A day in the life of seminarian Toby Ellis

Toby Ellis is a third-year seminarian for the Diocese of St. Cloud. The Central Minnesota Catholic sat down with him to learn what it’s like to be a seminarian at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. Nov. 7-13 is National Vocation Awareness Week.

Story and photos by Gianna Bonello

Marked by its unique limestone facade just a block away from the Mississippi River, the University of St. Thomas sits between St. Paul’s Merriam Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods. If you take a stroll around campus, you’ll notice the sights and sounds of an urban college campus. You’ll see students hurrying to classes with a coffee in one hand and headphones in another. You’ll hear traffic whizzing by and the laughs of students as they run into each other on the quad. You’ll sense the overall buzz and excitement of being at college. But, if you’re extra vigilant, you might also notice groups of male students walking together. They wear khakis and dress shoes with their backpacks and are usually seen in groups of two or more. In the afternoons, they play frisbee or spikeball on the quad, and if you walk directly behind them, you might hear them praying a rosary together.

Nolan Meyer, left, and Toby, center, talk to Father John Kelly, right, who is rector of SJV. Nolan is from the Diocese of New Ulm and was Toby’s roommate freshman year.

These are seminarians — young men who hope to one day be ordained as Catholic priests. They hail from over six states to attend St. John Vianney College Seminary, which is operated by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and located on St. Thomas’ north campus.

A red brick building adorned with a large crucifix, St. John Vianney, or SJV, is one of the first sights you’ll see as you enter St. Thomas’ campus. A “minor seminary,” SJV houses about 100 college-aged men, from freshman to seniors, as they are formed in their journey to become priests. Each seminarian graduates with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of St. Thomas. If he discerns he wants to continue the path to priesthood, he will then enroll in a major seminary — such as St. Paul Seminary — where, after another four years, he’ll be ordained a priest for his respective diocese.

SJV’s formation process focuses on four pillars of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation. A seminarian’s days are filled with prayer time, classes, studying, eating, recreation and social time. They run Bible studies and formation groups on campus. They eat at St. Thomas’ dining halls and attend classes with other St. Thomas students. They receive both a college and seminary experience.

Over 500 alumni of SJV now serve as priests in dioceses around the country.

Tobias Ellis, who goes by Toby, hopes to be one of them.

Blaine born, St. Cloud raised

Toby was born in Blaine, Minnesota, but moved to St. Cloud when he was 3 years old. Homeschooled growing up, he is now a junior at SJV. In addition to his required philosophy major, Toby is also majoring in Catholic studies and minoring in chemistry. After he completes his studies, Toby will embark on another four years at St. Paul Seminary, located just minutes from SJV on St. Thomas’ south campus.

The youngest son of Dan and Carrie Ellis, Toby was raised in a strong, Catholic family. He is the youngest of five siblings, the oldest of which is Father Joah Ellis, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Father Joah currently serves as pastor of Our Lady of Peace in South Minneapolis. Toby’s home parish is St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown St. Cloud.


While Toby and the seminarians spend time in prayer and study, they also make time for fraternity, volunteer work and fun. Every week, each seminarian participates in fraternal groups, apostolic outreach and community dinners. During free time, the seminarians like to organize games of frisbee or spikeball, watch movies or just hang out in each other’s rooms. They also meet with the other men from their diocese at least once a week for more fraternal time.

Give us the scoop! Q&A with Toby

How did you discover you wanted to be a priest?

After Toby Ellis completes his studies at St. John Vianney College Seminary, he will continue with another four years at St. Paul Seminary. Both institutions are located in St. Paul, Minnesota.

At a young age, I played Mass all the time. My best Christmas gift was a purple vestment. At one of my birthday parties, I invited all my friends over. They went outside to play with water balloons and I was like, “I just wanna say Mass.” So they all went outside and I played and said Mass for all the parents of all the kids who were still there — at my own birthday party. So that was kind of an early memory.

With my brother being a priest, I just hated being a copycat, in any way. I didn’t want to do what anybody else was doing. It was actually really hard for me to recognize a call, just because I was like, “I don’t want everybody to think I’m just doing this because my brother’s doing this.” … I don’t think it was really until ninth grade that I was seriously considering. [In] high school you have to figure out what you’re going to do with your life, so I was like, “I’ve got to pray more, I have to figure that out.” So that, I think, was huge, where I took my faith as my own. In that, and just reflecting on the vocation … just the peace and joy from thinking of myself as a priest was a theme that came out.

