Like many in my generation, I am downsizing, a process that includes a thorough review of every book and every piece of paper I once thought would be vital once I passed the age of 70. It is surprising how many of those “treasures” have ended up in the shredder. But yesterday, in emptying a box of papers concerning my building of a house in 1996, I discovered a small cache of a quarterly magazine published by the students of St. Joseph’s Seminary called Cord and Cowl. I had a few unmemorable entries printed over the years, but in rooting through several issues from 1966 through 1968 I came to the realization that there were many insightful thinkers up on the hill whose speculations and observations about the Church immediately after Vatican II were either immediately insightful or thoughtfully predictive [or both.]
The Spring 1967 issue focused upon vocations to the priesthood and religious life in an open discussion format, and I'd like to open it up for your memories and discussion here or at the St. Joe's Reunion site on Facebook. The participants included John O’Connor, college sophomore, who years later would be named Provincial of Holy Name Province; John’s classmates John Hickey [R.I.P.] and Anthony Shattuck [lost track]; from my class of college freshmen Dick Fleshren, my old roomie and choir director who entered St. Joe’s in his later 20’s; and a few classes behind me the high school student Andy Hess [lost track]. I will interject a few italicized thoughts as we proceed.
John H. begins the conversation on the “problem of vocations,” already much in evidence in 1967. He puts forth two possible reasons for the decline: fewer candidates were applying, and “more religious are apparently leaving their orders and vows now than ever before.” Later statistical studies confirm his impressions. In response, Dick points to “the availability of the many fields of service now, such as the Peace Corps…if they join the Peace Corps [founded by President Kennedy a few years earlier] they can get right into active work and the rewards.” Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research about those who left the seminary. Anecdotally, my impression is that many of the Aroma Hill gang who departed moved toward finishing their college degrees and/or serving in the military, as the nation was in the midst of the Viet Nam War.
Andy, the youngest of the participants and the only one from the high school division, replies that “kids seem to be growing up faster all the time. Even in the seventh grade they’re going to big dances and almost even steady dating. So even by the end of eighth grade, there’s a lot to give up and it seems to be almost too lofty a goal to expect it all to just stop.” I still mourn the day that my seventh-grade sweetheart moved from Buffalo to the suburbs. More seriously, hundreds, if not thousands, of books have been written to this day on variations of Andy’s point about the challenge of celibacy.
John O’C. picks up on the fear of commitment: “Everyone today wants to be committed, but they are afraid to make a decision for their whole lives. By joining the Peace Corps, they can feel they are fulfilling their commitment without being bound forever.” The numbers of young Catholics serving the poor in church-based establishments for a determined period is one of the more encouraging signs of life in the Church in 2019. But Dick wonders aloud “if a vocation [to the priesthood] may be lost during the two years in the Peace Corps because a decision was delayed.”
Tony turns to the Callicoon scene and high school vocations. “I wonder how much influence the parents have. It’s a hard decision for anyone, but especially for an eighth grader. Many articles have appeared in the last ten years that haven’t presented a very good picture of the priesthood. I think parents reading these, discourage their sons. They don’t really know any more about the seminary than their son does. And his idea, in eighth grade, is usually very vague and not very developed. I thought, from the catalogue, that St. Joe’s would have bowling leagues. Seriously, though, I have heard the old saying many times, then and now, that seminarians don’t have vocations, but their mothers do.
The conversation turns toward recruiting. John H. observes that “The priest’s image is an important consideration. If young people don’t find the image of the priest attractive, what do they look for in a priest?” Andy replies, “Friendliness, the ability to come down to their own level. They see the priest at a CYO dance on Friday night, in the pulpit Sunday morning. And there are many priests who just don’t reach the young people; they’re aiming for the adults and shooting too high. Most kids don’t see the rectory or the seminary. They don’t know what life is all about. You can’t ask a boy if he wants to be a priest or come to the seminary if he hardly knows any priests and has never seen a seminary.”
Tony argues—correctly—about recruiting. “There is a shortage of secular [diocesan] priests, too, and the diocese wants any possible vocations directed toward itself.” John H. replies, “Don’t you think that attitude of approach forces the vocation talk to become a ‘sales pitch?’ If a student gets the impression that the vocation director is out to corral as many as he can, even if he has to take them away from someone else, that only confuses him, creating a poor image and certainly not increasing the attraction to the priesthood.” Andy draws from personal experience: “A boy in a parish school only gets confused when a half dozen priests in different habits tell him why their seminary is better, show colorful slides, and unload stacks of literature.”
Tony shares his experience: “You mentioned ‘the sales pitch.’ I remember one vocation fair, where I gave my name to a Sacred Heart brother. He had a sales pitch, for sure, but he got me interested and eventually I visited their juniorate, where I was impressed by the spirit and fraternal love. Just to get someone to consider the religious life requires a big push, not always too subtle. There was a pitch, but the message came through and it interested me in religious life.” The recruiting discussion goes on for several pages without a clear resolution. Most agree that outsiders have little understanding of what the seminary is like. John points out the pitfall of vocation directors’ portrayal of the seminary as too much like normal life while several others wonder if too much emphasis upon the “ascetics” of the seminary scares people off. Dick, about 26 at this time, said that his friends didn’t like the idea of his entering the seminary, and that for a young teenager the peer pressure might be quite difficult to manage.
The conversation turns back to the influences of adults, notably parents. Tony recalls “that my parents left the decision entirely to me and said, ‘Go straight ahead’…but I don’t think an eighth grader is capable of making that decision on his own. It’s inevitable that the parents influence their son whether he is a freshman in high school or a senior. But some have their son’s life planned for him. If they have their sights set on his being a doctor or a lawyer they won’t react favorably when he says he wants to be a priest, they’ll say, ‘but we always thought you wanted to be a doctor.’”
The group splits on the issue of an eighth-grade decision. John O’C. observes that some believe “you don’t know what life is like, that your social life isn’t formed naturally, and as a result your character is lacking.” Tony replies, “I agree with that. In a high school seminary, you don’t really realize what the world is like.” John O’C. strongly disagrees with Tony, and John H. steps in: “But both of you are basing it on your own experience, as we all do. When I decided in the eighth grade to enter the seminary, the decision was my own and I think I was capable of it….I don’t think you can say thirteen years old is an age at which a person is incapable of making decisions about his life….Some may be more capable of making their decisions than a twenty-five year old.”
John O’C.: “Today everybody is so security conscious, concerned about being a success, that they put off their decision of what to do until they can be sure it is the right choice. People with this attitude, when they see an article about 10,000 ex-priests, shy right away. ‘There must be something wrong with it—look at all those guys.’ They want to be sure, a success, committed but without risk. There is a real fear of failure.” Tony raises the question of leaving the seminary; “it could make an impression; he [the ex-seminarian] might feel he has failed and fears failure again if he tries something else.”
John H. decides to raise the pot. “I’ll ask you the dreaded question. Because of our different backgrounds it might be interesting and throw some light on the things we talked about. If you can pin it down, why did you want to be a Franciscan and a priest? What interested you, Dick? Dick was an obvious first choice. A college graduate who taught high school and drove the Athens-Atlanta run for Greyhound Bus, he embodied outside experience as much as anyone. Dick: “I thought about the priesthood for a long time, but it seemed as if there was something missing to complete the picture. When I went to Atlanta, the Franciscans there seemed to fill that something. Perhaps it was their complete dedication. The men I met impressed me with their willingness and eagerness to give themselves completely to everyone.”
