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
On My Mind