A dark wall isn’t usually encouraging.

But when 140 black-clad students from Mount Angel Seminary stood shoulder-to-shoulder to sing on Nov. 5, the crowd at the Oregon Convention Center was thrilled.

The chorus of future Catholic priests was part of an annual dinner to benefit the seminary south of Portland, which educates men for dioceses across the West, the Pacific Islands and beyond.

“I thought all I needed to be happy was to write movies and have a big family,” Deacon Nathan Dail told the room full of 1,200 benefactors.

A seminarian from the Diocese of Boise who is student body president at Mount Angel, Dail at first resisted priesthood, thinking it too much of a sacrifice. But one night he prayed with a statue of Mary and a crucifix.

“If you are trying to run away from God’s will in your life, the absolute worst thing you could ever do is go to his mother,” Dail said, sending the crowd into a roar of laughter. Then he became serious.

“As I knelt there before Mary, I realized that the most wonderful and luminous life that ever walked this earth was built on the greatest sacrifice this world has ever seen,” he said. “That’s when I came to understand that there is a light within all of us, a great light, and the way that light gets out is by allowing ourselves to be broken and offered for others.”  

The seminary charges dioceses about 80 percent of what it costs to educate a man. That leaves a gap each year of more than $1 million, which is filled by donors. On this night, the convention center ballroom was packed, with more seminary benefactors that ever before. Early reports show that the crowd donated just what was needed, more than $1 million.

“It’s really moving to see all the supporters we have,” said Ethan Alano, an Archdiocese of Portland seminarian who grew up in Queen of Peace Parish in Salem. “Being on the hilltop, a small community, we don’t realize the range of friends we have from afar.”

Frank Gutierrez, a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton who just retired from the Army Corps of Engineers, attended the dinner. He has decided to devote much of his time to the cause of vocations.

“I hope that we can bring in as many good clergy members as possible, people who have the calling and want to fulfill the need, who feel the blessing and want to share that blessing with others,” Gutierrez said.

Tony and Susie Morris, who live down the hill from the abbey, invite seminarians to relax at their house and enjoy home cooking.

“We have had the opportunity to meet many of the future priests of the church, and we are so excited by what we see,” Tony said.

Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample marveled at the room full of supporters and expressed gratitude. During grace, he said, “Father, we know that without the Eucharist there simply is no church, and without those you call to be priests, there is no Eucharist.” 

The Benedictine monks founded the seminary in the 1880s and still oversee it.

“There is a tremendous energy at Mount Angel at this time in its history,” said Abbot Jeremy Driscoll. “Yes, our world is a troubled place, increasingly troubled it would seem. Yet God is raising up servants of his own plan to save us, to bless the world and to bathe it in his own light.”

“I couldn’t feel more like a spiritual brother and spiritual father to all these fine men,” said Msgr. Joseph Betschart, president-rector of the seminary, who was holding back tears. “Most of all I am just truly in awe when I have the opportunity to travel to their dioceses and see them and be a part of their ordinations, growing from the disciples who came to the seminary some years before to becoming brother priests of Jesus Christ.”

In the last five years, 78 Mount Angel graduates have been ordained priests. The seminary also welcomes religious brothers and sisters and laypeople. Thousands of people visit the abbey annually for retreats. 

Chris Corrado, a business owner and president of Mount Angel Abbey’s board of trustees, reminded the crowd that while the seminarians are responding to a call, everyone, by their baptism, is called to “share the light of our faith.”