Andy, who entered in eighth grade from one of our Jersey Franciscan parishes, explained his decision: “Well, I’m from a Franciscan parish but there was one priest in particular who influenced me. I guess when I thought of the priesthood, I thought of the Franciscan parish.” John O’C., who also entered after eighth grade: “I guess I was most influenced by one priest in my case, too. I hadn’t had much contact with religious, and this man so impressed me with his attitude and spirit that I wanted to share it. The man was an excellent representative of Franciscanism and it was such a contrast from what I had known before. The Franciscans had something that I wanted.”
Tony, who entered St. Joe’s at the college level, had a considerably different route: “I never saw a Franciscan before I came here. I had seen the spirit of religious orders and wanted it. I guess the attraction to the Franciscans came through St. Anthony’s Messenger. I was impressed with all the good works the order had done and was doing. In a sense I gambled since I knew little about Francis or Franciscanism, but the little I knew appealed to me. …Once I saw the place itself and the life lived here, I knew I made a good decision.”
John H.: “Somehow God got us here. While we’re here, we become more and more aware of the implications of the life which we’re headed for. The same is true of any situation. A couple before their marriage are not aware of a fraction of the implications of living their lives together will have, but they grow and learn together. The greater awareness that comes doesn’t negate the initial motivation, but it makes it more meaningful.” Andy concludes thusly: “Somehow, through a lot of maneuvers you’re not even fully aware of, it comes and one day you’re driving to the seminary. Then some February morning, when you’re complaining about the weather and the food and the discipline, it dawns on you that you kind of like the place.”
An intriguing window on the minds of thoughtful guys sorting out their experience of Church in 1967, just two years after Vatican II.
It’s funny how I have big gaps in my memory about the various classmates on Aroma Hill, but I can probably tell you what sport or sports each one of them enjoyed during our time at St. Joe’s. Whatever shortcomings the seminary may have had, there was no absence of participatory sports opportunities. Aroma Hill may have been situated in a remote location, but the tract of land was sizeable, enough room for farming and about a dozen sports venues of varying sizes. At various times of the year the two ventures overlapped, as fresh manure was spread over our new baseball/track and field complex every spring of my six years at the school in the hope that the sod would eventually take, which it never really did.
As to which was the most dominant sport in our seminary setting, I think you would get a variety of answers. Basketball was probably the most glamorous, particularly in the high school division. The varsity and JV played full schedules, home and away, against Catskill region public high schools; the toughest games were annual clashes with local powerhouses Delaware Valley and Fallsburg, along with several other minor seminaries from the Hudson Valley. Our schedules were abbreviated in the winter evening to watch the games in our cozy fieldhouse. Making the varsity was a considerable achievement, and at the risk of overkill, I would say that the high school varsity in my senior year [1965-1966] was probably the best squad I saw in my entire tenure on the hill. The fact that most of the roster consisted of my classmates, and that I am close friends today with many of them, has nothing to do with my opinion, except that they will kill me if I say otherwise.
Our junior college fielded a JV team which played an eccentric schedule ranging from other JUCO’s such as Lackawanna Valley [PA] Community College to college seminaries to local prisons [away games only] and the ubiquitous Callicoon Kiwanis Club. There were intramural basketball teams as well, but with extensive indoor and outdoor courts, my memory is that pick-up games were always open and available, particularly if you didn’t mind playing on ice and snow on our black-topped courts, as we frequently did. [By the way, to one of our readers and my classmate, Father Bob Hudak—Bob, I hope your convalescence from surgery is going well. I feel very guilty for all the times I tripped you on the ice to break up an easy lay-up.]
But football was a very close second. Not only were there ample places for pick-up games after school, but there were fierce class rivalries. We were not permitted to play tackle football, due to cost and liabilities, but remember that the legendary football games with President Kennedy’s family were “only” touch games, too. Somewhere in my class’s second or sophomore year we began a winning streak that extended for the rest of our seminary tenure, except for our very last game on the hill, a 7-7 tie with the college freshman class behind us. [I blame the field conditions for that outcome; punts literally died upon impact in the manure-sod.] That November 1967 game was the final college class rivalry ever played at St. Joe’s. The college division closed at the end of the 1967-68 school year. I was the starting offensive right guard for the total run of our winning streak. I was carrying a lot of weight then, and I got the position because my classmates observed how long it took defensive linemen to run around me on their way to the quarterback.
The varsity baseball teams [high school and college] labored in obscurity. Our main hillside campus field was just not very good; created in 1962, it was a noble effort, but no seminary could justify the cost of professional athletic sod, and nature did not progress as hoped, though the cows certainly pitched in. If my memory holds true, we hosted our varsity games at the Callicoon village field at the bottom of Aroma Hill, at least a mile from the campus. It was difficult for students to watch the games. I tried out for the high school varsity in my junior year, and after stifling a smile, the baseball coach named me scorekeeper/equipment manager, so at least I saw the games at the small [!] expense of lugging the gear back up Aroma Hill. The high school varsity played local public schools like the basketball team, along with several seminaries.
Our baseball coach, Father Brennan Connelly, whose main seminary responsibility was prefect of discipline, was very competent and stressed basic skills. There were stories that in his youth the Boston Red Sox had scouted him. In a way his coaching style resembled his spirituality of living honestly and doing the small things well. Most of our pitchers took the Greg Maddox approach of thought and control to their work. I cannot recall win-loss records over the years, but I do take away a sense of “quality experience.” One of my jobs was to phone the box scores into the Middletown Record. One day an opposing pitcher struck out sixteen St. Joe’s batters, and I got a good tongue-lashing from the sports desk of the paper because I hadn’t written down the pitcher's first name. A year after my class left Callicoon, the Record would have its biggest news story ever literally come to its front door; it was the only on-site newspaper for the 1969 Woodstock Festival and its coverage is noted in Wikipedia. [For alums, the link to the Middletown Record above will stir a lot of memories.] Also, for the historical record, I was on the college baseball roster as the emergency backup catcher in the college’s last days—an emergency being defined as an atomic war or the Second Coming.
Something that might get overlooked in our memories of the Hill is the number of niche sports available to us. The high school maintained a track and field team that competed in local tournaments but also encouraged guys like me to try some things out of our comfort zone. I had my first exposure to long distance running in some of the practices, timed with an hour glass, to be sure, but I got very serious about it in college and ran daily till years after ordination. For some time, there was a boxing ring under the gym, and a decent handball court next to our “old” ball field where daily softball was played in season. No one in my time escaped a few days every year on the paved volleyball court with its grand master, our eccentric but beloved math teacher, Father Elmer. After a particularly hard math test, there was a line a mile long to get in the game and stay on his good side.
There was hockey, too. I was not a skater, so my information pool is limited, but as soon as the small lake on the campus froze sufficiently, there was a modest but determined band of hockey players who scrimmaged frequently. I can’t recall if there were off-campus scrimmages or games. Once, during our high school years, Fr. Brennan decided to experiment with creating a rink on solid ground across from our dormitory. He opened several fire hoses to get the surface freezing, but the project backfired and soon water was spiraling out of the electric lights in the dorm chapel. As coach would say in his later years, “the only thing that saved me during that fiasco was that the rector was away in New York.”
Not everyone engaged in contact sports, for a variety of reasons, but on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons the school gave permission to leave the campus on foot, cross the Delaware River bridge, and hike into Pennsylvania. Aside from the health benefits, it would sometimes happen that you might end up hiking with a classmate you didn’t know too well—I think the rule called for at least two guys hiking together--and at some level better communications were facilitated or old arguments reconciled.