What’s your favorite part of seminary?

The prayer, hands down. … I’ve come to realize I just love spending time with God in prayer. It’s so great to be able to do that every day.

What’s the most challenging part about being a seminarian?

They definitely push you in a lot of ways that … you need to grow in. I do really struggle with the whole balance thing — how you spend time for yourself, your time with your brothers, time with people on campus, studies. … That’s the beautiful and challenging part of seminary. I think they push you enough where you have to rely on God. It’s a good lesson, but it’s hard to learn.

What’s your favorite memory from SJV?

Toby, center, walks to dinner with the freshmen fraternal group that he leads on Thursday nights. Included in his group are Brenden Lake, left, from the Archdiocese of Chicago; Peter Davis, right, from the Diocese of Joliet; Greg Wasinski, back, from the Diocese of Grand Rapids; and John Piang from the Diocese of Joliet.

We get roommates the first two years. That freshman roommate is just special because you don’t know anyone. Nolan Meyer [was my freshman roommate]. He’s like my best friend at seminary. We just have a lot of good stuff together. Our big thing freshman year was foosball, so we played so much foosball, and we both got really good.

What’s been your favorite class you’ve taken so far?

Probably “Culture, Virtue, Incarnation.” It was a Scripture class that was taught by Father Becker and Dr. Boyle. … Diving into the Scripture like that was crazy.

What do you wish people knew about seminarians?

You don’t just pray and study all the time. You do have kind of an openish schedule. We’ve got some requirements, but it’s open enough where we do have a lot of fun too. So much of it is growing in relationship. … People tend to think of seminarians like we walk around in cassocks all day, chanting, and everybody loves philosophy, and that’s all we talk about, which there’s definitely groups [where] that’s all they talk about. … We all have our interests still that bring a different flavor, and coming together like that is awesome.

What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Sea salt caramel, by far. Salty and sweet is just amazing together!

Any last thing you want to add?

A lot of my vocation was trust. … I think people tend in discernment to freak out and [think], “I need to figure it out” which it’s not about that. It’s about growing closer to the Lord, and he’s not going to hide it from you, because that’s what he wants for you, too.

Could I be a priest today? The answer is no. … It’s a process, and you just [have to] trust the process. I am excited that one day, yes, I could [be a priest]. Hearing confessions, being with the people, celebrating the Eucharist, it’s just all super-exciting stuff. So hopefully, one day.

A day in the life: What does a seminarian do all day?

Toby, like all of the seminarians, follows a daily schedule, or horarium. While each seminarian’s schedule looks a little different, they all follow a routine built around a daily holy hour, Mass, classes, fraternal life and study time.

Toby Ellis is a seminarian at St. John Vianney College Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Here’s a look at Toby’s Monday schedule:
5:15 A.M.                  Wake up, get ready
5:45 A.M.                  Say rosary alone in room
*6:30 A.M.               Holy hour and morning prayer
    “The holy hour itself is so key… it doesn’t matter if you have a super busy day or not, you just always   have that time to connect with the Lord.”
8:15 – 9:20 A.M.      Class: Epistemology
9:35 – 10:40 A.M.    Class: Organic chemistry 2
    “[The chemistry minor] is really nice because it’s a way to meet people other than seminarians. … The seminary really doesn’t have a reach into that. I’m pretty much the only one that is in that field.”
10:55 – 12:00 P.M.    Class: The Catholic Vision
12:00 – 5:00 P.M.     Study time, free time, sports, social time, etc.
    “Frisbee’s a really popular [sport]. … There’s always a group that goes out every day at 3. It’s easy to join up and that’s also another really good way to meet people because we invite people from campus too.”
*5:00 P.M.                 Evening prayer
*5:15 P.M.                  Mass
    “[Mass] is after your day of classes… I really didn’t like [that time], but now I’m getting to like it more just because that’s another thing to give to the Lord. … I have these studies, I’m tired, but still I’m going to sacrifice it, so it actually is pretty meaningful.”
*7:00 – 8:30 P.M.    Required study time in seminary
*8:30 P.M.                Floor meeting and night prayer

*9:30 P.M.                Silence in seminary
10:30 P.M.                Go to bed

* = required for all seminarians

LEARN MORE: Learn more about SJV and its mission at semssp.org/vianney.

Author: The Central Minnesota Catholic

The Central Minnesota Catholic is the magazine for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

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