, study and work. He also joined the others in assisting at daily Masses and holy hours in the chapel at the pastoral center, which were livestreamed. 

“These two months have offered me ample time to simply be with those with whom I hope to share the diocesan priesthood for the rest of my life,” he said. “This time together has been important for helping me grow in my relationship with them.” 

Justin Damask called his time at the formation house “a gift from God and our Blessed Mother.” 

“Living in a small community with the other men studying to be priests has given me a lot of hope for the future of the Church in South Carolina,” he said. 

Roman said he enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the experience.

“There was nothing really on the agenda, but there was always something interesting to talk about or learn about somebody,” he said. 

“The two months that we spent together brought us closer than we ever would have been had the pandemic not broken out,” Damask said.