There was a remarkable absence of hubris in the “sports world” of our seminary. It was easy to acknowledge that some of my classmates were truly gifted, but none of them ever acted “elite;” for me, at least, they were always part of the guys. In fact, they were generous with their time and skills. One versatile pitcher taught me how to try to catch a knuckleball. But in the “greatest love no man hath” department, honorable mention goes one of my closest friends today, a classmate and starting pitcher in high school and college. It was an early spring day, cold, damp, and miserable, and we were just loosening up on our manure/sod infield. No one was using the mound, so I asked him: “I have never actually pitched from a true pitcher’s mound. Do you mind catching me for a few minutes so I can feel what it’s like?” He readily agreed and put on basic catcher’s equipment [wise man] while I took the mound. I had no formal training on baseball grip, so I just reared back and fired one in with all my might. I delivered a 58’ “fastball;” unfortunately, home plate is 60.5’ from the mound. My pitch kicked up a hail of manure, sod and mud, right into his face.
As he was cleaning himself off, he casually remarked, “I read somewhere that a ball has to go at least 50 mph to reach the plate.” I ran in to the plate and said that one pitch was all I needed. My “second pitch” was much better: a few years later, when we got to Washington, I suggested he and I go out drinking at the Catholic University Rathskeller for Halloween Night. Wouldn’t you know, he met his future wife on our outing.
For those from St. Joe’s who would like to add or subtract from my limited accounts here, the best place may be the “St. Joe’s Reunions” site on Facebook, or at the response site below:
In 1962 the general Catholic population knew at least two things about seminaries, local or boarding facilities: no girls, and Latin. At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., it was a bit more complicated. No girls, to be sure. And there was Latin. But there was also Greek. There was also French. And, if you count English as well, you have the recipe for my high school class’s senior year, where four of our seven periods were languages. The darn thing is, I never mastered any of the foreign three, and many would say that my English ain’t too good, either.
I have no access to student records aside from my own, and some anecdotal conversations, but it was my impression that at least several very good young men were asked to leave the class which entered in 1962 because of their difficulties with classical languages [Latin and Greek]. The irony is that the Council Vatican II, in its 1963 decree Sacrosanctum Concilium, opened the door to the return of worship in the native tongue, meaning that the primary reason for studying Latin, its use at daily Mass and the other sacraments, was evaporating with each year of our studies.
But the bureaucratic wheels grind slowly, particularly at the Vatican. I am going to throw out a quote to see if you can identify its author and the year of composition: “There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.”
I was surprised as much as anyone to learn that this quote comes from Pope John XXIII, the pope with the reputation for changing everything. It appears in the encyclical Veterum Sapientia and reaffirms earlier popes’ instructions that [major] seminary courses be conducted in Latin. Years later I asked an old-time instructor from Christ the King Seminary, then in Olean, N.Y., if he had really taught in Latin at this major seminary. “Well, it was a funny thing. Every now and then the rector would get scrupulous and tell us to stop using English and go back to Latin. But none of us could speak it well, and the students complained, and soon enough we were back to English explaining Latin texts.” The date of issue of Veterum Sapientia, incidentally, was February 22, 1962, seven months before the opening of Vatican II and six months before my class entered St. Joseph’s. Vatican II or not, Latin was still a blue-chip stock when we entered, and we would be heavy investors for six years.
The first or freshman year of our linguistic crusade began with a general introduction to elementary Latin grammar and vocabulary, and perhaps a few simple paragraphs to stick our toes in the water. The next fall, our sophomore year, plunged us into Julius Caesar’s Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō, or Commentaries on the Gallic Wars in the area of 60 B.C. The first sentence of this collection begins with the deceptively simple “Gaul is a whole divided into three parts,” Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” which was the last simple sentence we would ever see in our careers. This was also the last Latin sentence I would ever see where the verb is not the last word of that sentence. Our teacher was reasonably competent if not particularly enthusiastic—he was waiting for an assignment to the missions--and the course was something of a military chore.
Junior year brought us to the writings of Cicero. I turned 17 that year, hardly a sophisticate, and in retrospect I can see why this course was an academic washout for me. Aside from his literary artistry, Cicero’s writings were an urgent plea to preserve republican government in Rome, an effort to ward off Rome’s drift toward dictatorship under Julius Caesar and others in the century before Christ. Today, at age 71, I have some context and much interest in such concerns. But in 1964 I was not ready. I would make the comparison to a Spanish-speaking immigrant attempting to learn English by reading the Federalist Papers or the memoirs of Henry Kissinger. Academic matters were complicated as our teacher was a missionary returned to the U.S. to recover his physical and mental health. The class was irritable and restless, and the school’s academic dean took over our course in the second semester. The dean had a penchant for modesty; whenever the word rape came up in translation, he would instruct us to say, “she was deflowered.”
Our senior Latin year focused upon translating the Aeneid, a Latin epic poem written shortly before Christ. The Britannica describes the Aeneid as the Roman version of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which I will refer to below. Our teacher was the athletic director, much loved by most of the students, but this did not keep one of my classmates from responding to his call for a translation with a plaintive wail, “Wait a minute! Do you think I’m Superman or something?” It was this course, too, that almost killed—literally—several of us.
We had options to do Aeneid-ish class projects for grades, and by this time as seniors we were living in four-man rooms. One of our roommates decided to build a Roman fort out of some flour concoction, but he had to bake it overnight. So, after night prayers, he stopped by the theater and “borrowed” a massive stage light which he mounted in his closet in teepee fashion with bare copper wires to build up enough heat to cook his fort. In the process he had accidentally coated the wires running across the bare linoleum floor with flour so that they were near invisible. We could have been killed had we stepped on the wires, which ran haphazard through the room, or maybe burned in our beds when the stage light ignited the woolen blanket wrapped around it. All for the glory of ancient Troy.
In our junior year we were introduced to Greek, which as you may know already, involves memorizing a new alphabet. Having scored consistently in the 60’s in my quarterly grades, this language presented logistical problems, such as where do you find summer school offering high school Greek in your home town? Fear being the great motivator, I somehow pulled things together in late May every year to clear the finish line of 70 or thereabouts. I don’t remember who taught the courses, let alone very much about the plot lines of the Odyssey except that it took Odysseus and his men twenty years trying to get home from the Trojan War. We never attempted the first half of the epic, the Iliad, perhaps to keep our wandering minds off Helen of Troy. When I see her name today in literature, and all the troubles that surrounded her seductive beauty in Homer’s tale, I think of the late coach Vince Lombardi and his speech to the Green Bay Packers. He told the players that if any of them left the premises during the night to meet a girl, they would be fined $1000. “And if you find something out there worth $1000,” he added, “you let me know and I’ll come with you.”
The bottom-line problem, at least for this linguistic genius, was lack of motivation for the language courses in general, as the faculty warned me more times than I care to remember. Did I do something wrong? Without getting too Freudian, I suspect that much of my linguistic coursework seemed disconnected from the reasons that I entered the seminary in the first place. It is worth noting that in my sophomore year of college a newly ordained friar taught the Greek course from the New Testament, particularly St. John’s Gospel, and I gained insights from that experience that I still use today. That one course taught me that even the best English translations of the Gospel do not adequately convey the theological depth of an originating language like Greek, where there are multiple ways to express Johannine teachings such as “feed upon my flesh.”
I recently purchased The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve , in which the author Stephen Greenblatt contrasts the creation myth of the garden in Genesis with other creation myths, particularly those of Babylon. The term myth is often used pejoratively in everyday English, but its anthropological root is the search for ultimate truth in a culture’s self-understanding. Who are we? How did we all start? Why are we alternately heroes and villains, i.e., moral creatures? The Hebrews addressed these questions in the drama of Adam and Eve, [and Noah, for that matter] but all peoples seek to give expression to the ultimate question of “why?” in their venerable stories of origin.
