I received a copy of Medieval Francis in Modern America: The Story of Eighty Years 1855-1935 by Adalbert Callahan, O.F.M. (New York, N.Y., MacMillan, 1936). This hardcover history of the early days of what would become my Holy Name Province is still available (I purchased one of two copies available on Amazon through an independent dealer for about $12, so anyone with an interest in American Franciscan history can still get a working copy at a decent price.) As the title indicates, the Franciscans of the East Coast began arriving and settling on American shores after the Civil War, and the Archbishop of New York directed some of them into the area of Sullivan County.
Callicoon was not the original planting of the flag in the region. The first friar establishment was among the French Catholic population in Obernburg, N.Y. Those of my time in Callicoon may remember the name Father Valerian DeRome, O.F.M., who was pastor of the Callicoon church when my class arrived but was later transferred cross-county to St. Mary’s parish in Obernburg. The first Franciscan pastor in the county was Father Joseph Roesch, who served roughly from the late 1850’s till 1884. He was a remarkable priest who built churches in the Obernburg French settlement and later in Ellenville, Jeffersonville, and Narrowsburg. [Later missions and parishes of the friars would include Cochecton, Lake Huntington, Long Eddy, Hankins, Yulan, North Branch, and Pond Eddy near Port Jervis. Some of these missions/parishes were still served on weekends by the friars in the 1960’s. The friars’ parish in Callicoon was returned to the New York Archdiocese just a few years ago, its last pastor being our fellow Callicoon classmate from the 1960’s, Father Charlie O’Connor.]
The date of the Callicoon parish establishment is not clear from the text, except that the Obernburg community became a mission of the Callicoon parish in 1875. Concurrent with this development, the Province considered two proposals to establish a seminary in Obernburg, the idea entertained as late as 1897. A small Franciscan seminary of three students was operating in Croghan, N.Y., in the far north, with three students, but the Province feared that both sites were too inaccessible. Callicoon, by contrast, sat on a thriving rail line with easier access to New York. [In the 1970’s the beloved financial manager of my major seminary in Washington, the witty Father Maurice “Myer” Brick, would joke that most friars in our province can’t sleep at night if they can’t see the lights of New York from their windows.”]
The author lists the advantages of the Callicoon site including the observation that the proposed location was “situated in the very heart of the famous Sullivan County health resort.” He goes on to describe the site: “On a lofty eminence known as ‘Aroma Hill’…stood a large boarding house” considered a suitable site to begin a seminary. [p. 250ff]. Father Callahan does not explain how the lofty eminence acquired its aroma moniker, but he does note that the boarding house was a 35-room hotel, surrounded by a large barn, 86 acres of rich farmland, a creamery, icehouse, and wagon shed. The owner was a deacon in the Methodist Church who set the price at $25,000, but after a province-wide novena of prayer, the settled price was $12,000. The first class of seminarians consisted of two students.
Several chapters later we read from Father Callahan that “when the estate of Elias Mitchell, atop picturesque ‘Aroma Hill’ was acquired in 1901, the Fathers of the Province believed that the old hotel would serve the purpose of a preparatory seminary for many years to come.” But the numbers of seminarians increased so rapidly that the facility was filled by 1905. Plans for a new massive four-story building of grey stone with a 200-foot frontage were developed in 1908. The tower would rise 190 feet. Again, the author is not as clear as one might hope, but the building would have three segments, the center with the bell tower and two wings. Father Callahan adds that “the wing completed in 1905 was filled to capacity;” it is hard to know what he is referring to in this 1905 reference, just as it is not clear where the hotel stood in relation to the new 1908 building site.
By 1910 the friars’ community was able to move into the new structure. Commenting on[TB1] the role of the seminary in subsequent years, Father Callahan waxes eloquently of the beauty of the Aroma Hill site and explains that it housed a six-year program of initial formation to the priesthood. He describes seminary life as “a little family whose father is the Rector of the Seminary, and whose members are his schoolmates, his brothers in Christ, It gives him a social and moral training in the spirit, life, and alms of the Order, and initiates him into that school of spiritual perfection, community life.” [pp. 346-348]
Alas, there is no direct explanation of the term “Aroma Hill” in the text but plenty of testimony that the term predates the friars, which may be a relief to some. The fact that Father Callahan used the term without comment suggests that his friar audience in 1936 was quite familiar with it.
One very important omission to this point is the story of the seminary’s chapel. Until 1924 the seminary chapel was located on the second floor of the west wing of the main seminary building. The chapel housed both the seminary and the Callicoon parish; this arrangement continued through our time. Construction of the new structure—the site of our Masses, daily prayers, and weekly confessions—began in the fall of 1923, and the dedication took place on May 28, 1927—92 years ago this past week. I would be remiss here if I did not record the sadness or anger of myself and my contemporaries who have visited in recent decades at the sad state of the chapel today. Also constructed in the 1920’s was the gymnasium, replacing a 1916 facility; the bridge and driveway up the hill were added and/or improved in the 1920’s as well.
Father Callahan’s book extends to 1935, but several important expansions took place just before or during years at Callicoon in the 1960’s. Well into the 1950’s the dormitories of the seminarians were located on the fourth floor of the main building, where the barber shop was in our times. Anyone who has spent time in that building will readily acknowledge that a fire in that structure would have been catastrophic. I was told by numerous friars that a monthly Mass was offered in honor of St. Agatha to spare the seminary from fire. A sister institution in our Province, St. Bonaventure College (now university), was ravaged by fire earlier in the century. Turning to more practical solutions to the Callicoon problem, a new building—housing the dormitories, study hall, library, and locker rooms—was constructed by the late 1950’s. Scotus Hall was designed by the noted architect of our province, Brother Cajetan Baumann, who achieved national acclaim for his international body of work.
When my class arrived in 1962, we were told by the upper classmen that the new structure had problems of its own. The heart of the problem, as best as I can recall, was a construction sitework issue. The elongated building was very slowly breaking in half, and if you stood at just the right place on the central staircase, you could look through a crack and see daylight. After the seminary was sold to a government agency, Scotus Hall was eventually demolished, the only part of the seminary to face the wrecking ball through 2019 that I can recall.
During my novitiate year [1968-69] in Lafayette, New Jersey, there was an elderly priest in residence, Father Adrian McGonnell, who had served as the Prefect of Discipline in Callicoon in the 1920’s. He would tell us stories about Callicoon from way back. In his day the friars did not have cars, but instead covered their Sunday Mass assignments by horse and buggy. One snowy weekend the superior of the Franciscan Order was visiting the Callicoon friars, and Father Adrian fell ill with a cold. The superior offered to cover his assignment for Sunday Mass, and my old friend happily accepted his offer. “Don’t worry about directions, we do the same routine every Sunday and my horse will lead the way.” Sure enough, the superior and the horse arrive punctually at the Catholic church in a neighboring village. When Mass was offered, the horse trots off from the church a way and turns confidently up to the hitching post of a local saloon.
I hope St. Joe’s is never demolished, because I’m sure the walls could talk, and much of their narrative would be very funny.
On My Mind