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.
On My Mind