Most of what we labored to translate from Latin and Greek falls under the heading of myth, and much of that around the fall of a city. The little I do remember centers around the moral dilemmas surrounding the fall of Troy. Why Troy, or modern day Hislarkek, Turkey? Archaeologists believe that the Troy of Homeric epic had been destroyed six times before the war that predates David and Solomon, possibly by centuries. Why did both Greek and Latin artists and philosophers invest so much labor into preserving the memory of this war—by memorization at that--before the Odyssey was ever put to parchment? Was Troy a Grecian moral watermark along the lines of Adam and Eve in our cultural experience?
I was going to exempt Cicero here from the discussion of myth, but he was an ardent spokesman for a civilization that dated its origins to the twins Romulus and Remus, believed to have been nursed and raised by wolves.
Had these mysteries been laid out for us, the dots somehow connected in even a rudimentary way, would translating the classics have been the lethargic classroom exercise that I found it to be? It is impossible to say. I leave it to my classmates and fellow students on the hill to look back and make their own determinations, but given the investment of our time years ago, I doubt that no one is neutral about the experience.
I ran out of time for French; I’ll come back to that in a later post. But the experience of French class in our initial sophomore year can be summed up in a daily ritual at the beginning of class. The French teacher would begin by speaking to us in French, “Prenez vos livres, a la page X,” or “Take your books and turn them to page X [the numerical page of the lesson.]” Immediately there began a three-minute disturbance as we shuffled through our texts and looked at our classmates’ desks to see if anyone had a clue of what French number he was talking about. Finally, with contempt written all over his face, the teacher would bark “175.”
Every day. Nothing changed except for la page number.
I can honestly say that I never went hungry in my six years at St. Joseph Seminary on Aroma Hill. Don’t imply from my statement that, like cruise ship guests, we could eat whenever we wanted. One of the evolutionary milestones of the seminary was the introduction around 1965 of an afternoon snack in the seminary refectory, consisting of milk, white bread, and jelly. Prior to that, food was served at the three meals at 7 AM, Noon, and 6 PM. During my first year [1962-1963] when St. Joe’s enrollment was probably at its zenith, construction began on a new refectory wing to be opened in our sophomore year. So, the dining room in use when my class arrived was squeezed tight; in fact, the sixth-year men, the college sophomores in their final year before taking the habit, had a separate small dining room adjacent to ours, but they ate the same food under the watchful eye of one of the three prefects of discipline.
There are two things I remember about dining: the menus themselves and the odd things that went on during the meals. As I noted in an earlier post, the breakfast menu lasted longer than the pyramids. It was simplicity at its finest: coffee, white bread baked at the facility, butter, and those little boxes of Kellogg’s cereals you still see today in your local grocery chain. The waiter [students formed the 10-member waiting teams] would open his apron and a variety of cereals would tumble out and gradually make their way down the table like lava chunks from a volcano. I seem to remember eating Rice Krispies every day, so there must have been some measure of choice. However, a close friend and classmate reminded me the other day that we would on occasion write the date on an unused box to see how long it would remain in circulation.
Our seats at table were assigned for an entire semester, and life could be difficult for those at the end of the table. The tables themselves seated 12 to 14 [plus the odd man at the end]. They were made of wood by German Franciscan brothers, true craftsmen, and they weighed a ton. If the poor guy at the end of the table, who sat between the table and the wall, annoyed the rest of us at the table, we would strain to pick up the table and pin him to the wall. Looking back, we could have broken ribs with that tactic.
One of the crosses at all our meals was the “reading” of a presumably intended inspirational text by a select collegian. There is no one in my class who has forgotten that we were subjected to all 500 pages of Luke Delmege by P.A. Sheehan. Amazon describes the text thusly: “In this novel the young curate, scholarly, enthusiastic about his priestly vocation, is anxious to improve his Irish parishioners. With profound insight and great humor, Canon Sheehan (1852-1913) sketches the inner life of the Irish cleric.” Published in 1901, the work was over 60 years old by the time it was inflicted upon us. The length of the reading depended upon the whim of the Senior Prefect, and food was not served without a generous appetizer of Luke Delmege. At Friday lunch we ate the full meal in silence as the seminary rulebook was read in its entirety, with its reminder that “particular friendships were forbidden.” Fortunately, we never took that rule seriously and I am not aware that it was even enforced.
If the breakfast menu was predictable, lunch was more varied, and some lunch items were quite good. Tuna fish on the hearty home-baked white bread was one of my favorites. But truth be told, many of us went to an old dependable at lunch time, peanut butter. A jar was provided for each table, and the first user had to “homogenize” it as the oil was always separated. There was a story afloat that the seminary purchased its peanut butter from a government emergency stockpile when the expiration date came up, or some variation of that. If too many students passed on the main course in favor of the peanut butter, the Prefect of Discipline would put an embargo on peanut butter and jelly, and some guys required treatment for withdrawal symptoms. There was a very muscular athlete in the class ahead of us who brilliantly beat the embargo: he obtained a fresh jar of PB and nailed the lid to the underside of the table. He could eat PB at any meal he wished as nobody would mess with his stash.
The beverage for all meals was milk, provided by the seminary’s herd, and coffee with breakfast. I am grateful to St. Joe’s for introducing me to coffee. The one exception on beverages occurred in the late fall when the seminary’s apple crop was ground into cider, which was served at lunch in place of milk. The very fresh cider was quite potent in its digestive effects, and lunch would be playfully interrupted at a table as two guys would get into a “cider bout.” I saw a classmate consume 23 coffee cups of cider in one sitting without the prefect spotting his excess. I made the mistake of hiking with him later in the afternoon when his good luck ran out, figuratively and literally. He frantically forced open a small hunter’s cabin along the Delaware River, only to discover too late that the water had been shut off for the winter. Luke Delmege would never do such things.
Lunch desserts were prepackaged ice cream treats or occasional other items such as Moon Pies, still popular today. In reading accounts of other seminaries, I find that desserts were the coinage of the realm everywhere. If you wanted to bet on something, the wager was the next meal’s dessert. This carried the same risks as trading in the stock market, because the menus were not posted in advance, and your “dividend” might be as diverse as frosted cake [a rare favorite] to the much-maligned canned peaches in vanilla pudding. On Sundays the kitchen would sometimes prepare a very good spice cake covered generously with confectioner’s sugar. On Sundays we were required to wear our black suits, and there was always one idiot who would pick up your piece of cake and blow as hard as he could, dousing your suit with confectioner’s sugar, which is nearly impossible to remove.
Supper was always interesting, but particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays, because on occasion after the Luke Delmege reading the Prefect of Discipline would read a list of house jobs or chores, completed on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, which had not been done or had been done poorly. The students responsible were told to leave immediately and redo them. Then dinner would proceed at its usual clip, meaning those guys frequently missed supper. It was too bad for them, because supper was generally a good meal, all things considered. From time to time we would have sausages, and one night we punctured one to see how high the geyser of grease might rise. The meatballs were referred to as “belly bombs” and baked fish as “shark steaks,” but there was also chicken, beef, and a few meats we were never sure about, but I can’t complain; I think we had it pretty good.
If someone misbehaved during dinner, the prefect would order the miscreant to kneel in front of the prefect’s dining platform, in full view of all of us, as something of a reminder to maintain decorum. The funniest and most original dining room caper occurred one night when a high school student—I’m not sure who—took a round little beet and used his spoon to rocket it all the way across the room unseen by the prefect where it landed flush into a full cup of milk being raised to the lips of a collegian and almost drowning him. I honestly don’t think that stunt could ever be replicated. It was like attending a perfect game in baseball you didn’t know was coming.
So were many things in the days on the hill.
