St. Joseph’s Seminary was a boarding school containing a high school and a junior college. It was erected in 1904 in the railroad town of Callicoon, New York, overlooking the busy Erie-Lackawanna Railroad line and the Delaware River from its high perch on a mount originally known as Aroma Hill, due to the swampy terrain at the base. The arrival of Franciscan seminarians in 1904 did not appreciably improve the aroma. As a seventh-grader in Buffalo in 1961 I applied to both the Franciscan Seminary in Callicoon, about 300 miles distant, and the “Little Seminary” in Buffalo, a diocesan day-school for future priests. My mother had strong devotion to St. Francis and considerable weight in my decision to attend St. Joseph’s. I was not too thrilled about leaving home at 14, but the Buffalo seminary was in a rough neighborhood, as they used to say. A quirky note: I boarded the train for Callicoon literally the day after my family sold my childhood homestead. No going back. “Ground control to Major Tom….”
The original photo of my class, taken September 9, 1962, shows 75 awkward freshmen in our black suits. Of that original class, I believe about a half dozen of us finished the full twelve-year course to ordination, studying in Callicoon and later Washington, D.C. From a cost-effective standpoint, minor or high school seminaries were not exactly blue-chip investments, which is why there are virtually none in the United States today. Callicoon closed its doors around 1973 and was eventually sold to the federal government which operates the plant today as a job training center. We were invited to tour the old seminary grounds on Saturday.
You might be wondering about the rationale behind a boarding school seminary in a very rural setting. I have a love-hate retrospective of my six years on Aroma Hill, about 110 miles northwest of New York City and a day-long train ride from my [new] family home. During my high school years, we were permitted two weeks home at Christmas and two months in summer. Short trips home for Thanksgiving and Easter were gradually introduced later.The word seminary comes from the Latin semen, “seed.” [Don’t worry, you are not the first reader to smile at that etymology.] Seminaries were viewed as “little green houses” where young men were snatched from the world to be nurtured and protected so that the seed of the priestly vocation could be brought to fruition. What we were protected from specifically was girls, and more generally, from healthy feminine influence. The older I get, the more I realize what a loss that was to my life. Equally, I regret that the decision to leave home at that young age probably cost me closer contact with my family today. I would never send a son to a minor seminary, though as I noted, one would be hard pressed to find one today.
The year I entered, 1962, was the high-water mark for St. Joseph’s in terms of attendance. I believe that between the four-year high school and the two-year junior college, attendance totaled about 250 students, which included servicemen and graduates from other colleges who joined the seminary’s college department to gain facility with Latin and Greek. During each year of my high school matriculation the entering classes were smaller and in 1969 the college program was relocated entirely, incorporated into Siena College. [My class was the last in the province to obtain college degrees at Catholic University in Washington.] About 1968 the formation programs for Franciscan priest and brother candidates of my province, the Eastern Seaboard, began a unification process which offered more options. But as was typical across America, fewer and fewer young men entered our order, and the mean age of new candidates by the 1970’s was much older than it was in 1962.
Those of us who entered in 1962 can truly say we began our priestly education before Vatican II, as the Council convened about a month after we did, along with the Cuban Missile Crisis, I might add, which was one of the few times I was happy to be far away from civilization should the bombs start to fall. The school I entered was strict, traditional, and clerical, the first leg of a twelve-year marathon. There is some consensus that the “prefect of discipline” and the rector were, to put it kindly, mildly deficient in matters of humanity and fostered a cold and somewhat neurotic exercise of authority that simply did not belong in a seminary, let alone a Franciscan one. [I need to add for the record, though, that we had no problems resembling those of Cardinal McCarrick’s seminary during my time at Callicoon.] There was great relief in my junior year when a much-respected teacher and sports coach, Father Brennan Connelly, O.F.M., was promoted to the position of prefect or senior disciplinarian, i.e., day-to-day manager of our lives. He was strict but eminently fair and unbiased in his judgments about us, big and small. An athlete himself, his sandals always squeaked, giving us a little heads up to break up a card game during study hours. He ran a fair ship during my last four years on the hill. Callicoon was now livable if not exactly loveable.
What I took away from six years at St. Joseph’s was the camaraderie of my own classmates, several of whom I would identify as my closest friends to this day. The physical proximity and shared experiences probably had something to do with that, but I believe that our love of sports and rock and roll, coupled with common frustrations with academics and the regimented life, bonded us in ways that gave us an inkling about friendship and tolerance, and we developed an eye for the funny things, of which there were a great many. I had never experienced the minor seminary as a particularly spiritual environment, strange as that may seem. We had many devotions, daily Mass and rosary, weekly confession and the like, but my circle had something of an uneasiness about excessive shows of piety by any peer.
On the other hand, at the reunion Mass on Saturday, several alumni, particularly laymen who left priestly studies to follow other calls, shared that their time in Callicoon had been a period of religious awakening that has endured to this day. I was very pleased to hear that, and it reminded me that my memories of St. Joseph’s are just that, mine, and cannot be taken as a generalization for the whole. Our three days together gave me an opportunity to hear the experiences of my own classmates and the larger class which had invited us. The next post will look at the Boys of Aroma Hill as they were then and as they are today. I will use the Sunday stream of the Café for several reflections along these lines.
On the Catechist Café Facebook site, I will post several photos from the reunion, at least the ones that flatter me.