WALNUT CREEK, Calif. —From a young age, Juan Alejo has aspired to live a priest's life.
"Since I was a kid, I heard this call," said Alejo.
Now the 35-year-old, who is heeding that summons by attending St. Patrick's Seminary & University in Menlo Park, Calif., is among a growing number of men flocking to seminaries in recent years to become Roman Catholic priests.
That growth is prompting the school to plan for a major campus expansion that could cost up to $50 million.
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The increase in seminarians at St. Patrick's reflects an uptick in their numbers nationwide after decades of enrollment declines. The number of men interested in joining the priesthood is rising despite highly publicized cases of sexual abuse by priests.
"It's a national thing we're experiencing," the Rev. James McKearney, St. Patrick's president, said of the upward trend in those pursuing priesthood.
"There's been a lot of anxiety in light of the fact that the church has been getting a lot of bad press," McKearney said, "but the vast majority of priests are good men. (St. Patrick's seminarians) want to be good priests as opposed to those who haven't lived their vows. They are not dissuaded by the bad press."
In the coming academic year, St. Patrick's is expected to have more than 100 seminarians following a steady rise since 2006 when it served 88 students.
The projected enrollment includes 34 new students, according to the school.
"We haven't seen that in many years," McKearney said. "It's an exciting time."
Mary Verducci, St. Patrick's project manager for institutional advancement, partly attributed that population surge to a growing confidence in the seminary's Sulpician approach to priestly ordination. That approach includes participation in daily prayers and other spiritual exercises.
Seminarians are also drawn to the school's high academic standards and multicultural student body, Verducci said.
"Right now, we're at maximum capacity," she said.
All the seminarians live on campus, she said, and school leaders hope to launch a capital fundraising campaign soon to accommodate the increased enrollment.
One option is to build a two-story housing complex costing about $50 million, she said. An alternative is to renovate an existing building for about $15 million.
Other seminaries across the country are experiencing similar growth and need to expand, said the Rev. Shawn McKnight, executive director of the secretariat of clergy, consecrated life and vocations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C.
"There was a sharp decline in men going into the priesthood 15 years ago," McKnight said. "That seems to be coming back."
According to a report from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington, D.C., the enrollment at college seminaries numbered 1,443 in 2009-10 — up from a low of 1,248 in 2004-05.
The church's recruitment efforts in communities and parishes that encourage young men to consider priesthood have helped boost enrollment, McKnight said.
"They are hearing that and feel more comfortable in answering the call," he said.
Alejo was partly inspired by his older brother, who has taken the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
But Alejo has always been a spiritual person and discovered for himself his true vocation, he said.
"I feel I would like to serve people, especially the poor," he said. "It's in the heart that we answer God's call."