I have two audiences in mind today: my old friends from minor seminary days and those of you who wonder what boarding school seminaries were like, at least from 1962 when we entered. From accounts of other seminaries I have read, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary on Aroma Hill probably scored on the median between bizarre seminaries such as that described by ex-seminarian Paul Hendrickson during his 1956-63 stretch with the Trinitarians, Seminary: A Search  and some of the religious communities we played in varsity sports, which seemed more familial. I remember a visiting priest consoling his baseball team by offering to buy them ice cream on the way home to their seminary. Several correspondents from our seminary told me recently that particular priests took a paternal interest in their troubles and made significant contributions to their future well-being, but daily life on the hill is never mentioned in the same breath as “The Brady Bunch.”
I posted at the onset of this log that the senior Prefect of Discipline of our first two years did not seem suited to the job and depended upon inordinate fear and intimidation in his daily management of our lives. He created a constant undercurrent of stress where our daily schedule was concerned. It was he who woke us up from our nightly sleep at 5:30 AM. The freshmen and sophomore classes slept in dormitories of about 70 students each; the Prefect would throw on all the fluorescent lights and walk through the floor ringing a hand bell. We would spring from bed and hustle down to the institutional lavatory at the end of the floor. It is amazing to me that we could all take care of grooming business and walk over to the chapel in the main building in time for 6 AM Morning Prayer and Mass, dressed in the required coat and tie, or black suit on Sunday.
The seminarians, along with the senior and assistant prefects, lived in a relatively new structure called Scotus Hall. The dorms, rooms, library, and locker room were all housed in this late 1950’s structure named after the medieval Franciscan philosopher John Scotus or Duns Scotus. We were too young to appreciate the irony that the English word “dunce” is derived from attacks on Scotus by his enemies; perhaps the etymology was apt for the residents of my day, including myself, of course. Until Scotus Hall was completed, the seminarians slept on the top fourth floor of the old 1904 structure and the school offered a monthly mass invoking St. Agatha, I was told by the college guys, to preserve the building from a fire and the loss of the best and the brightest, the future of the Order.
The Masses on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday were high Masses; a schola or small choir of collegians sang the Gregorian chants appropriate to the day. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays were low Masses with no singing. Some peculiar points: there was no padding on the kneelers, no small thing when you remember that the Mass was offered in the pre-Council Latin rite which was not noted for brevity. Another peculiarity by today’s liturgical law was the offering of multiple Masses at the same time. While the student Mass was being offered on the high altar, ten or so other priests were offering low Masses at side altars along both walls, and the seminarian servers rang bells for each of them.
At 7 AM we were served a breakfast of cold cereal, fresh baked white bread and butter, and coffee. On my last day on the Hill, six years later, the breakfast menu was cold cereal, fresh baked white bread and butter, and coffee. There were some classmates who added variation by “toasting” their buttered bread, i.e., setting the hot coffee pot on the buttered bread. [On Sunday, the bread was generally a frosted raisin bread.] The dining experience deserves its own treatment in a separate post. We were out of the refectory by 7:30 to dash back to the dorms, make our beds to seminary standards, and gather up our books for the first class at 8 AM.
Classes continued till noon, with a mid-morning break of fifteen minutes. Smoking of cigars and pipes was permitted for those 17 and older with parental permission, and a lot of guys huddled around outside during this interlude for some nicotine fortitude to face the next classroom battles. There was a coterie of us who often used this break to check the dormitory delivery dock. The seminary did not have its own student laundry services, and some of us mailed our laundry home in metal laundry cases. The catalogue for parents assured a quick turnaround, but that rarely happened, and the uncertainty of the laundry supply line was a factor in my early days there. My siblings joke that when they came home from school on some days, the family house reeked of chlorine, and they would say, “I guess Tom’s laundry arrived today.”
After about a year or two of this, I did what most of my classmates did—employ a local woman in town who billed our seminary student account. The turnover was quick, though I pity all those families at the foot of the hill who received regular bundles of boys’ high school wash. It is a little-known fact that the hazmat suit was invented in Callicoon. In my last year in Callicoon [1967-68] we could carry personal cash and could go into town to use the new laundromat.
It is my recollection that we had four classes in the morning and two in the afternoon sandwiched around a PM study period. The noontime lunch opened with the Angelus, as did most other meals, and was notable for the delivery of the mail, which had been opened and read by the Prefect before we laid eyes on it. The surveillance of personal mail between a seminarian and his parents is one of the most egregious institutional policies that rankles me to this day. During my first year my mother wrote to tell me she was pregnant; this letter had been opened and perused before I ever saw it. Finally, a change in administration ended the practice in my college years.
The seminary did little to facilitate students’ ongoing communications with their families. There was a rule that students must write home weekly, but knowing the letter would be read by the Prefect—and we were forbidden to seal the envelope—what are you going to say if you had difficulties with teachers, or morale issues, or personal problems? Under these circumstances, could a young seminarian tell his parents about abusive behavior of a friar or a breaking of boundaries? I think we were permitted a phone call on our birthdays, but phone use was very limited and monitored for our high school years.
Back to lunch: on some days of the week there were devotions in the chapel after the meal; Tuesday’s was devoted to St. Anthony, “whose purity was the ornament and glory of Christianity…” The afternoon classes extended until 3 PM when a two-hour recreation commenced. There was an expectation that a student be involved in some form of exercise or sports after school, and it was always easy to get up a pick-up game of whatever was in season. There were organized intramurals, but for those of us who struggled with math, regular appearance at Father Elmer’s daily volleyball game was a sine qua non for a little mercy at the black board in trig or later in college set theory.
By 5 PM we were showered and at our desks in the giant study hall in Scotus. Study hours were monitored by faculty members and were generally productive unless one fell asleep, and the different monitors had varieties of ways to wake us up, particularly if we were drooling on a school-issued text book. Dinner took place at 6 PM, and afterward the Franciscan Crown, a seven-decade rosary, was recited outdoors around a small lake next to the old seminary building. While not mandatory, it was good to be seen publicly saying the community Crown more often than not. Our evaluations were based in part on observing our enthusiasm for things holy. After the Crown there was a half-hour break to do personal reading, chat, or other personal chores and interests until we were back in the Scotus study hall at 7:30 for a 90-minute study period. Night prayer in the chapel was held at 9 PM, often accompanied by benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. We returned en masse to Scotus to retire at 9:30 PM, though the fluorescent lights seemed to go off ten or fifteen minutes later than that.
The Seminary maintained a “grand silence” from the end of night prayer till breakfast the next morning. Consequently, there was supposed to be silence in the dorms upon retiring and awaking. However, the dark nights were known for pranks and mischiefs. In my sophomore year I sat on the steps from the dorm to the roof to follow the first Cassius Clay [Mohammed Ali] boxing match with Sonny Liston from someone’s contraband portable radio in 1964. None of us got caught but organized after-dark activities such as dorm raids were punished with significant gravity. The death sentence punishments included immediate expulsion for absence from seminary grounds, and automatic C’s in conduct for smoking cigarettes. Somewhere in high school two students were expelled when one tried to pass a letter to his girlfriend by sending it through another’s laundry case. The second party returned to Franciscan formation after college and distinguished himself as an exemplary friar and college professor.
But sudden expulsions were unusual, and the majority of our seminarians left at the end of a school years for academic difficulties or personal discernment issues. However, some who were dismissed by the rector at year’s end told me they were frustrated that they never got concrete answers to their questions of why they were let go, except in a generic “you don’t seem suited to our life” way. Truth be told, some of our administrators were not so well suited to our life, for which a significantly larger body of proof exists
It cannot be understated how much the office of priesthood was respected in the Church in my youth—and even today in most quarters, recent events notwithstanding—such that a respectable number of young men, and particularly the adults who influenced them, believed until the 1960’s that early induction into a minor seminary was a worthy and worthwhile goal. Entering a seminary “to become a priest” was a venture held to be “self-evident” to borrow language from our American forefathers. To the outside world, including the seminary benefactors and my own parents, the focus on ordination was understood as a common attraction and universal organizing principle for those of us who attended.
