CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — St. Joseph College Seminary, the only program of its kind between Washington and Miami, graduated nine men this May — the largest class since its founding.

Seven of the nine men earned undergraduate degrees from the Benedictine-run Belmont Abbey College May 15. They join the ranks of nine other men who have graduated from the college seminary — a total of 18 men in the five short years since the program began.

Established by the Diocese of Charlotte in 2016, St. Joseph College Seminary enables young men to discern a possible vocation to the priesthood while earning undergraduate degrees at nearby Belmont Abbey College.

Upon graduation, most go on to major seminaries elsewhere to pursue graduate degrees in theology and receive more specific training before being ordained.

This year’s graduates are moving on to major seminaries in Cincinnati and Rome to continue their formation as future priests for the Diocese of Charlotte.

With a Catholic population that has grown by double digits in the past decade, the diocese launched the college seminary with eight students. The program has proven to be a magnet for young men wanting to discern the priesthood, and enrollment growth has been faster than anticipated.

The diocese fast-tracked construction on a permanent home for the college seminary in Mount Holly, North Carolina, about 15 miles from Charlotte, and the new 30,000-square-foot building opened last fall.

The nine graduates spent only a year in the new building, but their formation over the past four years has been pivotal, they said.

“On a practical level, the establishment of St. Joseph College Seminary made going to seminary much more feasible,” graduate Kolbe Murrey told the Catholic News Herald, Charlotte’s diocesan newspaper.

“Instead of traveling across country right after graduating high school, I have stayed in North Carolina and in the heart of the diocese,” he said. “This has been a great blessing and given me a unified and focused first four years of seminary formation.”

In his homily for a baccalaureate Mass for the graduates, the seminary’s rector, Father Matthew Kauth, encouraged the graduates to keep growing in their relationship with Christ.

“I think the greatest compliment I can say to you in front of those who are here — in front of your brother seminarians and your families — is that (God) abides in you and you abide in him, that you are a friend of God’s,” he said during the Mass, offered May 9 at St. Ann Catholic Church in Charlotte. “I don’t know of any title in the world that is more desirous to have, than to say someone is a friend of God’s.”

As its largest graduating class moves out, St. Joseph College Seminary is preparing to welcome another large incoming class next school year.

At least eight new men are expected to enroll this fall, joining 18 others who are continuing their studies at the college seminary.

Howell is the senior reporter for the Catholic News Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.