The Rev. Michael Carter, 27, purposefully donned a traditional shirt and tie to welcome his students to class at St. Michael’s College on the first day of this semester, knowing the sight of his white clerical collar can instantly ignite snap judgments — for better or for worse.
“I’m not asking you to believe in what it is that we teach,” Carter remembers telling pupils. “Faith in this tradition is not a requirement in this course.”
That day, Carter, a Burlington native, said he might have looked like any other professor. But the newly ordained priest and relatively recent St. Mike’s graduate has also seen students do a double take when they realize they’re walking by a religious leader, not a peer, on the Colchester campus.
On Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, Carter was ordained into the priesthood and Society of St. Edmund. Separate from the Diocese of Burlington, the group founded St. Michael’s College and currently has about 25 members based in Colchester, Venezuela and Alabama, among other locales.
An ordination for the Society of St. Edmund was last held in 2014. Before that, Carter said the Edmundites went 20 years without an ordination — The Rev. Brian Cummings was ordained in 1996 and is now the director of Edmundite Campus Ministry at St. Michael’s and the director of St. Anne’s Shrine in Isle LaMotte.
“It’s more of the same good work that I was doing before,” Carter said of his new position, sitting outside the chapel on a sunny afternoon as a stream of students walked to and from class. “It’s a chance to be with them at a time in their lives when they’re starting to really come into their own as people. That’s an exciting thing to see happen.”
Carter first wrestled with the notion of joining the priesthood around age 12 while attending a private Catholic school in Vermont. Even then, he knew he liked to read, study the history behind the artwork hung on his church’s walls, was comfortable in front of a group and wanted to help people.
He’d grown up going to mass with his parents and two sisters and recalls acting out the communion ritual for fun at home with a bag of potato chips in his youth. Still, he doesn’t consider his upbringing particularly devout.
“There [are] gradations of religiosity in families and, in all honesty, I don’t know if mine was super high,” he said. “The families that typically produce priests, for lack of a better term, tend to be more pious.”
Financial constraints prompted a move to Burlington High School by grade 9 when, for the first time, Carter encountered a number of students and faculty who were vocal in their opposition to organized religion.
Carter said he didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve and sometimes let practiced religion slip from his radar in his teenage years, but would often defend his faith when others who hadn’t grown up in the church criticized it.
By his senior year, Carter said he’d pulled down only “lukewarm” grades and wasn’t sure college would be an option. Priesthood was still in the back of his mind, but he felt unready to join a seminary program at age 18. After a kindly teacher put in a good word for him, St. Michael’s hesitantly extended an offer to join their religious studies program on a trial basis.
Carter worked tirelessly to prove himself academically, sometimes sacrificing the other elements associated with the higher education process.
“I tell myself that maybe it’s an irony of life that since I missed my college experience, that’s now what I do day in and day out every day of my life with the students,” he said with a laugh.
When Carter struggled as a student, he said members of the on-campus clergy reached out to him and offered guidance, creating a support system like he’d never before experienced.
“I thought to myself, it would be really cool to be this person for somebody at one point in time. There was never an a-ha moment, there was never a vision from God where I thought to myself, ‘Oh, this is what I should do,’” Carter said. “But I felt strongly enough about it to say, let me try this and see where it leads me.”
Carter vividly remembers approaching church leaders with his decision and their unabashed support. His father was less easily convinced and expressed real concern his son was making a mistake.
“For me that was kind of a big life moment,” Carter said. “I had to make the determination to say to him, ‘Thanks very much, but this is what I want to do and what I’m going to do regardless.’”
His dad has since come around to the idea, Carter noted, especially after seeing how happy he is in his new role.
Since his ordination, Carter can now lead worship services, hear confessions and offer wedding and baptism ceremonies, both of which he performed last Saturday.
In between, he’s grappling with bigger issues: an aging clergy and congregation, declining attendance at Sunday mass and changing philosophies in Catholic education. But while he’s still the new kid at the pulpit, Carter said he’s begun to notice his influence spreading at the small college.
“For me, there’s really no other joy that can be had in life than realizing you’ve influenced somebody’s life for the better and kind of made life easier for them, which is very, very special,” he said.