It did not take much time in a minor seminary to realize that the intentions of our parents and sponsors, let alone of our classmates, were much more of a mixed alloy. I came to the seminary with the expectation that the routine would be challenging, but I entered with the comforting thought that we would all be on the same page about what we were looking for. An immediate surprise was the absence of anything we might call “evangelical.” The guys in that class of 1962-63 were businesslike in their approach to the long-range career goal, spoke little if any to each other about priestly or spiritual topics, and engaged in the multiple devotions probably in much the same fashion as they had in the elementary schools they and I hailed from.
The official reason we were joined together in common purpose so early in life is stated in the documents of the Council of Trent [1545-1563], a council focused upon reform of the priesthood. The absence of appropriate training of priests was considered a major cause of clerical moral indifference at that time, and the establishment of standardized seminaries addressed the twin challenges of competence and devotion. The documents set the age of admission to the seminary at 12 or above; the author Paul Henderson in his Seminary: A Search  cites the Council’s preference for this early age “before the habits of vice take possession of the whole man.” Clearly by 1962 there was not universal agreement about early seminary candidacy, and the statistics from my own ordination class show that only half of us entered at 14; an equal number entered after high school or even later.
So, there were respectable options of age in my time, which makes the subject of early entry more intriguing and complex. Some of my classmates were clearly misplaced. I have wondered over the years what stories brought them to Callicoon. A Capuchin friar in Washington, D.C., a classmate in graduate school, told me that his minor seminary was the only Catholic high school for 100 miles in each direction, and he believed that its attraction for parents was the quality of the education for the minimal cost. Every seminary memoir notes the remarkably low tuition of the various institutions. In my case, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary charged $43/month for tuition, room, and board. Even in 1962 this rate was considered as something of a token against actual costs. (College seminary on the hill was a better bargain, the tuition being $53/month. As those of us from New York State all earned an annual $500 Regents scholarship, I can truthfully report that I earned my first college degree, an A.A. junior college degree in Classical Languages (Latin and Greek) for the princely sum of $60.)
In years of reflection upon some of my obviously troubled and unhappy classmates, I have concluded that some were sent to the seminary by their parents to “straighten out” or “grow up.” It is a mystery to me how some survived the admissions process, and the best source for this information, our legendary vocation recruiter “Doc” Fink, has long passed away. Were he alive today, Doc would probably admit that he took a chance on some applicants, perhaps seeing promise in a sullen eighth grader for some reason or other. There were classmates of mine who would meet today’s criteria as “bullies” and we had to endure them for a year or two before the faculty decided to cut one or more of Doc’s iffy draft picks.
In adult life, and particularly in recent correspondences, I have come to learn that some of my peers from seminary days preferred life on Aroma Hill to living at home. Some had genuine strains with their family dynamics that could easily be covered in the admission phase. My father was at work when Doc paid his “home visit” and the two never met, but my papers got punched, nonetheless. If you told me that some applicants needed a break from home life, I would not fall over in shock.
Others came from distressed areas and poor school districts, or saw the seminary as offering greater educational and cultural opportunities. This was probably more common to college applicants, who brought their affinities for Peter, Paul and Mary or Pete Seeger to the seminary program. One of my classmates came from rural South Carolina, but the quality of education he had received was evidently quite poor. He labored mightily to keep up with the class, but he was dismissed after his first year. At some level I like to think he saw the seminary as an opportunity to better himself and his skills. We never heard from him again.
Another word that comes up frequently about the Callicoon years is “searching.” I use this word with an asterisk, because it is easy for us in our memories to conflate our college years with our early years from the distance of over half a century. I find myself doing that all the time. After all, our Callicoon years spanned the heart of the 1960’s. When I graduated from the high school division in 1966, the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” was virtually our class song.
I can say that while I was a bit more culturally obtuse than a lot of my classmates, I had to do significant mental rearranging to merge my pre-Council vision of the priesthood to the demands of a changing Church and the changes in America. It was a strain to relate to long-time classmates whose searching was taking them to horizons far beyond the swamp at the foot of Aroma Hill. In the last two years of Callicoon life [the junior college years] I lost some close friends who departed for other ventures. It was even more painful because, in my day-to-day preoccupations, I hadn’t picked up the cues.
The guys who attended last September’s reunion and those who post regularly on Facebook feel attachment to their years in Callicoon, if not the institution and its program itself. That is an important distinction. I was not a happy camper living there, but I made some of the best friends in my life during those six years. And, I would be lying if I didn’t say that some of the funniest things I ever saw and heard were the end-product of our common life there. But as I say, the “one size fits all” of minor seminary existence began to decay almost immediately after my arrival, and by 1968 it was a chimera.
Celebrating the feasts of the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord in my home parish this month brought back memories of my return to the seminary in the winter of 62-63, my first year there, after two weeks home with my family around the Christmas tree. My commute was a little longer than most of my classmates as I had the all-day rail trip from Buffalo to the heart of the Catskills. I can remember, though, the shock of walking into the seminary chapel on my first night back, seeing it decorated with poinsettias and a large nativity scene. The large institutional seminary seemed far removed from the human festivities of life back home. I had forgotten momentarily that our chapel, which seated as many as 300, was also the local Catholic parish church for the village of Callicoon and was tended to by an older friar who lived at the seminary.
I can’t recall if anyone decided not to come back after Christmas, though I could certainly understand the impulse. It would have made more sense to leave after January examinations and transfer into a local high school at the semester break. Everyone, it seems, was back to the Hill from a variety of locations, though geographically there were some rather easy fault lines to fathom. Numerically, the largest cluster of my classmates came from “the Jersey parishes.” The Franciscans staffed a significant number of suburban parishes in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, where my branch of the Order had planted its flag in the 1870’s, German refugees from the onslaught of Bismarck. The term “Jersey Boys” was not yet in our national lingo in early 1963, but I do recall that a new music group called “The Four Seasons” was making a splash during Christmas vacation with a song about big girls not crying.
I can still remember the names of the Jersey towns—Fair Lawn, Little Falls, Pompton Lakes, Clifton, and a few more I have forgotten--stretched along or near the cross-state highway U.S. 46 before it enters metropolitan New York. It is not surprising the best harvest of young seminarians might come from the friars’ most prolific cluster of parochial ministries. The fact that most of my classmates came from the same few counties did not create any social strains that I am aware of. But there were other constituencies to be heard from. Several of my classmates hailed from Queens and Long Island, enough for a potential small but determined bunch of fans for a new baseball team, the New York Metropolitans, which set up shop in the Polo Grounds two years before my class set up shop on the hill.
Small but vocal in identity were the “B” town representatives, i.e., Boston and Buffalo. In truth, I was the only student from Buffalo in my class but there were others spread out in the classes ahead of mine, and in subsequent years there would be “reinforcements,” so to speak. Similarly, I can only recall one true Bostonian in my freshman class, partly because he always used my Rite-Guard and mostly because he is among my closest friends today, and a Café contributor to boot. But the Beantown contingent throughout the school was not insignificant, particularly when our small lake froze enough for hockey.
There were interesting stories of how other classmates joined the seminary; I had classmates from New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, among other sites. But while it was easier to latch on to someone’s place of origin, it is harder today to understand what motivated each of us in 1962 to even think about leaving those varied locales for seminary life. The phrase “to become a Franciscan priest” seems simple enough, but even in my freshman year it was obvious that our personalities, ambitions, and influences were remarkably complex. The fact that there are no minor seminaries today is enough to make me curious as to why the Church—and the significant adults in our lives—thought a minor seminary was a good idea back then. And more to the point, why did any of us in our deepest souls make that choice, to the degree that anyone is capable of significant career choice at age 14?
