'Wells Guys' Take Their Vows as New Priests

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

To the seminarians he inspired over the years, Monsignor Thomas Wells exuded joy in everything he did: celebrating Mass, orchestrating large ski and golf outings, simply gabbing on the phone for a few minutes with people he loved.

And those he befriended know he would have found joy in seeing four Maryland men who worked with him be ordained yesterday for the Archdiocese of Washington. The four, with another ordained last week for an Illinois diocese, are nicknamed "the Wells guys" because they were inspired by the beloved priest, who was killed by a homeless man in the rectory of his Germantown church in 2000.

Before an overflow crowd of about 2,700, the Wells guys were among a dozen men who became Catholic priests at a solemn yet joy-filled ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.

One by one, the names of the new priests were proclaimed "for service of the church of Washington." One by one, each answered "Present!" When they turned to face the congregation -- which gave them a long, heartfelt round of applause -- some struggled to contain their emotions. Blinking eyelids, bobbing Adam's apples and firmly pressed lips betrayed their composure.

Theirs is the second-largest group of new priests in the nation, and the largest class in the Washington Archdiocese since 1973. Nationwide, the number of new priests is declining. Final figures are not available, but initial reports suggest that 359 men will be ordained this year in the United States. That is a decrease from 438 last year and 454 in 2004. The Arlington diocese is ordaining seven, its largest class since 1999.

Even more remarkable is that so many priests in the Washington Archdiocese were nourished in their faith by one man. Four had worked with Wells at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Bethesda, and one met him at a parish in Bowie.

"It's so rare to see this many from one place," said the Rev. Edward Burns, who heads the office of vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It just shows the impact one priest can have."

Wells had worked at Our Lady of Lourdes for a couple of years in the 1980s and then for five years in the 1990s. A year before his death, he was transferred to Mother Seton Parish in Germantown. Soon after he was killed, his friends set up the Monsignor Thomas M. Wells Society, which provides financial assistance to seminarians, sponsors retreats for men considering the priesthood and encourages prayer.

Now some of his proteges are drawing widespread attention. Outgoing Washington Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick prayed at Our Lady of Lourdes on Friday night. Each of the newly ordained priests was to have Masses this weekend.

A procession of more than 200 churchmen, including 180 priests, opened yesterday's two-hour ordination liturgy. Incense filled the vast, soaring nave. Happy women among the families of the 12 new priests dabbed their eyes with tissues. Little girls in flouncy dresses and hair ribbons pretended to be grown-up. And 8-year-old Dillon Smith, who said he wants to be a priest, watched the ceremony through a mini-telescope.

"It's been since 1973 that we've had a class this large, so what a great blessing that is from the Lord for us," said McCarrick, presiding at his last ordination because of his retirement in July.

Wells was 56 when he was killed six years ago. His sister, Mimi Shea, was at the ordination. "It's the first time I really feel, 'Wow, his death meant something,' " she said.

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