I am grateful to reader Mark Griffin for pointing me in the direction of Paul Hendrickson’s Seminary: A Search (1983). Hendrickson, a writer of some note, was a reporter for the Washington Post when he was encouraged to write his seven-year memoir of minor seminary life by, among others, the Post’s legendary Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame. I am barely into Henderson’s first year of seminary life, but even at this stage of his work he stops to consider why so many young products of Catholic elementary schools entered minor seminaries.
He begins with the religious temperament of the times: the post-World War II years, when a religious revival of sorts was taking place in America. Most of our fathers had fought in World War II, and the work of Catholic priest-chaplains had won admiration in all quarters, including our future parents. But even beyond that, the War had impacted different countries different ways. France, for example, fell into existential hopelessness. Church attendance dropped, and the famous “worker priest” experiment of the 1950’s attempted to win back the loyalty of French blue-collar workers.
The United States, by contrast, was an energized country after the war, and nowhere more so than in the parochial life of the Catholic Church. Hendrickson observes that by 1958, his first year in the seminary, there were 381 minor and major seminaries in this country [though within twenty years there would be 259 less.] The cultivation of youthful vocations was part and parcel of a seemingly bright future for the Church. The two primary agents of recruiting and nurturing future priests, in Hendrickson’s assessment of things, were religious sisters in elementary schools and Catholic mothers. He describes the process of easing into seminary life as “going with the flow” of convincing, cajoling, and encouragement.
I can say that to a point this was true in my own life and probably so in some classmates. A very close friend today from seminary days has two sisters who became religious nuns and an uncle who joined a religious order, but from knowing him for 56 years I don’t think that these circumstances alone do justice to his inner existential choices of remaining in the seminary for ten years, as he did. The men who have corresponded with me through the Café blog or Facebook tell a more complex story, such as a seminary friend who was orphaned at age eight and acknowledges that his life was turned around by two friar priests who became surrogate fathers to him during his five-year stay.
I will continue the thought in future Sunday posts from the Hill, and I welcome conversation here at the Café blog, or at the Facebook page St. Joe’s Reunions. Search on Facebook.
This is the fifth installment of "The Boys From Aroma Hill," tales from my seminary class of 65 which entered the boarding school minor seminary on September 8, 1962.
It was 56 years ago this Christmas that I was starting to get my stomach in a knot with the reality that a few days after New Year’s Day I would be riding the Erie Lackawanna Railroad back to my new permanent home in the Catskill Mountains, St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary, “Aroma Hill.” Many years later, as a psychotherapist, I would hear adult school teachers relay the same kinds of symptoms starting in late July every summer as they anticipated a return to the classroom, which quite literally filled them with dread. As a psychotherapist I would sit back and ask with enough naivete, “So why don’t you try another setting or another line of work?” Just as you might ask why a 14-year-old goes back to a seminary and a lifestyle he was very unhappy with.
One piece of mail to the Cafe recently came from a thoughtful man who was about six years my junior in Callicoon. He said that when his own son turned 14, he had to wonder what in the world had possessed his parents to send him off to boarding school at that age. It is a very good question, not simply for us old timers trying to make sense of our life narrative, but as a slice of recent church history that gives insight to our catechetical ventures today. How many times do we ask today “how can we reach the young?” The minor seminary—particularly the isolated minor seminary—was a special piece of the catechetical pie for well over a hundred years till the radical shifts in practice after Vatican II, as well as dwindling applications and resources, led to an almost total disappearance of “minor” or high school seminaries in the 1970’s.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the summit or precious jewel of the Catholic educational process was the development of vocations to the priesthood (and for women to cloistered monasteries or open parochial education and health care ventures.) I was born in 1948, making me a “boomer” at a time when returning GI’s were attending college paid for by their veterans’ benefits. The Catholic demographic in the United States was thriving. Catholic families tended to be larger because the predominant confessional morality of the time followed the lead of Pope Pius XI and his insistence in 1930 that artificial birth control was mortally sinful.
The need for Catholic priests and religious throughout my youth swelled. Parish life, with regular confessions (every two weeks in my household and probably close to the norm), marriages, and particularly schools, devoured every able-bodied cleric and religious who could report for duty. I have read that the goal of some of the metropolitan archbishops was an annual ordination class of 100! At one point after World War II the diocese of Buffalo, according to a retired priest I met on retreat last month, contained 700 incardinated priests and another 700 religious order priests. I have seen recruiting correspondence from around 1949 from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to religious sisters in Ireland, with data that Los Angeles was opening a new parish every 90 days.
It is interesting, though, that many future priests chose not to seek training and career in their home dioceses, but rather with religious orders. There are multiple reasons, not least of which was the influence of the many Catholic colleges that were established or expanded after the war by religious orders for veterans attending night school. (The Franciscan-established Siena College, my first ordained assignment in the 1970’s, was forced to erect Quonset huts after WWII for classroom and operational space.)
Another factor was the variety of spiritual and vocational paths available to a man seeking the priesthood. Thomas Merton’s “Seven Storey Mountain” was published in 1949 and influenced a good number of men (and women) to entertain thoughts of a vocation to the simple, contemplative life of monks dating to St. Benedict. The writings of the lay medical missionary Dr. Tom Dooley, notably his “Deliver Us From Evil” (1959), sparked interest in clerical and lay interests alike to combine humanitarian and religious purpose in ministry to third world sites. Religious orders varied in their devotional emphases, lifestyles, and career priorities. The Sulpicians, for example, devoted themselves to seminary teaching, spiritual direction, and scholarship. The Jesuit pursuit of academic excellence is well known, and several orders and communities were the product of devotion to Mary.
This, then, was the atmosphere of the 1950’s Church in the U.S. when the 1962 edition of the Hill Gang began to discern high school and vocational choices. I doubt that any of us were consciously aware of the influences that shaped our—and especially our parents’—choices, but this does not mean there was no critical assessment of choices. Pastors, as a rule, were not overly fond to see young men opt for a religious community over the diocese’s own seminary. Parents, I noticed, did not always think a secluded seminary atmosphere was a good idea for 14-year-olds and preferred that their sons have some “real world” experience and maturity before signing any dotted lines.
Even my own mother, whose life’s ambition was to see her oldest son ordained a priest, also showed some discretion in her decision-making process. From about the time I was four the master plan for me was to attend a day school/high school minor seminary for the Diocese of Buffalo that, coincidentally, was located all of six blocks from my home. (For Buffalo readers, this was the “Little Seminary” on Dodge Street on Buffalo’s east side; we know now in 2018 that the clerical abuse problem did not leave “the Little Seminary” unscathed.) The idea of going somewhere else did not appear on the family radar until rather late in the game.
My mother was in the custom of making an annual retreat, and somewhere around 1960 she mentioned to a Franciscan retreat master that she had a son planning to enter the seminary in Buffalo. This friar turned out to be a good salesman, because the next evening I had an interview with him. From what I can recall, the “pitch” to me was that being a Franciscan priest was better than being a diocesan priest because “you can do any kind of work you want.” However, I think he was more analytical in discussing the matter with my mother, and by the lights of the day he raised some good issues for a parent, pointing out the community life of the Franciscans was a more wholesome lifestyle than the isolation of diocesan life and that I would be well cared for in my old age. In my mother’s youth, her pastor had wandered the street in his pajamas, fenced in the rectory, and raised a herd of deer in the middle of Buffalo. No Lyme Disease for this boy.
Somewhere in all this the issue of living away from home must have been brought up, because my mother began to extol the virtues and advantages of boarding school life with all the enthusiasm of someone who did not have to go herself. She had heard “horror stories” of the sort that the Little Seminary was very hard, and that the boys had so much homework that they were exhausted all the time. Closer to the truth was the deterioration of Buffalo’s East Side; this was the time of “white flight” and, to recoup some of their investment, and to protect me from street assaults, my parents sold our Buffalo house and moved about 15 miles out of the city. And I would be safe up on Aroma Hill.
Today, when kids say, “It’s complicated,” I can resonate.
The question of why 13 and 14-year-olds would leave the comfort of kith and kin to live in a distant boarding school is a question that differs from man to man. I had the good luck, however, to finally trace down something of an official explanation. In the same year (1962) my class entered St. Joseph Seraphic Seminary in Callicoon, N.Y., a description of the life of my province was released for sale to the general public. The title is The Franciscans: Love at Work, and the authors were Franciscan Fathers Boniface Hanley and Salvator Fink. “Sal” Fink was one of the two traveling vocations directors of our province whose own residence between trips was the Callicoon seminary. From there he would come up to Buffalo very early in 1962 to interview me and see my family prior to final approval and acceptance. We would remain friends for almost thirty years, but he did not take well to my leaving the order.
If Sal were alive today, I think he would chuckle at some of what he wrote, particularly his chapter, “Future Franciscans,” (pp. 225-244) There is little doubt here that protecting us from feminine wiles was a major raison d’etre for minor seminaries. “[The seminarian] found it a strictly masculine world. No feminine frills or frippery trifled with its monastic order. Nor were there curtains, rugs, or soft chairs…But above all, it was for him a world of joy. Joined with lads sharing his interests, goals and enthusiasms, he touched here the wellsprings of youthful charity and Christ-like love. The priests of the faculty nourished his mind with their teachings and his soul with their example.”
The authors continue: “It was just for him that the seminary was founded, [the seminarian] felt…Authorities see the seminary not as a mere institution to protect a boy from worldly evil and example, but rather as a blessed opportunity of early and effective preparation for the life he wishes to lead.” [pp. 225-226] Whether every seminarian of my time perceived the experience of the seminary as an early and effective spiritual preparation is at the least a matter of some debate. As I have written on this stream earlier, at our school reunion in September 2018 several of the Aroma Hill Gang expressed openly at the group Mass and other formats what we would call today conversion experiences in Callicoon.
On the other hand, the development of an early adolescent spirituality was an elusive challenge, doubly so because at least some of us had left home with the expectation that we would find more “church devotion” for want of a better word than what we already had in our home parishes and schools. As one of my close seminary classmates wrote this week, “The other topic I’ve thought about for years is how poorly we were exposed to intimate spirituality at Callicoon. I’m not sure if our teachers lacked a sense of the true presence of God in our community or if by lack of experience didn’t have the spiritual vocabulary to invite us there. Our shared reluctance, to this day, of sharing the details of our spiritual journey intrigues me. What’s lacking? We certainly have love for each other formed by our shared experiences …. but have no apparent desire/ability to communicate what grace is doing within each of us.”
I might have worded this a little differently, but I agree in principle that development of an age-appropriate spirituality in the seminary was sorely lacking. I came from Christian Brothers’ background, and I found the Callicoon spirituality similar in the sense that in the early 1960’s the spiritual formation of young men was duty bound. Aristotle and Aquinas agreed that the soul of virtue was habit, doing good things and engaging in religious exercises over and over, for example, until the disposition [virtue] was second nature. The Christian Brothers in my middle school year would post a daily tally on the blackboard of students carrying rosaries [“the beads” as they put it] and wearing scapulars under our shirts.
The seminary was much like that except that there were more spiritual exercises throughout the day, many more, in fact. Devotion to St. Anthony, readings in the dining room, weekly confession, rosary after supper, monthly days of recollection, Sunday Compline in Latin, etc. I should probably add here that the kneelers in our chapel were wooden, without cushioning, apparently for some measure of asceticism that I guess was intended to convey a “tough it out with Christ” motif. Curiously, the one devotion that brought me any measure of personal consolation was reading a chapter of The Imitation of Christ after receiving communion, something I learned from my own initiative that was not part of my seminary training.
I can only offer mitigating circumstances as to why some of us remember the minor seminary with less than warm spiritual fuzzies. My friend-correspondent above raised the issue of seminary personnel, i.e., the example of the priests. The friars who staffed the seminary were themselves products of the same system of priestly training introduced at the Council of Trent [1545-1563], which introduced the concept of stand-alone seminaries. [Whether Trent envisioned minor seminaries is uncertain; Wikipedia writes that minor seminaries “emerged in cultures and societies where literacy was not universal, and the minor seminary was seen as a means to prepare younger boys in literacy for later entry into the major seminary.”]
To be honest, I think of my seminary professors as hard-working men—for the most part—who approached the seminary institution something the same as we came to accept, a necessary assignment for a higher good. A good parallel is an assessment of our academic program. The seminary faculty had one true scientist and one true—if eccentric—mathematician, God love him, but many of our teachers were self-taught, so to speak. I recall several as returning from arduous missionary work. The seminary staff was assigned under canonical obedience, and in candor a fair number did not want to be there. I say that without rancor, because I took a few assignments like that myself after ordination, including teaching in a Catholic high school.
There are other critical factors which each deserve a hearing, but I will summarize them here and pick them up in future posts. One of the most surprising things about the seminary for me was the poverty of the religion courses. They were mostly train wrecks. There was an attitude throughout my high school years that “you’ll get plenty of that later” and the coursework provided us was filler at best. Ironically, the one captivating academic religion course of my time there was taught in my high school senior year by a priest who himself had just completed coursework in the renewed theology of the Vatican II era which had just ended that year. Unfortunately, we had no preparation for this agenda, which I recognize today as the historical/critical method of Biblical analysis…and I got a 60 on one exam, a low water mark for someone with my career ambition.
Were seminarians of our time capable of sharing our “spiritual journeys” as my good friend asks? I checked Erik Erikson’s classic “stages of development” to see what one might expect from high schoolers: “ … development now depends primarily upon what a person does. An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in” and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.” There was a very noticeable reticence about discussing personal piety, even some subtle pressure not to go there. Erikson’s stage of “fitting in” describes the seminary to a tee. We were never at a loss to discuss sports, given that most of us played varsity or, in my case, random pick-up games of anything in season. I recall some religious discussions that were “safe” such as whether it is better to be an easy confessor or a hard confessor when we were eventually ordained years down the road. But “touchy feely” matters of the here and now were avoided, including spiritual doubts or experiences. [Later in novitiate and the major seminary we were careful not to show vulnerability lest our superiors hold up our ordinations.]
Another point worth mentioning is that the religious routine of the seminary followed a liturgical style that was being dismantled at Vatican II, in the declaration Sacrosanctum Concilium of 1963. My memory is that the Latin Tridentine Mass was still in use throughout my high school years, and a daily exposure to a 6 AM low Mass in Latin on wooden kneelers was not, shall we say, reinforcing. The Fathers of the Council recognized this in effecting an overall form of the liturgy. Vatican II would call for a communal experience of faith in the Mass, but our seminary liturgy was markedly individual and passive until my college years.
That said, it is a remarkable thing that so many of my classmates and colleagues at Callicoon went on to careers of value and service, married well, served in the military, and still carry a divine spark even outside the Roman Catholic umbrella. So, it must be assumed that with all its faults, Callicoon was a time and a place where many of us found something of our adult identities, which is the cornerstone of a personal and communal spirituality.
Wild Card Sunday